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The curves are gone


Ms Toughie: Bindiya Shetty, a 37-year-old mother, exercises for an hour and a half every alternate day of the week. Her workout regime includes circuit training, swimming, pilates and yoga

While international fashion is back to embracing curvier models, more and more Indian women are sporting lean frames that border on the androgynous. These Iron Maidens are changing the notion of the classic Indian beauty along with their figures

The voluptuous, ripe-buttocked Indian woman was the normative idea of beauty in the 50s and, of course, the swinging 60s. In a tightly draped sari or skin-tight salwar kameez, this curvaceous creature sent men into a tizzy.

By the 90s, body shapes had undergone a seismic shift. Fit bodies bred on regimented protein diets began triumphing over resplendently rounded ones (remember Madhubala and Mumtaz?) that were nourished on mum's food laden with copious amounts of saturated fat. The change was there for all to see. The plump Kareena of Refugee became the spandex-clad size zero bombshell of Tashan. Vidya Balan could eat her heart out but food was a no-no.

Booby trap

With everyone from filmstars to Page 3 socialities sporting lean frames that border on the androgynous, round was definitely out. Slowly, breasts shrunk, hips narrowed, arms bulked up and cheekbones became more defined. Women's bodies started looking uncannily similar to that of teenage boys. Leena Mogre, who has helped many a celeb lose flab, says the first casualty of trimming fat is often the bust. "You can bid your boobs goodbye if you crave that lean look."

While weight and beauty has been at the heart of all fitness debates with the parameters of the ideal fluctuating with every passing decade - curvy to thin and anorexic to lean - the present era has ushered in a dramatic shift on how gender and weight are understood together. Susan Bordo, who specialises in contemporary culture and its relation to the body, deconstructs Madonna in her seminal book Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. She says that Madonna represents the postmodern woman who simultaneously embraces and defies traditional gender norms. Madonna's transition from a well-rounded figure to a muscular lean body after the breakdown of her marriage with Sean Penn, writes Bordo, manifests her own attempts at inverting the cultural gaze.

Closer home, actor Bipasha Basu's radical metamorphosis since her Jism days has won her a fair amount of adulation. Vidhiba Kumar, a fitness buff who is modelling her body on the star, is a fan. "Bipasha is my role model."

Bips is not alone, of course, but merely one of the exponents of a new look. Models Lakshmi Menon, Jesse Randhawa, Carol Gracias, Tamara Moss all flaunt reed thin but worked-out frames in XS garments. Little wonder that the goalposts have shifted for us all. With every image of those tiny waists, an inch is shaved off the notional ideal female form.

Politics of androgyny

Madhu Kishwar, activist and feminist, questions the very idea that there is an ideal female form. "These unhealthy images of women are the doing of the media. Who is to say what is ideal and what's not?" she asks outraged.

Sociologist Nivedita Ghosh says that there is a historical background to the body being classified as feminine or masculine. "The formalisation of femininity and masculinity happened in the colonial period. Pre-colonial India had always embraced its women warriors and even celebrated them. But women began imbibing Victorian values during the Raj. Broad concepts of femininity and masculinity are thus historically a western imposition."

Ghosh adds that behind the macho woman lurks economics. "Gender neutralisation started happening when women started taking up jobs that men were supposed to do. If women were to adhere to the age-old notions of womanhood, then the economy wouldn't have progressed, " explains Ghosh. So, androgyny is not something that is only rampant in the fashion industry or in popular culture. "It is rooted in our economic aspirations too."

Dumbbell Darlings

Economics or vanity, women are lining up at gyms to get that mean bod. There is nothing wrong with that, says 35-yearold Delhi-based wellness instructor Vesna Pericevic Jacob. "I think it's fine to look a bit tough, " says Jacob who went from being bulky and huge to being lean, mean and fit in a few years. Her body, visibly fat-free, has become quite an object of envy. "Women are constantly asking me for tips on how to whip their bodies into shape."

Fashion choreographer Achala Sachdev, on the other hand, doesn't think biceps look attractive on a woman. "Indian women tend to be on the heavy side. That's their genetic disposition. Beating your body into unrealistic proportions is stupid. I prefer the slim and toned look as opposed to the over-exercised body."

Mumbai-based Mickey Mehta, a holistic health-guru, too, is against women bulking up. "Women who are into arbitrary strength-training lose their femininity," he says in no uncertain terms. But Mehta is sure the tough look is a passing fad.

Suits you, woman

In the fashion fraternity, the androgynous look has been around for some time. Designer Samant Chauhan says that toying with gender codes in fashion is normal. "A few years back when I designed a Victorian jacket for the woman's line, I had male clients placing orders for it." Internationally, the lines between what a man and a woman wear is blurring. Which is why when Rajesh Pratap Singh dressed women in menswear at this year's Van Heusen India Men's Week the response wasn't that of awe and shock but appreciation.

The strong femme fatale look has fuelled the imagination of filmmakers too. Drifting from the bastion of male action heroes, cinema now has its own stuntwomen and female action heroes. Priyanka Chopra dressed as a torero simulating a bull-fight on the Khatron ke Khiladi promo, currently on air, is not an aberration. Rather she represents the shifting definitions of conventional beauty.

Off screen, the country seems to be divided into two camps: the fat and the fit, and neither is shaped liked an hourglass. The fat for obvious reasons, and the fit because most workouts create androgynous figures.

Man, we'll miss those curves!

Reader's opinion (3)

Shweta KatyaynMay 19th, 2011 at 12:09 PM

the set notions of beauty and body, why do they have to revolve around women? I just long for the day when women will really be free from these debates over the body and appearance.

Surendra Mohan SharmaSep 22nd, 2010 at 11:44 AM


Susan BradleyJun 7th, 2011 at 10:28 AM

Right on Shweta!

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