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May 27, 2016

Plump or Paper-Waisted?

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Hemant Sapre

Being fat is now almost a cardinal sin. We delve deeper into reasons why women are chasing skinny…

Many moons ago when waistlines spread out like excel sheets, and pinchable cheeks (both male and female) and jiggling bottoms dominated the big screen, I met the actor Dharmendra in Ooty. I hadn’t gone all the way from New Delhi to the quaint hill station in the South just to meet this hunk of all hunks and poster boy for the virile Punjabi male, as he was considered at the time. Dharmendra paaji had the raw and down-to-earth appeal that the gardener-lover of Lady Chatterley in D. H. Lawrence’s novel must have had. This was, of course, long before ubiquitous gyms and six-pack muscles became de rigueur for reigning and aspiring actors in Bollywood.

The purpose of such a long journey was to meet Mandakini, the fair and lovely and light-eyed and more than pleasingly plump (euphemism for fat) actress. Fresh from the incredible success of Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili, she was the leading lady of the film being shot in Ooty. At the time, I was working on a story about starlets. It was titled The Invasion of Starlings because I was also looking at the horde of young actresses who were trying to make it in the movies during the latter half of the 1980s.

When asked what he thought of these young actresses descending on Bollywood to become stars, Dharmendra casually tossed off a remark that almost had me drop the glass of juice I was drinking. “Look, we once had our own wheat. But then the imported hybrid strains were thrust on us from elsewhere. The wheat was tasteless. Desi wheat had a certain mitthas (sweetness). The girls today are like the hybrid wheat — they have no mitthas.”  Mandakini with her plump cheeks and ample bosom may have been somewhat of a throwback to the older actresses, like Vyjayanthimala, Asha Parekh, Mala Sinha and even Rekha, Sridevi and Hema Malini in their earlier avatars. But those who came later had whittled-down bodies, flattened cheeks; their hips and stomachs were restrained.

Dancing with Skeletons
It’s a good thing that the erstwhile matinee idol is no longer romancing leading ladies. For the older generation of thespians, it could be akin to dancing with skeletons. A rather sleazy producer of popular films told me that the actresses now coming in had no ‘meat’ on their bodies. Either his knowledge of the English language was skimpy; or he was even crasser than I had thought. He preferred casting teenagers from the South because they were more sensuous and had better bodies than girls from elsewhere. “Even 12-year-old girls from the South have more filled-out bodies. Perhaps, it is because of what they eat…all those dosas and idlis.”

Fads, fashions and preferences change according to the season and the times — and l’air du temps. The tastemakers declaim what’s in and what’s out from their diverse pulpits. Fashion gurus, fashion and lifestyle magazines, celebrities and film stars set the bar. They are largely responsible for what we eat, how we do our workouts and what our bodies look like.

Being fat is now almost a cardinal sin. Today, there is no such thing as being too thin — or too rich, as Wallis Simpson, the erstwhile Duchess of Windsor, once famously said. However, there are deeper, more significant reasons for going after ‘ideal’ body sizes: some of the choices have to do with economic reasons. Being fat, or, let’s say, being endowed with lots of flesh was desirable in times of scarcity. It signalled prosperity; the poor were thin because they had little food to eat. Apparently, Peter Paul Rubens, the 17th-century Flemish artist, painted plump, large-sized women with ‘soft eiderdown bottoms’ and dimpled thighs because he had a taste for luxury and was attracted by wealth. The rich women were plump because they did not have to do any hard labour. A woman with huge hips is still considered beautiful in some African societies. And, until not too long ago, in India as well — as our films demonstrate.

Presumably it is the opposite in times of plenty. India is still a poor nation with the poverty line refusing to budge. However, for a burgeoning middle class and growing tribe of the uber rich, there is an abundance and availability of all kinds of food. No wonder thin is in and our trendsetters sport washboard stomachs, sunken cheeks and spindly arms — walkie-talkie Barbie dolls.

The challenge
A trend that started in Asia — popularised by Chinese women — involved women holding A4 sheets of paper against their waists to prove how thin they were. It went viral on social media. The paper-waist challenge, as it has been called, is used to prove one’s thinness by covering the entire midsection with the paper. It is merely the latest in the series of challenges to assert the superiority of the super thin; the others are the collarbone, thigh gap and belly button challenges….

Size is not the only thing that matters. Fashion flair has always had the power: there are those who start trends and those who follow. Most of us, however, are followers. For sari-wearers (happily no longer likely to be an extinct species), it used to be all about matching blouses to saris with impeccably stitched falls. You had to scour the city to find the exact shade if you didn’t want the toffee-nosed to give you the not-very-subtle arched look. Conformity was paramount: there was no getting away from perfectly matched apparel and perfectly starched saris or churidars.

So, the exceptions stood out, and were sniggered at. Today, individualism is in. ‘Matching’ is out. A friend, who even sourced material for her blouses from furnishing and upholstery departments in stores, unleashed an avalanche of many catty remarks about her ‘lampshade’ blouses. She carried on, regardless. Those who sniggered are doing much the same today, in their quest for being different.

Ironically, this quest for whimsy is the Next Best Thing. And will soon become a cliche. No doubt the matchy-matchy days will return. And perhaps, the roly-polys will blossom once again.

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