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August 1, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

Beautywise and otherwise

Actress Zohra Sehgal In a recent interview, the irrepressible Zohra Sehgal was quoted as having said to her daughter, "You are seeing me now when I'm old and ugly; you should have seen me then, when I was young and ugly." What a unique statement this is! How wonderful to hear someone claim her right to be something other than beautiful!

If one stops to think about it, there is an extreme and unrelenting pressure that most people live under, particularly women. And that is the demand to look good. If one is not endowed with good looks from the outset, it is mandatory to make the effort to look good. If the effort is made strenuously enough, it translates as beauty even though the result may be far from attractive.

There is a constant emphasis, in both in fairytales and myths, on the physical qualities that a heroine or hero possesses. It is unthinkable, in a conventional fairytale, to find a princess who is not beautiful by default: in the rare case where she isn't, there's a reason for it. In the perception of many people, it is enough to call a girl a princess to signify that she is a beauty.

The only books I can think of, which do not demand that their female characters are explicitly good-looking, are those that fit into the pre-adolescent range. Enid Blyton mystery and adventure books, for instance, call for any number of abstract qualities such as quickness of wit or humour or talent, while appearance is rarely commented upon. But in her school stories, even Enid Aishwarya Rai Blyton makes it clear that there are certain physical attributes associated with being a failure: spectacles and braces on teeth figure high on the list, as also hair of the "wrong" texture or spotty skin or fat. Sometimes a character is saved from her status as a failure by losing weight or removing her glasses.

But what dire fate awaits the millions of us who are bow-legged, bespectacled, ungainly, frizzy-haired, furry-armed and buck-toothed? Are we doomed to languish forever in unlit corners or to chase after plastic surgeons? There is an answer of sorts in fairy-tales: the one woman who can be ugly at will is a witch. Interestingly, she is also a powerful figure, even though her power usually causes harm to the heroine of the story.

Is it time to rehabilitate the witch from the darker reaches of storyland? Certainly, there are a number of authors thinking through this option. One I read about recently is Gregory Maguire whose book, Witch: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (HarperCollins, 1995) is described as a "wacky prequel to The Wizard of Oz".

I haven't read the book, but this brief description makes it sound like fun: "Oz's wicked Witch of the West was grossly misunderstood. Having been raised in a single-parent household, afflicted with a strange skin condition, forced by necessity to raise her little sister and brother, Elphaba's (the WWW's given name) so-called antisocial behaviour was actually her personal struggle against endemic totalitarianism in the Land of Oz (although the Tin Woodsman thinks her problem was hermaphroditism)…"

Urmila Matondkar Beautiful fairy god-mothers do appear now and then but, by and large, powerful female figures in Western fairytales are unattractive. Perhaps there is a message here: being unattractive suggests a lowered potential for marrying and bearing children. Being barren suggests that a woman is not fulfilling her prescribed role in society.

Perhaps, in earlier ages, when the average lifespan did not extend much beyond 40 years, it was imperative for every member of a community to earn his or her place in society by being fecund. Maybe the elderly and the unmarried were looked upon with suspicion and fear because they used up food resources without adding human fuel to the engine of life.

But, today, we have proven our success as a species to the extent that we are a menace to ourselves and our planet. Is it possible that the time has come to honour those who do not add to the population?

Of course, there's many different kinds of ugliness. Some people are called ugly only because they don't conform to the standard of what is considered normal: they might have warts or lumps or features which are twisted out of the prescribed alignment or have crossed eyes or hair in the "wrong" places.

Some uglies are people who wear their inner torment on their faces, so that their expressions convey their revulsion and bad intentions towards others around them. Other uglies are people whose only fault is belonging to a racial group or social class which is regarded with hostility. And finally there are those who are considered ugly because their looks are unusual.

Going by the wonderful cover photograph on her book, Sehgal belongs firmly to this final category. Her face glows with character, positive energy, fulfilment. If she's ugly, wow! That's the way to be.

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Manjula Padmanabhan