Just trying to get something positive out of this. Might as well use it as a reminder of what “healthy” actually means, versus how the Indian press and public figures (just in the past few years! It is still reversible!) have started to use it. And how the West has been using it for years.
About 5-10 years ago I started noticing a disturbing trend in interviews with female movie stars. I had already noticed a disturbing trend of female movie stars being expected to be skinnier and skinnier. But now in interviews it was being talked about and phrased as being “healthy”. Not only that, it was being described as some kind of public service by celebrities, modeling for the uninformed public what “healthy” looked like. That was explicitly said, but also implied through the content like providing exercise or diet tips. These were the “healthy” ideals with the general slovenly unhealthy Indian public (especially the female public) should look up to.
What is frustrating for me is that this is all pretending that India is not India. That is, ignoring that a large number of the population is skinny not because they follow diets and work out but because they are malnourished. And, more important in terms of the film industry, it is ignoring that the female ideal up to just a few years back was something that could be achieved without dieting or going to the gym, but merely normal human activity. And that this is still the female ideal in major parts of the country.
And that same idea comes up with the response to it, films like Shaandar that are “teaching” people to appreciate differently sized women. Instead of acknowledging that most people do appreciate normal women in India, it’s only the very small elite community that does not. And talking about it in this way is in fact normalizing that it is okay for your first reaction to be “ewww, she doesn’t look perfectly skinny, I hate her!”
(Sanah Kapor in this is the same size or smaller than Namitha in Billa just 6 years earlier. Namitha of course playing the unbelievably sexy vamp that all the men naturally wanted, because Namitha and Sanah are the beauty ideal for much of the country while Alia is not necessarily.)
The messages against this ideal that have begun to appear are accepting the basic premise, that people have to be “taught” that big is beautiful, rather then that most people already know that and the media and celebrities have to be “taught” to understand what the idea is in the majority of the country where they are. All you have to do is step out of the Hindi film industry of the past 10 years to find different beauty standards. The women of Bahubali are beautiful and have bodies that are the same as the body that was idealized in Indian film and art for centuries. Silk Smitha was the sexy ideal for years. “Ooo La La” with Vidya Balan from just a few years back is still considered one of the sexiest songs ever. There is a lie being perpetuated both that thin=”healthy” and that thin=”popular Indian beauty ideal”.
(The female ideal)
It’s a strange sort of globalization effect. First the imitation of global beauty standards, and then the imitation of global beauty standard reform movements. Neither of which really fit in the Indian context. And both of which are phrased in terms of “health”.
(not saying India is perfect, just saying there should be a big song and dance number about the beauty of darker skin instead of the beauty of curvy women if you want to start a reform movement)
What does this have to do with Sridevi? I’m not going to get into dieting or plastic surgery or anything that may have caused ill health related to her appearance. I just want to acknowledge the simple fact that meeting the upperclass Indian/Western ideals of feminine beauty has NOTHING TO DO with physical health. Good or bad! The outside of your body can tell almost nothing about the inside of the body. At least, not unless you are a trained medical professional looking for trace indications of ill health for diagnosis. “Health” and beauty standards should not be considered as related in any way.
So when Parineeti talks about “getting healthy”, meaning her weight loss, that is a dangerous white lie. Because it isn’t necessarily healthier, especially for women, to be thinner. And it plays into a whole idea of the Western/Indian elites being wiser and better and trying to “teach” others how they should be.
(It’s also not necessarily unhealthy to lose weight. I’m not Parineeti’s doctor, I don’t know her body. But if she wants to spread that message, she needs to tell us “my doctor told me I was unhealthy and that’s why I lost the weight, for me”. Not just a general statement of weight loss as “healthy” by default)
Sridevi was remarkably young looking for her years. In terms of body shape, face, everything else. But that had nothing to do with her overall health. A beautiful woman will not necessarily live forever. We can look at Madhubala, at Meena Kumari, at dozens of examples of beautiful sparkling women whose appearance did not show what was happening inside of them. Reema Lagoo died last year, at 59, seemingly in perfect health. Daisy Irani is the opposite in every way of the female beauty ideals (grey hair, round body, etc. etc.) and she is 68 and has outlived Sridevi.
(Here she is with Shammi, who is 86)
All I want to do, so long as we are having these discussions, is point out that an unattainable western ideal of beauty is making its way into Indian culture where it never had a place before and history is being erased to pretend it was always there, and the method being used to erase it is to say that it is “healthy” to look a certain way.
The problem with the western ideal of beauty being conflated with “health” is two-fold. First, people who do not meet it are constantly being told that they are unhealthy which can be very frustrating to fight back against. But second, perhaps more dangerous, people who do meet it are more easily able to ignore unhealthy elements of their life.
For a personal example, years ago I had a friend who was very very pretty according to Western standards. A tiny physical frame, long legs, small face, big eyes, etc. etc. And I am not that, I am the opposite of that, very tall, large frame, etc. etc. I lived in a 3rd floor walk up at the time and when I had her over once, I ran down the stairs to let her in, and then ran up the stairs back to my apartment without getting winded (since I did that 5 times a day). Meanwhile, she was stopping at every landing to catch her breath. Clearly, I was in better shape than she was. But while I was feeling pressured to go to the gym, to eat healthier, to do everything I could to be as healthy as possible, she felt none of that pressure and was happily continuing to eat junk food and never walk anywhere. Both of us were being treated unfairly, but while my unfair treatment would lead to minor daily irritation, hers could lead to serious health problems.
So, as long as I am looking for the good to come out of this situation, a reminder for us all that it’s not enough to go to the gym and be your ideal weight and put on moisturizer every night and dye your grey hairs and all the other things that can make your body look young on the outside, you also have to go to the doctor and find out if your body is still young on the inside.