Last year, a certain Miss Chillar beat out the starving, airbrushed and etiquette-whipped pageant queens of every other country to be crowned ‘Miss World’ the ultimate confirmation of universal beauty. It was deemed by our PM, intellectuals and countrymen alike as a ‘great accomplishment’.
My friend, who was watching the news with me, turned over and asked, ‘That’s all it takes, huh?’
Exactly what it takes is illustrated glibly on Miss India’s website: you must be taller than 5”5, unmarried, without child, and perhaps best of all: ‘must, by nature and habit, carry the traits of a female.’ See, being beautiful isn’t enough it’s underlined by a set of prescribed rules. Be soft, be delicate, be submissive, be hairless. And the tyranny of being ‘female’ isn’t limited to pageants alone. For one thing, it’s the lifeblood of the cosmetics industry (guilty!) because even if you’re already beautiful and feminine - your lashes could be longer; skin, clearer; lips, fuller.
The same friend hated going to family functions for these very reasons; it didn’t matter to her relatives that she got her Master’s with honours, is killing the career game, or valiantly fought cancer for the better part of a decade she was fat, and her achievements would never outweigh that.
Another friend, who favours male silhouettes over dresses (ironically, now a massive trend) spoke about her parents insistence that she wore more womanly clothing. Not just that, she had to make sure it was the right kind of womanly not too virginal, not too harlot-y because the third stakeholder, her boyfriend, didnt like her attracting at the gaze of other men.
See, when it comes to gender, the rules are many, their manifestations, insidious and all-encompassing.
Over time, these rules stopped requiring reiteration the male gaze was internalised in ways so subliminal, we can longer separate what is natural and learned. It isn’t at all uncommon to hear women regurgitate these tropes and use them against other women as if hairlessness, hourglass figures and whatever else falls under the purview of society’s fetishized idea of femininity should be a given. Not only do we strive (and starve) to get the bodies of the celebrities adorning our magazine covers, we also berate those women when they fall short of the ideal, forgetting that the ideal wasn’t ours to begin with.
And perhaps it would be okay if it were harmless, but the burden of our own expectations is, sometimes, too much to bear. From Victorian corsets to Kardashian butt implants, Chinese foot-binding to waist training, women have, from time immemorial, disfigured themselves beyond recognition to make themselves more appealing to men. Here, in our own country, psychiatrists have noticed a spike in eating disorders amongst women over the past few decades one of the direct consequences of living in a society where anything above size zero isn’t thin enough.
While globalization and the internet have helped spread this unrealistic, homogenized idea of feminine beauty, it’s also now helping us find some solace through body-positive movements and their champions, who show their dissent by opening dialogues either through art, essays, or personal rebellions like refusing to shave their body hair or conform to size-restrictive dressing norms.
Meanwhile on Mars, men have long fought monsters of their own having to constantly fit the mangled mould of masculinity. But today, we’re finally seeing some relief and it isn’t restricted to dingy basements on the fringes of civilization. A few months before Manushi Chillar was crowned Miss World, we also saw the crowning of India’s first Miss Transqueen, Nitasha Biswas. In Bollywood, Ranveer Singh, who won much acclaim for his Padmavat role (a role that, ironically, embodied the very essence of toxic masculinity), doesn’t believe that men must always wear the pants heck, they can wear skirts, too.
With beauty brands like 3ina and Aesop creating products you can share with your guy friends, Maison Margiela and Guerlain’s unisex scents and H&M releasing sex-neutral ranges for children, it seems clear that gender-neutrality is here to stay and everyone (and their boyfriends) are getting on board.
So, we might not ever be able to denude our identities of gendered obligations or expectations, but we can borrow from each other in smaller ways. After all, men and women have a lot more in common than they don’t.
Whether it’s men wearing makeup or girls with boy brows, women with hairy pits or boys with pedicured tips, the new rules of the game are that there are none. And maybe we’re only just scratching the surface of an incredibly complex playing field, but we kind of love the idea of a sport where you don’t have to pick which side you’re playing for, and everyone and we mean, everyone wins.