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The woman in the mirror

In The Beauty Game, Anand asks a lot of questions but never gets around to answering them, says KALPANA SHARMA.


IN The Beauty Game, Anita Anand asks a lot of questions. And then forgets to answer them. Or, perhaps, chooses not to answer them. This is not the only problem with a book that touches on a subject of considerable interest.

By trying to be impartial and even-handed, you are left not knowing what the author really thinks about "the beauty game". And you are also left thinking that the game is only about beauty contests and the cosmetics industry and not about more fundamental issues such as how beauty is defined, who defines what and who is beautiful, why these concepts change over time, and how they are manipulated at the expense of women and their sense of self-worth.

The strong points in the book are the author's honesty about her own experiences that are narrated in the beginning of the book. Consequently, you expect that she will visit these deeper issues that define, in some ways, what she calls the beauty game.

In fact, one of the more startling pieces of information in Anand's book, tucked away in the very last chapter and gleaned from secondary sources (on which she relies excessively for a book of this nature), is the outcome of a survey of 450 students in five Mumbai colleges, conducted by the department of psychiatry of Nair Hospital. It revealed that a large number (no numbers or percentages are mentioned) had abnormal eating habits and the early signs of anorexia and bulimia. Another Mumbai study found that 40 per cent of the girls, from a college where the students would be well off, were malnourished by WHO standards. This information, and her own experience, should have informed Anand's book and raised questions about why women are injuring themselves and hating their own bodies because society has laid down how they should look.

Instead of delving deeper into such questions, the book narrates the entire history of beauty pageants, including tedious details about sponsors, uncritical interviews with the leading promoters of these pageants, virtual free advertisements for leading manufacturers of cosmetic products and questions, always unanswered questions. There are few critical voices quoted and you are left with an almost glowing narrative of what beauty contests do for the growing number of aspirants for the crown.

The really different chapter in the book is where Anand has personally interviewed seven women, amongst them a sweeper, an airhostess, a TV presenter, a student and a girl from a small-town. These voices ring true and actually should have formed the substance of the book. For they reveal the perceptions of ordinary women about looks, colour of skin, make-up and cosmetics and why looking good, in whatever way that is defined, matters to most women. But the interviews also reveal the variations in concepts on questions of beauty depending on the class or caste to which the women belong. So while Shanti, the sweeper, suggests that it matters more to women of her class to appear well groomed, 19-year-old Charu, a Delhi student, says, "I would rather do something that uses my brains. Beauty fades away. Intelligence stays till you die."

Yet, rather than analysing why Shanti and Charu have such different attitudes towards "beauty", and, in the author's words, all the women interviewed have "a no-nonsense approach to who they are, what they look like, what they would like to look like and what beauty products can do for them," she asks what the beauty industry offers these women. "It wants women to have a bounce in their hair and mischief in their hearts, which was hitherto discouraged in traditional Indian society. It offers them ways to stay trim, wear nice clothes, have good skin and be able to change the colour of their hair. But does it change their lives?" asks Anand. And does not answer. "Are women informing and forming media or is media informing and forming women?" she asks. But does not answer.

Perhaps these are the wrong questions. Perhaps there are no simple answers. But the point of writing a book should surely have been to state an opinion, and to attempt to answer these questions. This is the least one expected from a journalist involved in women's issues like Anita Anand.

The Beauty Game, Anita Anand, Penguin, p.205, Rs. 250.

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