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Author Manjima Bhattacharjya on the fraught relationship between fashion and feminism

Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry provides an in-depth look at how models at different stages of their career face difficulties, the gender disparity in Indian society and much more.  

Written by Anjali Jha | New Delhi | Updated: July 27, 2018 12:27:45 pm
Manjima Bhattacharjya, book Mannequin Manjima Bhattacharjya, book Mannequin explores the grey side of the glamour industry. (Source: YouTube)

Manjima Bhattacharjya cuts through the glitz and glamour of the fashion industry. She spoke to about the sometimes brutal career trajectories of the models who are the faces and clotheshorses for the industry – who more often than not, are given short shrift by the very industry which banks on them to sell their wares. Bhattacharjya is an activist and was inspired to write this book when she began her fellowship with the New India Foundation in 2009. She was to write a book based on her PhD, which was an ethnography on women working in the glamour industry. She initially wanted to study the new fields of work young women were being drawn to in post-globalisation India. At the time, there were a remarkably high number of young girls wanting to be models and participants in beauty pageants – which led her to explore the working of the industry from a sociological point of view.

What did your interviews with models, fashion magazine editors and show choreographers highlight?

All models are not Xerox copies of one another. They have different body types based on the kind of work they do – ramp, print or TV modelling. That’s just one of the many discoveries I made.

I learnt about the everyday labour involved in being a model, whether it is the whole performative work or the networking, inculcating a commercially viable image, and the enterprise or business part of it. Then there’s the body work or “aesthetic labour” – like many in the service industry, the work involved in having to look a certain way. And that’s a lot of work. It’s not just vanity, it is their bread and butter, the source of their livelihood. I learnt about how models in India have tried to unionise without success in the past, and about the differences between the modelling industry in India and abroad. I learnt how women in the industry make difficult choices about the kinds of work they do and the kinds of stigma they have to negotiate in their personal and professional lives.

What is valuable in doing ethnographic research is really being able to feel the texture of people’s lives. Being able to taste, smell, experience where they come from, what their everyday life is like. We often see women models as cardboard cutouts, without a voice. And hearing them speak and talk about their lives makes them more human and relatable. And that’s the strength of the book, I think.

In the book, you talk about the “missing female labour force”. Could you elaborate on this?

In India, more and more girls are getting educated, even getting exemplary marks in school and college, but then they just disappear – they drop off the job market and don’t join formal employment. I’d say this loss is largely due to marriage and motherhood. As India’s economy has grown in the last two decades, the proportion of unmarried women joining the workforce has marginally increased, but the proportion of married women entering the workforce has stagnated. This means marriage is a real barrier to women staying in the workforce. Many women say they choose to stay at home, but if they had husbands who took on household work and childcare, in-laws who encouraged them to dream for themselves, or had reliable systems of childcare or elder-care to fall back on, or if women working outside the home was a norm or positively acknowledged, I wonder if they would make the same choices.

This is the “missing female labour force” – and it’s very disturbing because it is an indicator that gender roles are not changing in India. And importantly, it means most women are not financially independent and have to cede a certain control over their lives to those who are earning. Ultimately a woman’s role is seen to be being a dutiful wife and mother, rather than to have ambitions or aspirations for a career.

Manjima Bhattacharjya, book Mannequin Manjima Bhattacharjya’s book Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry.

In the chapter, The Fantasy Body, you mention how models go under the knife to conform to the idea of an ideal figure. Do they feel it’s worth the effort?

It was a surprise to hear the first-hand accounts of the cosmetic procedures some of the models had undertaken, because we do not imagine a nose job or smile fix as proper surgeries with blood and pain and stitches. Somehow the market has cleaned it up, and advertising makes it sound like an easy procedure. So, I was not fully prepared for the actual medical nature of their experiences. It made me think how little we really know of the experience of having such procedures.
Who knows if there is really a link between the surgeries they do and the work they get. Perhaps they might have gotten it without the surgeries too, we don’t know. But I think they do feel it is worth the pain, because some make this link in their heads and think they get more work because of the surgery, or at least stay in the market.

You say India stands 4th worldwide in the number of cosmetic surgeries performed, after USA, Brazil and South Korea. Was it a shocking data figure for you?

Yes! I was more shocked that many of these surgeries are not undertaken by people necessarily in the glamour world but by regular people. it indicates the normalisation of such procedures in Indian society. It means that people really believe that changing the way they look through such surgical procedures or looking fitter, more glamorous and so on results in material benefits – in getting jobs, getting promotions, getting married in a certain set-up.

It’s hard to say someone or something is to blame, but you know, we see cosmetic surgery advertised really liberally – it’s on buntings, billboards, backs of magazines. Everything looks so easy. The advertising really de-medicalises it and makes it out to be something simple, like a facial. One person I interviewed, equated getting a Botox injection to wearing lipstick.

What do you mean when you say fashion and feminism are, for the moment, allies?

In the past, fashion and feminism have been represented as chalk and cheese. This is primarily because in the West, there were huge visible protests in the 1960s against the beauty pageants. In fact, it was at the 1969 Miss Atlanta pageant that feminist protestors symbolically tossed many items of clothing into a large dustbin (including the odd bra) that might have given them the “bra-burning” moniker.

But the traditional divide between fashion and feminism is not so clear-cut today. The wider context we live in – of right-wing conservatism, violence, censorship – has pushed them to be allies in challenging these. There are people within fashion who take on feminist issues, and those within feminism who appreciate and embrace fashion. I mean, Teen Vogue in the USA has been doing more strong feminist stories than many other political magazines, and they now have an editor who founded a feminist zine.

Moreover, the clothes women choose to wear has become a political issue today. Neither feminists, nor those in the fashion world can ignore this now. Besides the bikini vs. hijab kind of identity-based debates, we also live in a country where there is so much surveillance on what girls and women wear, and how they present themselves. Both feminism and fashion pose a challenge to this kind of social control over women’s bodies.

Manjima Bhattacharjya, book Mannequin Manjima Bhattacharjya has a long history of working as a female activist and her book’s journey started when she started her fellowship from the New India Foundation in 2009. (Source: Facebook)

Do you feel feminism is more diffused now?

Feminism is certainly capturing the imagination of the new generation. It’s captured the imagination of the market too – feminist ideas like equality or empowerment are often used to sell products these days.

But I think there is a real wave of anger in society especially amongst young women and the ways in which their lives and opportunities are being curtailed. Young women don’t want to live in fear anymore. They want to be able to dream and fulfil those dreams. They want to wear what they want, go where they want, when they want. They see themselves differently than their mothers or grandmothers did. So there is a fundamental change happening at the societal level. Something is shifting.

It is a complex and long-term challenge to dismantle thousands of years of patriarchy or systems of power. But this moment can be a starting point for reflection and change, even in small ways. It’s a good time for all kinds of industries to ask themselves if they are in sync with public sentiment – an opportunity to reflect on why there are such few women in higher management, talk about the glass ceiling, talk about the gender gap in pay, institute sexual harassment committees that provide safe spaces to women employees, and to start making deep changes.

Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry is published by Zubaan and is available in bookstores for Rs 495.

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