Silent Rules of Beauty: The Inescapable Physicality of Womanhood

“Of all the objects that contain gold, bars and rings, bangles and necklaces, nothing is quite like the medal,” Rohit Brijnath wrote in an article on P.V. Sindhu’s historic win In Switzerland last month.

Though the article was written beautifully, it didn’t quite sit well with me – despite Sindhu’s incredible feat, a physical aspect of womxmhood had to be brought into the picture to create a comparative example.

Womxnhood has long been trapped in the idea of physicality – from simple ideas of appearance to the complex relationship of the female body’s biological needs. This has not changed in the current socio-economic state of human civilisation.

The physicality of femininity

Appearance is the most discussed idea of womxn-ness. The prescribed aesthetic of womxnhood is very precise; the use of words like ‘grace, beauty, delicate, fragile and sensitive’ to describe the ‘fairer sex’ further emphasises the physicality of femininity.

This has withstood the test of time – think of corsets in Victorian England – and continues to be among the most debated and consumed idea around feminism too. Even the Dalai Lama recently commented on the importance of physical appearance of a possible female successor. 

Meanwhile, several womxn also use their physicality as the most important marker of their social identity on the internet (and beyond). The more obvious are the womxn who have terms like ‘beauty queen’ in their bio and millions of followers.

Even womxn with less vain displays of physicality always present themselves with arguments on what ‘sexy’ means to them, what ‘beauty’ really is, whether a womxn’s nudity is created for a man  – all valid arguments, sure.

Also read: You Look Pretty, But…: The Tyranny of Beauty Standards

But they essentially never move away from the fact that appearance, and therefore a womxn’s physicality, has to be discussed.

In my opinion, womxn pursuing careers like acting, modelling, fashion and design – where physicality plays a very significant role in their expression – are expected to keep the tradition of ultra feminine aesthetic alive. This emphasis on physicality is required to induce sensuality to their art.

Despite what we get taught in Indian culture about modesty and ‘sharam‘, sensuality is an important part of being human. Its existence reminds us of our humanity and should never be under-appreciated.

But in these professions, sensuality is never approached with much thought or sensitivity. These industries are the few in modern economies which have had womxn at the top for a long time, yet sadly still hinge on physicality as a primary capital. Further, it is always fixated with the very basic idea within appearance – the aesthetic of the time.

‘You are your looks’

In reality, ‘aesthetic’ is just a set of silent rules of beauty created and maintained by the upper class. The reality of aesthetic is through clothes, jewellery, make-up, decor – you name it.

All the real, material aspects of creating a ‘pleasing’ aesthetic are dependent on money. A lack of funds is a serious challenge to you looking like you belong to womxnhood.

This is further exclusionary as it fails to adequately address non-binary, asexual and trans identities. The embracing of physicality becomes essential to the embracing your womxnhood. It feels especially obscene when seen through the lens of victims of abuse and violence, which unfortunately womxn have always been.

Without unpacking their agency over their physical existence, a womxn is expected to, quite literally, wear the garb of femininity to signify her womxnhood for the public.

This is the performance of gender which ties back to the areas of work in human society dominated by womxn. A womxn’s socio-economic value is judged by her performance of femininity. Skills have a greater value if they are accompanied with the prescribed physicality of womxnhood – it corresponds to the public’s idea of what it means to be a womxn.

So for centuries, successful womxn have had to balance other aspects of their personality and responsibilities with the expected standard of physicality. No womxn could look as dishevelled as Boris Johnson and become prime minister. And while I don’t always agree with Mayawati’s politics, almost all her detractors have attacked the Dalit leader’s physicality with disgusting statements in public to discredit her.

Aesthetic is also the easiest way for upper class womxn to protect their privilege and continue to create a perception of social superiority.

Also read: Putting On Makeup Feels Like Going to War With My Flaws (And Myself)

This is hardly an abstract idea, it is very well evident if you scroll through several social media accounts of womxn. Again, ‘aesthetic’ is social capital dictated by upper class and caste womxn – so it is always easy for them to use it against any criticism on their fixation with physicality, even in the supposedly inclusive ‘plus size’ body types.

So you can be thin or fat – but you better be good looking.

The physicality of a womxn is the most challenging concept for those who fight ableism. This needs to be made uncomplicated. The physicality of womxnhood is truly fought, in my opinion, by athletes, differently abled and trans womxn. Physicality also signifies strength and capability.

It is important to address here the biological needs of a womxn’s physicality are drastically different from a man – and not lesser in any way. To say that there are any limitations of a human body to perform a task is to limit ability. And we know that has been proven time and again to be a falsehood. 

Sadly, an extremely elusive idea of beauty has become a significant thing in human visual memory. As womxn, we dedicate our entire lives curating this physicality so we can call ourselves womxn – even though we know very well that it is not all there is to being a womxn.

Let us collectively allow womxnhood to expand beyond our bodies and become the powerful force it truly is.

Sumedha writes to highlight the need for non-conformity and for practical politics free of labels. She is also a certified cat lady. 

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty