My Body Is Not Your Images

What use is diversity in popular culture when it still conforms to narrow aesthetic norms? Sunny Singh discusses women’s “range of life stories, complete with joys and tragedies,”

sunnycnmA renewed concern with the race politics of beauty has been fueling recent lively discussions about colourism, hair and the lack of representation of models of colour in popular media and on the runway. For those such as bell hooks, the popularity and promotion of practices such as skin bleaching and hair-straightening are unambiguously part of a ‘colonized black mind set’ that should be resisted. In her introduction to the bookBlack Looks, hooks argues that throughout history ‘control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination.’ Here I want to contribute to these on-going discussions by drawing upon my experiences growing up in India at a time before the liberalisation efforts brought in global media and its standards to us. Might such early experiences provide possibilities to resist what hooks sees as ‘a racist imagination’?

In the time that I was living in India, I was surrounded by women who not only looked more or less like me, but embodied a range of life stories, complete with joys and tragedies, aspirations and dangers, functioning at once as idols, role models and warnings of the choices we made.[i] Popular culture – film, television, magazines, books – included women who were not so far removed from me.

For example, film stars like Zeenat Aman, Hema Malini and Neetu Singh signified both a range of facial features and body types, but also an array of social differences. At school, we would compare notes, and choose our favourites: the traditional ‘good’ girls liked Malini; the tomboyish, rebellious ones chose the glamorously cosmopolitan Aman; and many who were balancing traditional backgrounds with aspirations of modernity, looked up to actors like Singh.

Looking through magazines and newspapers, we knew there were women police officers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, just as there were beauty queens and fashion models. Not all of them were happy, successful, or even particularly beautiful, but collectively they told me that I existed as a complex, full human being. We were offered a range of bodies that not only looked like women I knew and loved, but also those that I could grow in to: large dark eyes, masses of unruly hair, often curves like those of our temple sculptures, and skins that ranged from floury white to honey gold and dark cocoa.

When a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday my family moved to New York, I had already read up on ‘culture shock.’  I was prepared for the alienation, isolation; the ‘strangeness’ of a new place. I wanted to be awed by the slick modernity I had coveted in travel magazines even as I feared that I would miss friends and family left behind in India. What I was not prepared for was a near-complete semiotic erasure.

In the 1980s, there were few Indian women on western screens or pages. When they needed an ‘Indian’ to play an exotic princess, for example, they used a Western actress and dressed her up in vaguely diaphanous, colourful silks and painted her eyes with kohl. We rarely even featured in news items. It wasn’t that we were exoticised, or stereotyped. That came later. It was that we didn’t exist in popular media, in the communally shared imagination. Did not exist. Full stop.

Of course, there were also very few African American and Latina women on screens, pages, and billboards either. In the face of such erasure from popular culture, I found myself grateful for the monthly shipments of videos and magazines from India. We found the ‘Little India’ shop in lower Manhattan, making regular pilgrimages there for the videocassettes with covers that featured women who I could aspire to look like, and men who found such women desirable.  I also found women friends who were erased as equally, albeit in different ways, and so knew how to offer support.

On one giggles-filled afternoon with a Latina friend working in a designer warehouse, a bunch of us tried on clothes, calculating our differences with measuring tape, gasping at how none of us ‘fitted’ the apparently ‘right’ proportions. One by one, we tested ourselves against the apparently perfect measurements and dissolved into laughter as we failed to meet the narrow criteria that apply to not only high fashion, but to all clothing. I remember we solemnly promised that we would blame the clothes and not ourselves when they didn’t fit correctly on our myriad shapes.

In the years since, we have repeatedly reached out to each other for support as we ride the constant rollercoaster of hope of inclusion and disappointment with our representation. Even when women of colour make it into the public eye, they are carefully selected to fit a dominant Eurocentric mould: wide eyes, narrow noses, full but not too full lips. Bodies are restricted too, with no sign of our full breasts and wide hips, or the shorter, fuller, powerful physiques that propel us through this harsh world.  Our stocky limbs are elongated into gazelle-like frailty, skin lightened to match make-up, and curves shorn into planes. These fabrications stretch into consumer culture that supports and abets popular imagination. After all, ‘nude’ stockings, shoes and underwear still ignore how my skin won’t go pale on command.

But there is also something more pernicious going on in the politics of beauty that we can be complicit with. It is something that also confronted the Black is Beautiful campaigns of the Black Power movement in the 1960s. What I am referring to has two sides: how our very resistance to narrow Eurocentric standards of beauty can reinforce ideas about what an ‘authentic’ beauty of colour might be; and second how our differential inclusion in media representations can be at the cost of other exclusions.

For example, our rare appearances in popular culture can create a tyranny of a more subtle kind of erasure: we are included but only if we conform to certain standards. These token gestures are chimeras. They can re-inscribe a racialised aesthetics and narratives onto our skins and bones such as in the recent criticism of the Vogue Black pages on the website of Italian Vogue.  Seeing a body of colour in mainstream media is so rare that we can receive any scrap gratefully. Yet the tokenism inherent in such representation, as well as an insistence on body conformity is far from liberating. What difference does it make, for example, if we see more of the darkest skinned models but these models still conform to the skinny, tall body type?

In retrospect, my friends and I were fortunate. We had all gained our senses of self elsewhere: Zimbabwe, Columbia, Malaysia, India. We had already tasted the heady elixir of seeing something of ourselves reaffirmed by popular culture and that relative, circumscribed power provided an opening for resistance and resilience.

Neo-liberal globalisation has resulted in the opening-up of borders to images from other lands, but all too often the dominant media is exported from the West. When powerful transnational media conglomerates export products, they are also helping to manufacture and export narrow, aesthetic standards through television programmes, high fashion advertising and films. This pervasive, steady drip replaces global diversity with a single impossible aesthetic that is historically aligned with political power, racial, heteronormative and economic might.

India’s film industries, for instance, have grown more shadeist in the aftermath of the 1992 liberalisation policies than ever before, and there is a far narrower aesthetic spectrum on offer not only in terms of skin colour but also body types. Yet cis-gender girls in India are still relatively fortunate: the vast range of popular media means that a diversity of body types, skin colours and storylines are still possible. And that range of images mean that more young people can imagine, desire, work for and achieve a host of possibilities.

Sadly those same possibilities are still missing for many who live in places like New York, Paris or London.

Despite years of living in London, I find myself pausing when I see a woman with dark eyes and hair like mine on television. On pages of magazines and newspapers, things are worse. Not only are women who look like me few and far between but also when they do appear, it is mostly as victims (generally of other men of colour, never of institutionalised racism or sexism). And even more rarely do we appear as beautiful or desirable in our own right, and not as the exotic other, with the requisite nod to what is supposed to be Bollywood.

In mainstream media, our migration stories, even when told by us, are squeezed into tragic ‘West as safe haven, Western saviour’ tropes, now given an added homonationalist weight since gay sex has been re-criminalised in India. Heterosexual loves when intra-ethnic are considered symptoms of backwardness and oppression; when inter-ethnic as evidence of self-hatred or gold-digging.  Our families do not exist in the mainstream media except as the butt of jokes or hideous perpetrators of abuse. And so too with our men: alternatively desexualised or over-sexualised. Queer bodies of colour, across the spectrum are even further marginalised, exoticised, fetishized or deemed undesirable. Worst of all, this goes unchecked and unrecognised because of the dominance of ‘white saviour’ discourses or the fallacy that one oppressed group (white LGBTQ in this case) cannot oppress or be complicit in oppression of others.

Even news stories of our professional achievements are framed consistently in familiar tropes of ‘overcoming great odds,’ which are always identified as individual, familial and cultural

 


[i] It wasn’t until my return to India in my twenties, when I had grown aware of media’s power that I began noticing how being part of a majority privileged me. Indian mainstream media erased and still erases many of the friends I grew up with who are from the mountain and the North East of the country. The mechanism is similar as are the pernicious consequences.

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Sunny Singh was born in Varanasi, India and studied at Brandeis University (USA), Jawaharlal Nehru University (India) and University of Barcelona (Spain). She has published two critically acclaimed novels and a non-fiction work on single women in India. Now based in London, she is teaches creative writing at the London Metropolitan University. An expert on Bollywood, she is currently finalising a book on Amitabh Bachchan for BFI/Palgrave’s series on Film Stars. Her new novel, Hotel Arcadia, will be published by Arcadia Books in spring 2015.  More information on her writing can be found at: sunnysingh.net Tweet her @sunnysingh_nw3

Feminism, womanism and Intersectionality series “Complicit No More” curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam tackles the cross-cutting facets of complicity as they play out within our relationships to our bodies, each other, our communities, to media representations and to mobilisation.

You have selected an article from our “Complicit No More” feminism and intersectionality series. The essay is available to read in it’s entirety in new e-book “Complicit No More” On sale at Amazon.co.uk here or in the U.S here

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9 replies

  1. Interesting that you mention Malaysia as one of the countries where your friends found a sense of self; I never have there and never will.

    I was born and raised in Malaysia as the child of migrant Bangladeshi parents. The only time I saw people like me represented was in Government propaganda scapegoating Bangladeshis for all the country’s problems. And no way would I be represented in local or regional mainstream media: I was too dark, too fat, too foreign, too queer.

    This still happens: anything vaguely subversive (including such things like rock music and indie press) is decried as a threat to national security, Bangladeshis are still being vilified, and just last year there was a State-sponsored musical portraying the LGBTQ community as dangerous deviants preying on innocent children.

    It took me moving overseas – first to Australia, then the US – to see myself represented ANYWHERE (media, activism, arts, whatever) as anything other than villany. Just last year I got to meet a group of progressive South Asians, including Bengalis, in San Francisco who empathized with my politics around gender, sexuality, and race – 29 years of waiting! There is still a dearth of complex and nuanced representation of people like me in the media, but I stand a far better chance of seeing this in the West then I ever will in Malaysia.

    (hell, that American Apparel ad with Maks and “Made in Bangladesh”? That’s one of the closest mainstream representations of someone like me – ethnicity, sexual expression, ambivalence about religion and identity – I’ve seen possibly EVER.)

    I say this because I’m wary of romanticizing media from “back home” without acknowledging the ways that it still upholds oppression. I’m glad you saw yourself there; I remain alienated.

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  2. I think the point about not over correcting to the point of oppressing ourselves with only one type of black beauty and representation is important

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  3. It’s true, a lot is being written about colourism, shadism and the general lack of diversity in the media, but I think far too much of it is failing to question the legitimacy of mainstream media in the first place. This is highly problematic and even divisive.

    So as someone who refuses to shackle my concept of beauty to the ankle of capitalism… I found this article brilliantly refreshing! Imo, it isn’t enough to simply have more non-white people on TV. As highlighted by the author, an increase in POC is no guarantee that we will receive positive representations of ethnic diversity in our mainstream media. In Britain, we arguably have more diversity on our screens than we’ve ever had, but what good will it do if these representations largely remain shaped by offensive stereotypes rooted in colonial history?

    This article is a very interesting read. Thanks!

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    • Exactly. Images work because they tell a story and when the story they tell is restricted to narrow stereotypes, having a surfeit of them won’t help much. What is needed is a larger range of images that tell a wider array of stories and thus offer a myriad of possibilities.

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  4. “‘control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination”

    Which is why only certain movies get Oscars and critical acclaim, ie. The Help, The Butler, Monster’s Ball, Training Day, Driving Ms. Daisy, The Blind Side, etc.

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  5. Thank you. I think many of us often forget how much ‘mainstream’ images matter to individuals. When we don’t see ourselves reflected in our shared imagination, we develop resistance strategies to survive, protect and in the best of cases, insert ourselves into the narrative. But this depends on the individuals, and it shouldn’t.

    About that ‘world of information,’ few of us realise how much of an illusion that is and how actively we have to get past invisible filter bubbles to access information. Am not sure how many of us are aware of it (and thus can resist).

    Thank you again for reading 🙂

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    • I agree that images are very important and have a real impact. I didn’t mean to suggest that media shouldn’t be held accountable for the images distributed. I was just sharing my experiences of not seeing myself and my friends represented in these images and how we’ve built a sense of self despite this. I was also responding in part to the last paragraph of your article, thinking of how do young women of colour today build a sense of self in the absence of representative images. I take your point that alternative information and images are not always easy to access, especially if you’re not sure what to look for. Thanks again.

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  6. This brings me back to every instance when my family seen Vodya Balan on the screen and go “She’s not skinny”. And we devolve into a “Can’t you rememeber this or that actress?” type of conversations. Great read.

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  7. Sunny, thanks for this article, there’s a lot here I agree with, especially in relation to the problematic desire for representation of people of colour in the western media that can lead to other exclusions. Like you, I was born in India, but migrated to Australia with my family in the early 1980s. I was around five when I left India, so never had a chance to develop a sense of self in my home culture and country. Growing up in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, as the country was still waking up to its changing/challenging demographic reality (with increased migration from Asia and other non-European parts of the world), I remember very few, if any, non-Europeans in the public eye and even less in the mainstream media. Although things are now better than in the 1980s and 1990s, progress in this area has been achingly slow and still far behind the very different reality of Australian society today.

    Many of my friends also migrated to Australia as young children. I think that most of us (now in our early to mid-30s) were aware enough that pop culture and media were never going to reflect us physically, culturally, intellectually, or our daily experiences (this is also true of the narrowing range of images of women in Indian media and pop culture that I would lap up on visits to India). I would say that the majority of my female friends have a strong sense of self despite mainstream media and pop culture generally failing to acknowledge women like us. I think this comes from the very reality that is ignored by mainstream media. We’ve grown up with friends from a wide range of backgrounds, many of whom also don’t find themselves represented in media and pop culture. We’ve learnt to be rightly cynical of mainstream media and pop culture, and in the same way it ignores us, we ignore it. It is of little value to us and is not something we can take seriously or believe has any importance. We treat it with the disrespect it deserves.

    This is not to say to we should abandon challenging mainstream media representations of people of colour, often just tokenism or stereotypes.

    I don’t know how much harder it is for girls and young women of colour today, as the internet and communications technologies have speeded up and intensified the flow of images, including (narrow?) representations of women and their bodies. At the same time, they have the opportunity to access a wider range of images from around the world. It’s not just images, but there is a world of information and learning at their fingertips. Perhaps focussing less on images and more on the greater world beyond our own lives is the key to building this sense of self.

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