Navigating Feminist Politics and the Fashion- Beauty Complex
The expression of concern about how body and beauty regimes appear to our daughters mediated both by the outside world and, perhaps more significantly, by ourselves suggests the assumption that our interventions are relevant and will change the way our daughters see the world.
Leela is very certain about why she does not take her daughter to the beauty salon. ‘I don’t like her to sit there, watching me get primped—I do not want her to watch the number of things that go into a woman looking the way she does’. Megha, however, does not seem to believe the parlour will scar her daughter: ‘I’ve taken her to the beauty parlour with me—I don’t think it has adversely affected her’. Prerna agrees:
I have taken her to a beauty parlour. Earlier we used to take her to a local place, where mostly men go. One day she did not want to go there so I took her to a more expensive place. She liked this place very much and asked if we could go there again. I am a lazy person and do I do not do much by way of beautification but I don’t mind if others do. It’s fine with me if she does—for me this is the idea of agency. I realise that an image that comes to her of beauty is something I cannot control much—her life, where we live there are many different ideologies—I hope this will give her the space to make choices. She asks me why I don’t use make up to which I simply say that I don’t like it.
Alka disclaims: ‘I hate dressing up, seldom use make up, never go to a beauty parlour except for a haircut’. Revathi avers: ‘I am not big on beauty rituals. I do facials at home once in three months—seeing the face packs is an occasion for great hilarity for my daughter’. Vani talks about how hard it is for her daughter to have a non-conventional mother and how she sometimes tries to redress the balance:
All my daughter’s friends have more conventional moms, who dress in a particular way that I don’t, and she ends up being the backward one in the group. Once when I painted my nails, she was very excited. I’ve had to compromise to let her feel more comfortable and more mainstream.
When she was in school, there was a school play and the teacher told the students to do their make-up at home. I went to the teacher and asked her how she could assume that everyone had make-up at home. Some of us don’t use any. I told my daughter that I was not going to buy make-up for this play.
Meeras anecdote, reflecting the assumption about the presence of makeup in the home, is telling. If you have a mother at home, she must have some make-up, the sub-text being that women are inevitably engaged in the process of beautifying themselves in ways that need artifice. Meera overtly resists this, presumably even at the cost of marking her daughter as different. Vani on the other hand chooses to ‘compromise’.
How do our daughters respond to these multiple, sometimes mixed messages we send? Meera avers:
I went through a hippy kind of phase but then went back to not being interested. My daughter also went through an identical phase—being outrageous and then lost interest. She is very good-looking and there was a point when she was obviously aware of it and would dress with this awareness. But, today she dresses very simply. So simply, that I tell her myself sometimes, to wear some kajal (eye liner). She hasn’t bought clothes for herself for the last ten years, everything she wears, I’ve bought her.
Maitri adds: ‘My daughter is now so socially conscious that she won’t even buy a good pair of shoes. I’m the one who’s nagging her to wear better footwear’.
What does it mean when our daughters learn the lessons we try to teach too well? Meera says: ‘I always wanted her to be straight and narrow and now she is...’, she trails off. In an earlier paper I examined the fear that feminist mothers expressed that our daughters will somehow reject feminism (Phadke 2013). This anxiety that one has somehow taught one’s daughter not to care about appearance at all is perhaps a mirror image of that fear. And yet it is not at all clear to any of us what it is exactly that we want. We want for our daughters to be comfortable in a world that is largely hostile to women who do not conform. Yet we want our daughters to be feminists, a politics that brings with it the promise of non-conformity.