Why I’m troubled by Huma Qureshi’s Femina cover

Last Updated: Sat, Aug 02, 2014 15:56 hrs

It has created the waves it intended to create. Some sharp folks have pointed out that it came out in the wake of a strikingly similar concept involving plus-size model Denise Bidot in a strikingly similar pose. But, the Femina magazine cover with actress Huma Qureshi standing behind a regular mannequin to the dimensions of which she does not conform, has made news.

However, I find the image disturbing, chiefly because the first sentence I read is ‘I DON’T OWE YOU PERFECTION!’

Apparently, the magazine is oblivious to the irony of a woman branding herself imperfect because she consciously refuses to conform to the ideas of perfection she supposedly opposes.

Over the last few years, an increasing number of models, actresses, clothing brands and magazines have been speaking out against the idea of a Size Zero figure. The Barbie has been at the receiving end of severe criticism from researchers and scholars.

Body fascism has become a topic of discussion in the fashion and film industries.

Unfortunately, these attempts to break stereotypes tend to backfire, thanks to clumsy wording such as “I don’t owe you perfection”, or even the popular catchphrase “real women”.

On the one hand, we insist that we have the right to “be imperfect” – a self-defeating argument in itself. On the other, we insist that “real women” are women who carry an extra bit of cellulite – fat, voluptuous, curvy, you-name-it.

The first idea – that we are all right with being “imperfect” – troubles me for obvious reasons. It sets a norm for perfection.

The second idea – that real women cannot be skinny women – troubles me for a more insidious reason. Just as a prejudice exists against obese people, so does a prejudice exist against people who are naturally thin. I have known women with perfectly normal eating habits referred to as “anorexic” because they happen to be thin. I have known women who actually sob that they feel insecure about their lack of curves.

I happen to fluctuate rather wildly on the weighing scales. Both my diet and exercise regime have been more or less consistent. However, my erratic sleep patterns, my metabolic rate and my moods have an effect on my weight. In the last decade or so, I have grown an inch taller, while my weight has gone back and forth, ranging between 52 and 84 kilograms.

At every single one of those weights, despite my oft-voiced dislike of personal remarks – even the ones that are intended to be complimentary – I have been subjected to unsolicited analyses of my appearance. I have been called “gaunt”, “chubby”, “toothy”, “overweight”, “bony”, and “obese”. I have been told my cheekbones stand out too starkly, or that I have a double chin, or that I look ill, or that I am “letting myself go”.

None of these comments has been pleasant to hear. The fact is, women – and even men – are never allowed to feel comfortable in their bodies by a society that revels in critiquing appearances.

What we need to focus on is educating ourselves – and the hoi polloi, as it were – about the idea of health. There is an assumption that overweight people are lazy gluttons. There is also an assumption that skinny people are pill-popping, smoking, bulimics. It may be true in a large number of cases, and it may be false in an equally large number.

The problem is that, in focusing on appearance, we are only changing the parameters of acceptability, rather than doing away with those parameters. And in doing so, we are reinforcing the idea that “real” people look a certain way, while “perfect” people do great damage to themselves in order to look a certain way. And this is yet another form of body fascism.

The paparazzi stalk actresses on holiday, on family outings, in airports, and everywhere else, hoping to catch a moment when they don’t look their best – to capture them without makeup, to show us the wrinkles on their knees, and the sagging skin on their legs and stomachs, the lines around their eyes and mouths, to prove that these women are “imperfect” too.

We are ignoring the idea that appearance is not everything. Fitness and flexibility are not necessarily tied to body weight. Neither is health.

The way I see it, just as the photographs of the dishes in the menus of restaurants and cafés rarely look like the actual dishes themselves, retailers have the right to choose how they want to brand their products, what kind of models they want to use, and which message they want to send out to their prospective consumers.

What we need to focus on is that these advertisements and films are not real. The people acting in them are samples of humanity, and as real as we are. But they do not set a standard for what we need to look like.

As long as we keep the discussion focused on the bodies and faces of the people in these ads, and prescribe a norm, we are undermining the idea of fighting stereotypes. And in doing so, we are undermining the confidence of our own, impressionable selves.

Read more by the author:

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book on www.nandinikrishnan.com

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