It is ironic when large parts of the world suffer from malnutrition, women are encouraged to look malnourished to sell fancy clothes.
• On a damp rack inside a hut, a rusty tin can stood amongst the small packets of lentils and a lime and chilli tied together to ward off evil. The can was a supplement of infant powdered milk.
• The model sashayed down the ramp wearing only a jacket that barely concealed her tiny breasts and ribs. Later in the hotel lobby she was smoking furiously, her hands trembling; the cosmetic face could not salvage the fading beauty of her mid-20s.
• Children in a posh suburb of Mumbai are encouraged by their parents to take their vitamins at the onset of exams – these pills are to enhance memory and have no vitamin content.
• In a red light area, a doctor has a long queue outside his clinic – performance drugs and placebos rule.
These are examples of what I have encountered as a journalist and during my stints with NGOs.
While the big questions remain about the role of pharmaceutical companies as well as of doctors and hospitals, it is really the soft targets that become living corpses for experimentation – women, children, the fashion industry and sexuality.
Why is there such discussion about the female body through the fashion route? Is it about anorexia or advertising? “She is emaciated,” said one user of a fashion clothing site. When former reality show star Allie Crandell began appearing as the model for a brand, some buyers had raised a hue and cry: “If you want people to buy from your company, don’t make them feel bad by showing your clothing on someone who clearly has no self esteem or respect for their body.” But isn’t that what the fashion industry wants – models who look like hangers that they can display their clothes on? Women with pre-pubescent bodies to give a young look?
Anorexia is the buzzword, but surely there cannot be so many models with stick-thin figures? It is ironic when large parts of the world suffer from malnutrition, we have a situation where women are encouraged to look malnourished to sell fancy clothes. Model Isabelle Caro had started a “No Anorexia” campaign where she posed in the nude to show her skeletal body. She died last year at 28. There have been debates, but they are in the nature of how the human form influences emulation. The more pertinent questions are regarding how they maintain those thin bodies. It is not about an individual choice anymore. Women are being herded into slots of the desired size. Curiously, their height, their features, their culture, their preferences do not matter.
In a schizophrenic world, once they are out of the ramp time, many seek jobs in the movie industry. Here, a more voluptuous look is desired. So, they need to plump up, and like farm chickens they are fattened by steroids and then sculpted surgically. These fields sponge on such trends, and everyday there is a new ideal. While we quite rightly pull up the cosmetics companies, we fail to see that the lines are now blurred. After the surgical procedures, there are antibiotics to be taken. However, the body image that is created has larger ramifications because it also inflicts itself on a segment that cannot afford such procedures, so it resorts to the urbane quacks who prescribe fat dissolving tablets and creams that supposedly tighten the loose muscles. The ayurveda industry has managed to claim its cosmetic products as medicinal, thereby avoiding taxes as well as misleading the user about its ‘no side-effects’ assertions, when many do in fact add allopathic elements to make it a quick-fix. The same applies to homeopathy, which has again become a big spa-like industry.
Sauna belts and teeth whiteners are available over the counter and no one bothers to read the fine print about what they contain and the precautions that are to be taken.
Respected sexologists too prescribe medicines for extended erection for men and painless intercourse for women. This is a dark area and most people will trust an authority figure they can approach anonymously. There are huge placebo possibilities here. The doctor I spoke to in the red light district admitted as much: “These people come with diseases for which there is no immediate cure, and since I am sitting here and have to run this clinic I give them some vitamin pills.” There is also the problem of follow-up. The clients are rarely regulars and it might not be feasible to keep track of such patients.
Condoms as a medical solution may seem surprising, but in the brothels that is how they are pushed. Not much care is taken regarding the brands and their efficacy. Some NGOs have tried to instil healthcare and teach the women proper use; however, the buyer is king and will dictate terms. The women in the poorer brothels have no control at all. Their visits to the doctor are essentially not driven by fear of disease, but of common ailments that will keep them off business. The doctor told me, “There is little time, so they believe they need a shot to speed up recovery usually for minor aches and pains. Again, it is a placebo.”
Many pharmaceutical companies advertise sex enhancement drugs as rejuvenators, since the advertising companies figure out ways to make the strength evident in specific areas. Even if they don’t, they use role models with great bodies and achievements. Or they get people from legitimate professions, like doctors and nurses, to sell ‘medicated’ toothpastes, lotions and soaps.
No one can have a problem with such innocent marketing, but it makes the prospective buyer believe that its use will tangibly address their problems, and then they place children in the arena to give it the appearance of a ‘caring’ industry.
The dream factory is full throttle where the under 15 segment is put to test. There is no reason for such young people to suffer memory loss, but pills to enhance memory are sold, as recent reports in India suggest. In a society where education is primarily scorecard-related, there are psychological factors that have to do with failure, competitiveness and being left out. Besides affecting vital organs, this could lead to a slowing of natural alertness. Knowledge would be by rote and curiosity would disappear altogether. There are no proven results regarding the drugs, but the fact that no prescriptions are required makes it dangerous.
The youngsters, whose bodies are still growing, are being made aware of calcium and protein supplements that are available in natural foods. The magic word ‘Glucose’ is bandied about as though it is a cola and equally harmful if taken without medical advice.
The same goes for teens whose ambitions seem to be in the entertainment industry or at least to look like they could be in one of them. From their hair to their toes, they are being sold products that have vitamins. A loving mother believes that she is slathering her girl’s hair with protein for an early beauty regimen; she believes there is vitamin in the processed soup, which in fact is filled with preservatives. This mother had probably timed her baby’s birth with some auspicious occasion and opted for a Caesarean section and did not nurse because she felt her breasts would sag.
The hut I mentioned in the beginning is the mimicked reality. The woman who had stocked on a multinational company’s formula milk product was illiterate. She could not read and follow the instructions about how much powder to add to the water. Even if she did, her circumstances did not offer her the luxury to make use of a clean vessel to boil the water, sterilise the bottle and mix the right proportion; her poverty would also make her add more water to save on the powder and make it last longer. When I questioned her, she said that the lady in whose house she worked as a domestic help used this and her baby was healthy. For the slum woman it was not about vanity, but the thought that she should at least be modern in the upbringing of her children where she could. Her decision was also based on the fact that certain organisations do give free samples in the poor areas. Most of these are close to expiry date. Once the women have used them and see pictures of lovely babies, they immediately begin to think that they need to save money and buy the same product.
In a vicious circle in a world where trends prevail, the healthy babies will need to fake a malnourished look in the future to be the face and bodies of designer labels.
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Published in the Spring issue of State of Nature