Plunging standards

BY Kalpana Rao| IN Media Practice | 02/10/2014
The Deepika Padukone cleavage row has exposed the TOI's belief that female celebrities are a collection of body parts.
Even worse, says KALPANA RAO, is that society metes out the same treatment to ordinary Indian women too.

The Deepika Padukone cleavage row has been reported, discussed, and tweeted. All this publicity may have ultimately benefitted the media house (The Times of India) and the actor, whose film Finding Fanny had just released. Such controversies are often welcomed on the principle that any news is good publicity.

The photograph got Deepika Padukone fuming because, for one, an old photo had been dug out, two, it was deliberately taken from a top angle, three, a circle and arrow were crassly used to draw attention to the cleavage and four, the headline said “OMG Deepika’s cleavage show”.

It is common for models and stars to have awkward angle photographs, wardrobe malfunctions, and no makeup photographs put out in the media and the web. Their bodies and clothes are fair game for criticism. Just recall if you will, post-natal Aishwarya Rai, Vidya Balan’s figure and wardrobe, Sonakshi Sinha and Parineeti Chopra – they have all faced commentaries.

This body shaming and wardrobe shaming are reserved for female models and actors, with men hardly ever targeted. The unwritten rule is that female celebrities must put up with it, and most do.

Despite the outrage it received for its Deepika cleavage picture (TOI September 14, 2014) the paper sparked another bout of indignation with its Body Shaming article titled ‘Hot Babes with Ugly Legs’ (TOI September 21, 2014). The article was subsequently taken off the website. (Screen shot available at Outlook ).

The article panned various Hollywood and Bollywood actresses for ‘failing to get a perfect 10 despite their perfect faces’. In the most crass language imaginable, it disparaged Lindsay Lohan for her ‘freckled chunky’ legs, described Angelina Jolie’s knees as needing ‘meat’, criticized Sarah Jessica Parker for ‘bow shaped legs’, Britney Spears for ‘muscular legs’, Katy Holmes for ‘thick legs’ and ‘muscular calves’ and Jennifer Lopez for her ‘thunderous thighs’.

Nearer home, Aditi Rao Hydari was belittled for her ‘wobbly knees’, Diya Mirza for ‘sharp pointy knees’, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for legs that ‘look better covered’ and Bhumika Chawla for ‘legs that do not look like they belong to a film star’. This compartmentalization of women’s bodies as parts that need to be repaired or as parts that are more important than the whole, overshadows their talent and achievements.

It is a commonplace that stars rely on their looks. A career in showbiz presupposes a celebration of the body and everything needed for this follows: gym workouts, nutritional guidance, body sculpting, cosmetic surgery, designer wear, and portfolios with skin show. If in a film they enact a character, in their off-screen life - at premieres, promotional events, endorsements, press conferences - they play the role of a ‘film star’. This persona is usually a highly sexualized one. Marketing demands this sexualisation.

The depiction of female or male skin to communicate a point is different from using it to titillate and make money at the box office. Revealing photos of female stars were at one time confined to the film magazines. Now they are the mainstay of mainstream newspapers, of page three, and of ‘infotainment, promotional supplements’.

The Times of India, in its city supplements, liberally uses such pictures, especially the ‘bolder’ ones of Hollywood stars. The newspaper crossed the line, though, by drawing a circle and an arrow to a body part, a ‘privilege’ given to female stars. No such treatment was given to Shah Rukh Khan’s body parts in the dard-e-disco photos.

It is often assumed that the presence of women in newsrooms would lead to more gender sensitivity in editorial policy, in the choice of picture and words. Yet women were involved in the Deepika cleavage articles, pointing to patriarchy existing in the structural ethos of the Times of India.

Body shaming is a part of the lived experience of most Indian women throughout their lives. ‘You are so dark, don’t play in the sun’. ‘You need to lose weight or you will not get married’.  Their appearance is routinely scrutinised. 'You have become fatter’ is a common comment thrown at women.

Nothing gives the average women more joy than to be told that she has lost weight. It is well known that body shaming is connected to poor self esteem, eating disorders and a preoccupation of women with their bodies and faces instead of their health and nutrition, among other more important issues.

When Aishwarya Rai Bachchan gets media flak for her body weight, when a Vidya Balan is panned for her body size and when a Sonakshi Sinha is shamed for having fat upper arms, the practice becomes legitimized, making women internalize these expectations instead of challenging the scrutiny and shaming.

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