In a popular fairness cream commercial, an appealing but dark-complexioned young woman is seated before a mirror. She is dreaming of a career as a model / actor / flight attendant / musician. Unfortunately, the young woman feels disadvantaged because of her complexion. But, she resolves to turn to the skincare product to better her career prospects. The next shot is of the now-buoyant young woman, armed with a rosy, milky complexion, stylish couture and a perfect figure and having realized her dreams.
There are scores of women trying to capture beauty in order to gain societal acceptance, a terrific career and a better spouse - all with the help of cosmetics, figure correction procedures and even plastic surgery.
While every society defines beauty within its own cultural setting, the quest for beauty is universal. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contemporary concept of 'body image', which has become an integral aspect of measuring beauty. The term body image can simply be defined as the way one perceives one's body and feels about it. Although it refers much to the physique, it lays a greater emphasis on weight.
The dilemma of body image begins with one's own perception: a positive outlook induces confidence and ease; a negative image makes one question one's self worth. As eating disorders, compulsive exercise routines and plastic surgery become popular means to achieve that elusive beauty, it is essential that one is conscious enough to be able to develop (and seek professional help if needed) a positive body image.
In India, the issue of body image is emerging in subtle tones. Aggressive consumerism makes it difficult for people to not be swayed by the glamorous media portrayals or by the overwhelming choices offered to achieve those standards - such as creams, lotions, serums and laser surgeries.
Tina Mukherjee, 26, a well-known model and fashion coordinator in Kolkata, admits, "Today, the pressure to be thin and beautiful has intensified because of the need to be successful. People are very conscious of their bodies and, in turn, food habits." Khadijah Chowdhury, 25, a public-relations consultant, agrees:
"Wanting to be admired and noticed by those around us in a public setting pushes us to conform to the image of what society defines as 'attractive'. This largely explains why so many women dress, talk and even behave alike these days. There is no individuality and those that possess it stick out like a sore thumb."
The multi-million film and fashion industries perhaps best reflect the changing notions of beauty. Earlier, a talented actor would not be out of work if s/he gained some weight. Today, this is unthinkable. Photographs of glamorous, waif like models in fashion glossies incite women to aspire for unrealistic physical perfection.
According to Dr Sanjay Chugh, a New Delhi-based senior consultant psychiatrist, the media has immense powers to influence the mind and very often what is projected is understood as a norm and followed too. Concepts like beauty, fairness and perfect body size are glamorized and are associated with a lot of approval and acceptance. This somewhere gets reinforced in the minds of young women who then start to set unrealistic standards for themselves, consequently employ unhealthy ways to achieve them.
Therefore, it doesn't come as a surprise when eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia - once perceived to be common only in the West - are steadily surfacing in India. Both anorexia and bulimia reveal a patient's deep fear of gaining weight. Anorexics starve themselves or exercise excessively to lose weight - to almost 15 per cent below normal body weight. People suffering from bulimia binge and then self-induce vomiting. Some even abuse laxatives to maintain body weight.
"Eating disorder is a problem that is certainly on the rise. The number of people coming for treatment has also increased manifold, with the average age of a patient varying between as young as 10 years to between 28 and 30 years," says Dr Chugh.
While anorexia causes weakness, brittle skin and inconsistent body weight, bulimia results in mouth ulcers, tooth decay, stomach disorders and even kidney problems. Those afflicted by these disorders - and they could be men too - need professional help along with societal compassion and understanding.
There is no doubt that the social pressures to be beautiful, compounded with a low self-esteem, aggravate these problems. According to Tina, some young women are so keen to adhere to the so-called norms of beauty and glamour of the modeling world that they eventually buckle under the tremendous pressure.
Says Tanushree Dutta, 24, another popular model, "While the pressures to confine to the standards of beauty are visible more in the fashion industry, women, in general, have become very conscious of their looks. Health spas, weight-loss centers and gyms have mushroomed across even the smaller towns of the country, promoting the need to be lean." She remembers the time when she had gained some weight. Though "a model with a pretty face" can get some amount of work in Kolkata, she had to work towards losing the few extra pounds since she had her eyes fixed on the big league.
Agrees Debra Alexander, 40, Senior Manager, Deutsche Bank, Kolkata, "In our day, going for a career in modeling was uncommon so the pressure to be 'beautiful' was not intense. However, now the focus is completely on health and body weight. And with the growing number of slimming centers and gyms, one is made more conscious about their body image."
Institutions like the Gold Gym, Kolkata offer a variety of services such as strength training, yoga, spinning as well as kick boxing, besides an array of personalized services. There is also a clinical nutritionist and a fitness manager to oversee the dietary and activity needs of patrons. No one is denying the fact one has to be healthy to feel beautiful. However, there is a pressing need for young girls and women to develop a positive body image based on innate strengths.
Says Ria Mukherjee, 29, Head of Administration, Gold Gym, "We do get women who become obsessive about their exercise regime. However, the fitness manager and the nutritionist try and address the issue with much sensitivity and urgency so that the member is able to alter their attitude towards being healthy."
But there are many who still run on the treadmill, intentionally starve or blow up money at clinics for that "perfect look". According to Baby Singh, 22, a sales assistant at a popular fashion store in Kolkata, "Many a time I have seen healthy and slender-framed women walk into the store, try on something and immediately start to worry about their weight gain. I just wish they would realize that there is no such thing as a perfect body shape."
Confucius once said: 'Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.' These simple words should echo a deeper meaning for all those who seek to find beauty in the eyes of another. Why should one believe that beauty is about looking like someone else? One should be able to accept that everyone is unique and beautiful in their own way and that being different is not such a bad thing. For true beauty is not what others see in you but what you cherish and nurture in yourself.