Tag Archives: beauty

The Venus Flytrap: When It Comes To Hair, There’s Another Type Of Conditioning

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In the middle of a match at the WTA Finals in Singapore against an opponent she would go on to defeat, the tennis player Svetlana Kuznetsova sat down during a changeover and requested a pair of scissors. Without a mirror, she reached behind her head and began to hack off inches of her thick, tightly-wound braid, grimacing with effort.  As she took the last few snips, the crowd began to clap.

She didn’t loosen her braid first, or go off the court to cut it. The shorned locks remained on her chair for the rest of the match.

This wasn’t the first such occurrence in the sport, however. As an article on Tennis.com says: “Andy Murray cut the front of his hair during a defeat to Rafael Nadal at the year-ending 2015 ATP Finals in London. Boris Becker trimmed his bangs during a four-set Wimbledon semifinal win over Ivan Lendl in 1988.” What made Kuznetsova’s action unusual enough to make headlines was that she had defied an implicit beauty convention. Watching the video of her chopping off her hair gives one the same awe as seeing pictures of Alicia Keys sans makeup or the dancer January Low onstage, bare-bellied, at seven months pregnant.

An athlete’s practical decision to save her game shouldn’t elicit a “wow”. The braid was heavy and kept hitting her in the eye; her performance improved after the trim. (Bobby pins? Retying? Who cares – it’s just hair, it’ll grow back!) But we’re taken aback, even if for only a moment. Half that “wow” is in admiration of Kuznetsova’s dedication. The other half is pure conditioning. It’s why we’re surprised on some level every time a woman rejects an aesthetic ideal. All the more when the rejection itself isn’t a performance or a statement, but just the simplest and more obvious thing to do.

This calls to mind women who do far more radical things that expose and challenge the policing of hair than simply cutting off a few negligible inches. The classical dancer Geetha Shankaram-Lam, for example, is completely bald by choice. Harnaam Kaur and Balpreet Kaur both sport full beards to honour religious reasons; the former is a model, and the latter became famous for her gracious response upon being shamed on Reddit. The actor Cameron Diaz spoke up in favour of pubic hair, hardly a trivial declaration considering the cultural impact of pornography.

“It’s just hair,” I wrote earlier. But is it? Like the rest of the female body, it’s policed and sexualised. Its figurative power goes beyond beauty and aesthetics. How it’s worn on the head is taken to speak on behalf of everything from one’s sexuality to one’s spirituality. Whether it is depilated or otherwise on the face and body is taken to speak on behalf of everything from one’s sanity to one’s upbringing.

We have much to ponder over why Svetlana Kuznetsova taking a scissors to her braid during a tennis match is almost a spectacle. Would you do it? Why or why not? Our musings can teach us much about how we see ourselves and others, and how we want the world to see us.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 27th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Mirror Of Another Time

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I wanted to encounter my gods as objects of beauty, and not as objects of praise. There, in the Bronze Gallery, I found I had miscalculated, for what was I doing if not engaging in idolatry, tracing with my eyes limbs and lines that had transferred from wax to mould to molten five-metal? They had travelled through centuries coveted and worshipped, smuggled and salvaged, to arrive finally behind glass – bare of turmeric, the cascade of milk, the caress of flowers.

I wanted to encounter myself at 19 again, the last time I had been in this gallery (isn’t this the shame of all of us who don’t appreciate beauty within stone’s throw of our dwellings, hungering for distant terrains to locate our most inspiring experiences in?). I want to say I have visited it in the interim years, and perhaps I have – but the only clear memory I have is of exploring it with another girl, to whom I texted a whole Audre Lorde poem to, stanza by stanza, whose admiration of the cambers of womanly bodies in bronze I had hoped to mean something more than purely aesthetic.

I looked from the statues to the mirrors behind them, poised so as to allow a dorsal view: the way a garment drapes at the back, snail-curls of hair. I was in those mirrors too.

In Tiruvarur, years ago, someone pointed to a woman in the Mucukunda murals, another feat of Chola artistry, and told me that she looked just like me. This became my conceit: a devadasi from centuries ago, ancestress or avatar. When the murals were fully restored later, I was fortunate to be among the celebrating party. We were given mirrored trays so we could wander the hall and look at the paintings on the ceiling without straining our necks. I stood underneath my dark-skinned, long-eyed charmer and saw her face and mine in the same reflection. It was a moment of triumphant vanity, a mysterious confrontation. There’s a funny comfort in catching one’s own eye.

When confronted by beauty upon beauty, one sees nuance, becomes partial to certain renderings. In the Bronze Gallery, I contemplated how we cannot touch these statues, but other hands have. Artistan, thief, curator. I imagine a pair pressing a stylus into the softness of wax, a softness that the 16th century Devi in the far-eastern corner embodies and expresses with eyes that brim with stone-still sadness. From that Audre Lorde poem on the fullness of body and moon – Thus I hold you / frank in my heart’s eye / in my skin’s knowing / as my fingers conceive your flesh…

I walked away, gazed down at her from an upper level, returned to cross the hall only to adore her again. She was the reason I had contemplated touch. It was her eloquent left eye that held me captivated. In the play of light and shadow in that corner, the right one was opaque. Right eye stoic to the world, left eye brimming with truth. This was how I saw her.

But who’s to say who or what it was I saw – sculpture, mirror, self, memory, symbol?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 29th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Laying It Out In Lavender

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“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple” goes the famous poem by Jenny Joseph. Well, Aishwarya Rai is just 42, old only by the punishing yardsticks of the entertainment industry. She looks fabulous, but wouldn’t be forgiven if she doesn’t, or if she looked beautiful and aging. On the red carpet at Cannes, she appeared whimsical, winking at the camera in a lavender lipstick like it was the most natural thing in the world, while the world itself looked on aghast. The often-forgotten title of that poem is “Warning”. In it, a woman trapped in a conformist lifestyle promises to misbehave in her elderly years, and wonders if she should start practicing; she begins with wearing purple.

Why is a woman putting on a cosmetic so temporary that she’ll only have to blow her nose once into a tissue to have most of it come off the subject of debate? “Debate” was a word actually used in headlines (why were headlines made because a woman wore a cosme… never mind). In one article, several inquiring ladies gave the shade a shot and found that that particular lipstick, by a brand that Rai is an ambassador of, does not retail in India. Their trip to two stores seemed to yield no equivalent, which led them to concoct the colour themselves through mixing white and purple eyeliners with a concealer base on their lips. They didn’t like the effect (their photos don’t have too many smiles, which may have made a difference).

Which brings us to this ridiculousness: how does white eyeliner exist when a lilac lipstick, which is stunning when offset by the dark skin of so many Indian people, can’t be readily found? For local manufacturers and franchisees, my sapodilla skin is probably the swarthiest tone they consider. My even more dark-skinned friends must either fork out several thousand rupees per product for elite brands like MAC or Inglot, or forego skin cosmetics altogether. Similarly for more deeply pigmented colours which will stand out on an array on eyelids and cheekbones and lips. This isn’t simply about whether people can afford it, or even a hyper-ethical question of whether any of us should wear makeup. Beauty standards are enforced by diminishing not just diversity, but self-esteem, as envisaged and enacted through self-presentation.

Here’s the thing: Rai may have made ill-advised fashion choices in the past but when it comes to this lipstick, my guess is it was neither faux pas nor advice. Some L’Oreal executive would have held out a palette of options and suggested a baby pink to go with the floral print on her dress or a bright scarlet to go with the blood-boiling rage against the system. Rai wore violet because she wanted to. Maybe her child liked it. Maybe she was making a subtle homage to the queer rights movement, whose emblematic hue is purple. I’d like to think that the Jenny Joseph poem was the most plausible reason. After decades of being micro-managed and body-shamed and made complicit in the way other women are manipulated and devalued – through a pastel smile, was she issuing a powerful warning?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 19th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: I’ll Always Have Paris

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Paris was the gift I gave myself when no one else would have me. It was an armistice of beauty I bought in a time of despair. I had wept my way through a month in England and a week in Berlin and arrived, fragile cargo, at the city of light. There, I breathed easily for a handful of days near the end of that summer. And then I would go back to India, and to much worse yet to come. But those few and blessed days became some of the most precious stones I’d bead onto the thread of my life. I knew them by touch: a memory I felt for whenever I doubted my gifts, my deservingness or my capacity to love myself. They still shimmer.

            This is what Paris is to many people – those who have set foot in it, and those who know it in fantasy. On Saturday, I woke up to the news about the terrorist strikes on the city. I saw the mourning on social media first before I saw the reason why. “An attack on Paris is an attack on love”, someone* wrote on Facebook. And indeed it is. Not just love in the romantic sense, but love in the sense of altruistic compassion, which is formalised in the ideology known as democracy. Something about the city stands for freedom – whether that is the freedom to kiss or the freedom to think. Paris is beautiful in ways both intangible and palpable. It stands for the idea that life can be beautiful, and then it shows you how. At a distance, the city is a muse. In attendance, it is living magic.

            I took a room in Montmartre that overlooked a ficus-gilded wall. For four days, I wandered by the river, in the churches, to the museums. I saw a woman with a cobalt blue parrot in the Latin Quarter one day and outside my hotel the next. I clicked a love-lock into place. In the most charming sequence from those days soaked in the miraculous, I found myself crying with joy in the Tuileries one afternoon, unable to believe that I could feel anything other than pain for the first time in a long time, and when I left the gardens and crossed a bridge, a stranger stopped me and gave me a gold-plated ring. She said it belonged to me. And so it does.

            This is not entirely panegyric. My first day in Paris was spent in its outskirts, in its underbelly if you will, among refugees. That’s a story for another time. But I know that story too.

            Does Paris matter more than Beirut or Baghdad? Does it matter more than Damascus or Maiduguri? Does it matter more than Muzaffarnagar? No. I am sad about Paris not because of outraged sentiments, but because of pure sentimentality. I am angry, about other places near and far, every single day. None among us is omniscient, which is the simple reason why our indignation or concern appears to be selective. We learn later, and then we know better next time. If you are upset about what happened in Paris because terrorism is terrible, then recognise fear-mongering under any name it appears by. If you aren’t particularly upset about what happened in Paris, but you care about liberté, égalité, fraternité, then recognise what is at stake. Everywhere. Maybe the attacks on Paris hurt so much because the city is a civilisational catalyst, one in which those principles are already – and I use this word deliberately – enshrined.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 16th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

*With thanks to Narayani Nadesan

Fiction in Kindle

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Kindle Magazine has published an excerpt from my novelette “Afternoon Sex” in their Food issue. The entire story appeared in issue 14 of Hobart, which can be purchased here.

In a nice full circle vis-à-vis reprints, The Body Narratives has also republished my essay on the (round) belly as a marker of beauty, which first appeared in Kindle.

Belly Beautiful

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From Kindle Magazine‘s March 2013 issue on reclaiming the female body.

A coquettish Maria de Medeiros, playing the moll in Pulp Fiction, lounges in bed, practically purring with a self-assured lazy sensuality. Sleepily, she fantasises about having a potbelly, how she would accentuate it with small tee shirts and how very sexy one is (but only, and she is vehement – and here I must respectfully disagree – on women). She praises the potbelly, while conceding its unfair reputation: “I don’t give a damn what men find attractive. It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.”

Who knows when the rounded belly began to be regarded as anything less glorious than the other womanly curves. The classical poets adored it; the sculptors chiseled its softness into stone. Among the customary markers of beauty were the three folds on the stomach – lines which inspired lines in religious and erotic literature. The paragon waist was tiny in comparison to the generousness of the breasts and hips, but the tummy itself ample of its own accord.  The Lalita Sahasranamam, for example, extols not only the contours of such a stomach (Sthana bhara dalan madhya patta bhandha valithraya – “she who has three stripes in her belly which appear to have been created to protect her tiny waist from her heavy breasts”), but even the down that grows upon it (Lakshya roma latha dharatha samunneya madhayama – “she who is suspected to have a waist because of the creeper-like hairs rising from there”).

There are beautiful names, too, for this hair of the stomach, which runs from pubis to navel, and sometimes from navel to solar plexus: take the Sanskrit romaraji, and the Latin linea nigra.

How intriguing that such loveliness is ascribed in language for things which, in the pursuit or only the perception of fitness or hygiene, so many shun.

Only some women have the linea nigra naturally – but almost all women develop it during pregnancy, when the protuberant belly is celebrated perhaps most of all. Baby bumps contain miracles: among all the numinous places in the body, the abdomen announces most evidently of all that there is no meaningful distinction between science and mystery.

And as a reminder of this, we have that lovely vestigial mark: the navel.

The navel is our original point of connection to anyone else. Within the lovely convex bellies of our mothers, the conduit of the umbilicus does its work, nourishing and expelling and making us whole. Our belly-buttons are almost our first mouths, allowing us to communicate and to feed.

And also like mouths, later on, how kissable they become. Prudence Glynn, who researched eroticism and fashion, wrote that the waist is the first place that a man would touch on a woman when seeking to insinuate “more than a formal courtesy”. If the waist is a suggestion, the navel is sheer invitation. Widely regarded as one of the standard erogenous zones, and said to originate from the same common tissue as the genitalia, its exposure is considered taboo in many cultures – sometimes surprisingly so. The belly-button was considered so provocative for most of the 20th century in America that there was an actual law banning its display on cinema. There is a scene in Some Like It Hot in which Marilyn Monroe wears a dress that leaves very little to the imagination – despite this, a small piece of cloth was used to cover her navel specifically. In other films, costume designers glued decorative stones into or onto the navels of actors and dancers – perhaps the first spark of the later trend for the bejeweled belly-button.

Here in India, the partially (as when wearing a sari) or completely (as when wearing certain regional ghagra cholis) bared midriff has rarely caused ruffles, provided it is displayed in traditional attire. The female navel, however, has had its moments of both subtlety and scandal. In that odd way in which Indian cinema is a vehicle of both exploitation and expression, navel-kissing was permissive on celluloid at a time when lip-kissing was not (censorship laws later changed). One thing’s for sure: the navel is seen as sexual in ways in which the tummy, the obliques and even the waist aren’t quite.

It’s also spiritual. In Amerindian shamanism, below the navel is where energetic cords that bind us to other people, particularly lovers, emerge. In yoga and other systems of mind-body harmony, it is a particularly powerful point. To “navel-gaze” is to ponder, perhaps philosophically – not for nothing did St. Thomas Aquinas call the navel “the bodily metaphor for spiritual things”.

The stomach, on the whole, is is also regarded as the site of intuition – “I have a gut feeling”, we say – or profound emotion – “When he said that, I burned from the bottom of my belly”.

The stomach is also happily practical, of course. A full breath, one that will replenish the entire system, reaches all the way down to the stomach and puffs it up. When it comes to food, taste resides in the mouth, but hunger – desire – is felt in the belly. An aching belly, groaning and beset by pangs. Eating keeps us alive – not the act itself, as pleasurable as it is, but the process of nourishing, work that takes places deep within the body and out of sight.

And how lovely is the thing in sight. Earlier, we considered how traditionally, folds of flesh, “lines”, on the stomach were markers of beauty. Equally eloquent are all the other lines and marks that also occur here. There are, for instance, the stretch marks of growth and weight loss, and the scars of Caesarean sections and appendix operations and botched piercings. Like the palms or the face, the belly is also a canvas of skin, on which stories from our lives present themselves – stories of feast and famine, stories of self-denial and self-sacrifice, stories of birthing and wrenching, stories of coveting and covering-up. Of pain and pleasure and truth and beauty and creation and craving and a hundred other things that go far beyond the objectified view.