Souvenir 1995

There has been a shift in the ways in which women have been represented in the media in the last year or so. The recent phase of liberalization has ushered in an increasingly commercialized society in which women have been the chief targets of consumerism. The “victories” of Indian women in Miss Universe, Miss World, and Look of the Year awards in 1994 and 1995, is linked to and encourages this process. Suddenly the woman in ad campaigns and television serials is a figure conforming to ‘international’ or western models of beauty- tall, thin, fair, scantily dressed and seductive. Serials like ‘junoon’ and ‘Tara’ project women based on these images. Women are seemingly independent, assertive, vocal and westernized, but actually conform to traditional notions of the good and bad woman.

Media images in ads too combine an entirely unreasonable image of the ‘ideal’ woman: The housewife who combines dancing talent with a commitment to washing clothes in a washing machine; the working woman who uses a certain brand of atta, besan etc. and sees it as modernity and progress. The eternally young, glamorous woman selling soaps, shampoos and sanitary towels.

Television sets beaming into every corner of the country have created the “model” image for women- with long tapering legs, absurdly slim waist and shapely breasts. This has inspired many women into eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia and into following exercise regimens that are extremely destructive. Some of these images are reinforced in young minds by toys such as the increasingly popular Barbie dolls. At a tender age, not only do young girls seek to imitate them, but are also initiated into a world where beauty is associated only with a figure that for most women is unattainable and unrealistic. Fashion shows have become an essential part of cultural events organised in the smallest of undergraduate colleges to renowned professional institutions. Today, tackling the issue is more complicated, given the wide social sanction to such treatment of women.

Ironically, these images are projected as liberating to women. Models in these ads live in a world where they achieve almost effortlessly with the aid of the product they are selling: success, love and a beautiful home. The protagonists of Tara and junoon certainly appear free from conventional norms and institutions. The dramatic “success” of Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai, and Manpreet Brar, has encouraged the parents of young girls to push them into modeling and films. This will certainly lead to a change in lifestyle which, in many ways, seems liberating. It would give women an opportunity to put off, even avoid marriage, help them step out of the house, travel, and give them greater freedom than they have in a feudal society.

However this understanding of liberation is fraudulent and incomplete. In some ways, the choices open to women in today’s consumerist society are few. Beauty contests and modeling have resulted in the commodification of women as sex objects as never before. The psychological trauma suffered by women who do not conform to these models, the deep-rooted sense of insecurity and inferiority resulting from competition between women, brought about by standards set by the market are some of the mental costs that women have to pay. Besides, these are images that only a certain class of women can realistically hope to attain. For the working class woman, these representations only serve to increase the gulf between her and the upper class woman, making any hope of solidarity a bleak thought.

What has enhanced the appeal of beauty contests is the supposed balance being struck between “beauty and brains” through the question-answer session, said to be the deciding factor in the final verdict. “Beauty with a purpose” is another theme being propagated to give these contests respectability. The immense wealth and fame associated with the victory of one contestant is paltry compensation for the actual powerlessness of the majority of women they seek to represent and empower. Tackling the issue is complicated, given the wide social sanction in the middle class to such treatment of women.


This year’s Miss India contests went to the extent of dismembering a woman’s body into various parts, rewarding them accordingly. The contest was sponsored by Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd. owned Femina, supposedly for the “woman of substance” in liaison with large corporations which benefitted directly. So it was that Lakme sponsored Miss Beautiful Eyes, Sunsilk appropriated Miss Beautiful Hair, East West Airlines flaunted Miss Congeniality, Close Up bagged Miss Beautiful Smile while Lakme patronized Miss Beautiful Skin.

While breaking up into parts helps to sell the whole, it establishes that women are not human. Such dehumanization serves to justify violence against women, since it projects women solely as sex objects.

Some of these issues were raised during our demonstration against the Times of India group which organises these fashion shows/beauty contests. Earlier, it was the TOI and much of the media that outdid itself in propagating cultural beauty contests by parading Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai in buggies, reminiscent of monarchic rule.

The entire Bennet Coleman group actively supported these events by providing wide publicity and coverage, unparalleled till date in the TOI or any other paper. For an entire week the Times of India inundated us with half-page advertisements and news items, which dismembered various parts of women’s bodies into keen competition, while companies took full glory of these competitions.

Other newspapers do not have a clean record either. Indian Express, after hitting out at the TOI and its position on beauty contests, proceeded to sponsor its own contest for the “Supermodel”.

It is no coincidence that both these women happen to be Indian, at a time when liberalization and globalization of the economy are aggressively creating a middle class market for fashion wear and cosmetics, running into crores. Foreign companies in alliance with big business are mindlessly profiteering through such beauty contests while newspapers like the TOI too claim their share of the pie.

While the ordinary buyer has to choose from a mind-boggling variety of dozens of shampoos and soaps, the display of “dazzling beauties” in advertisements has become the direct means to attract the buyer to the product.

The heavy price women have to pay for this is evident in the increasing incidence of violence and molestation, in an atmosphere surcharged with beauty contests, modeling and fashion shows. It has culminated, in young girls, aspiring for a career in modeling, where many a times they are forced into nude modeling and rape, as the media once more sensationalises these events. We have seen this ruthless exploitation in the form of forced nude modeling in Delhi, to the blackmail of women in blue films, as happened in jalgaon.

The image of the beautiful and glamourous model is an insult to the reality of the vast majority of Indian women, whose skins are unprotected, hands calloused, who with back breaking labour through the day, display immense strength in the struggle for survival.