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‘Don’t ask me to apologise for how I look’

A ‘Femina’ cover recently challenged the size zero status quo in Bollywood, revived the conversation on stereotypes. Here, the woman on the cover writes about beauty and body types in the film industry and outside.

Being born a woman comes with a set of disadvantages, no matter where you are born or raised. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar) Being born a woman comes with a set of disadvantages, no matter where you are born or raised. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

I’ve always wanted to be an actor, but it was something that took a lot of courage to admit, even to myself. You see, I was a middle-class girl from a Muslim family, mildly conservative, academic head-girl type etc. Not exactly conventional “Bollywood heroine” material.

Being born a woman comes with a set of disadvantages, no matter where you are born or raised. Indra Nooyi, Sheryl Sandberg and a million other women can attest to that. Of course, as a girl, more often than not, your first toy is a Barbie — yes, globalisation has brought about a certain ironic standardisation in the toys we play with. That plastic toy acquired at, say, age five(and here, I’m talking as a South Delhi girl), sets the benchmark for physical appearance for girls for life. In short, perfection. Or rather, some ill-formed, non-existent, air-brushed yardstick of what is popularly known as perfection.

That was what the world told me to aspire to. But what I figured out eventually was that Barbie can be dusky and she can be black, she can have curly hair, she can wear a T-shirt with holes, she can bake, and if you send her out to bat she can hit a six. Barbie can be whoever you want her to be. I figured out that you could be your own Barbie and perhaps even I could be Barbie.

I am pretty by most conventional standards. But even I feel the “weight” of that. Weirdly, though, that’s not what I love about my body, my curves or my image. I love that I have a crooked tooth, and scars from being adventurous. I love that I have Hobbit feet. And yes, this is a first-time admission to exceptionally large feet.

I love movies — I love watching them, being a part of them. But as an actor, the fact that my face and my body are subject to such constant scrutiny is irksome. At least as an actor I signed up for this. Yet isn’t this something all women have learned to do as well?

We live in a culture that bombards us constantly with messages from movies, TV shows, advertisements, magazine covers, telling us there’s only one definition of a perfect body — and guess what, you don’t fit it and probably never will.

Women are constantly taught not to love themselves. You already know who the world wants you to be — “six feet two”, “size zero” or “size minus one”, or whatever eating disorder we’re encouraging this week. It wants you to speak when you’re spoken to, be seen, not heard. The world wants your complicit silence.

Despite that, there have been women who didn’t sit around waiting for the world to judge or approve of them. They didn’t need anybody’s permission to live fulfilling lives. They taught themselves to love who they were, perceived imperfections and all. And once they did that, they didn’t need anybody to give them anything. They just took it. So can all of us. Because what the world needs is to hear your voice.

Women come in all sorts of jars — different sizes, different ages, different skin colour, hair texture, socio-cultural political backgrounds. They are all beautiful. And when we learn to love who we truly are, when we learn to own and even celebrate what the world perceives as our flaws, that’s when we’re unstoppable. So be unstoppable.

My favourite poet, Maya Angelou, said it in her “Phenomenal Woman”: Now you understand/ Just why my head’s not bowed/ I don’t shout or jump about/ Or have to talk real loud/ When you see me passing/ It ought to make you proud./ I say/ It’s in the click of my heels/ The bend of my hair/ The palm of my hand/ The need of my care/ ’Cause I’m a woman/ Phenomenally./ Phenomenal woman/ That’s me.

I’m not a feminist, so don’t label me one. I have grown up with the same self-esteem issues as anybody else. Nor is this some excuse to be unhealthy or unfit. This is just a reminder that we all come in all kinds of jars, and one jar is not better than the other. They are just different jars.

If I lose weight tomorrow to play an athlete, I am not going to give up the “cause of curvy girls” or succumb to the “size zero epidemic”. It will be to create a character for a film. Don’t ask me or any girl to be apologetic for how she looks or behaves.

Qureshi is an actor. Her last release was ‘Dedh Ishqiya’.

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