Does the Media Shape the Woman’s Body?


Shoma A. Chatterji

The advertising media, as seen in print, online, and on television, has been overtly and covertly instilling in women across the world, the concept of a beautiful body that cancels out everything to do with a high body weight, in other words, obesity. Obese women are thus made to feel guilty about their bodies even if the obesity is due to severe genetic or sometimes incurable medical conditions. In Indian cinema, actresses such as Tun Tun and Manorama, good actresses both, were trapped in the stereotypical “comic actress” solely because they were fat. The fact that Tun Tun was a talented vocalist remained unknown to most of her fans. Manorama was confined to the comic female shrew. Ashok Kumar’s daughter Preeti Ganguli too was fat, and her fatness led her to do comic roles that often referred to her weight. But Preeti was beautiful and skittled down her weight to bag better roles in films. By the time she re-appeared on a magazine cover in her new avatar—beautiful, tall and slim—there were no roles for her, and she retired into obscurity. Guddi Maruti, daughter of comedian Maruti of yesteryears, is also picked for roles almost solely for a weight that evokes laughter among the audience.
So, the concept of fat being equated with the ugly and the comic and in general, not high on visual attractiveness or sensual pull, has been conditioning female minds to feel guilty if they are fat, and proud if they are slim and svelte. This creates a powerful element of discrimination between women who are fat and women who are slim. Fat women offer entertainment of a very different kind which is not in good taste. It also keeps these women from trying to slim down even if they wish to. So, the media has successfully dictated to these women what their body weight should be. So, they cannot strive for diversity in roles within their career as actresses.
One look at the rich commercials flashing across your television screens sandwiched between hot debates on the future of the general elections shows svelte, slim, sophisticated beauties in different degrees of skin show. Fat models would not offer the visual pull to viewers like the slim models do. The print media and online websites are no less. Despite the thigh and cleavage shows, slim has always been in and fat has been out. Gyms, health clubs, and spas in urban metros and small towns are laughing all the way to the bank as not-so-slim girls and women breathe heavily on treadmills or bicycles every morning or jog around the nearest jogging park.
Amy R. Malkin examined and analysed the covers of 21 popular women’s and men’s magazines1.  These magazines were divided according to the gender of readers. Each cover was reviewed using a checklist designed to analyse visual images and text as well as the placement of each on the covers. The analysis revealed that 78 per cent of the covers of the women’s magazines contained a message referring to bodily appearance but none of the covers of men’s magazines did the same; 25 per cent of the women’s magazine covers contained conflicting images about weight loss and dietary habits. What is worse, the positioning of weight-related messages on the covers often suggested that losing weight could lead to a better life.
While the editorial content in men’s magazines focused on entertainment, knowledge, hobbies, and activities, the focus of women’s magazines was on changing of appearance that should be attractive. Wolf2, Faludi3 and Freedman4 have repeatedly reported on the significant role that the media play in the construction of the “beauty ideal” that society holds up to women. Women readers who subscribe to these magazines, of which some are fiercely loyal readers, begin to cultivate feelings of inadequacy if their bodies fail to live up to the suggestions the magazine articles contain, or to the faces and figures the magazines are filled with apart from the cover images. Over a period, constant repetition of these messages through editorial content brings in a different mindset among women readers who feel both inadequate as women and guilty because they are not slim. “Feelings of inadequacy,” writes Adler, “are also likely to be fed by cosmetic manufacturers and weight management programs whose ad campaigns focus on convincing women that they can ameliorate their bodily flaws and imperfections only by purchasing their products or taking part in their programs.”
In contemporary Indian television, one of the biggest show-stealers, who keeps couch potatoes glued to their couches, is Amritsar’s Bharti Singh. She managed to take full advantage of her obesity to make a prime-time debut in The Great Indian Laughter Challenge One in 2008. Bharti Singh’s creation “Lalli” is an overweight toddler from Amritsar where she enacts herself and was a household name in Punjab much before she reached the Mumbai studios.
In their well-researched piece, “What Makes India’s Women Comedians Tick?” (Mint, 6 July 2013) Sanjukta Sharma and Charpreet Khurana write, “Her fat girl is an unapologetically grotesque spectacle. Singh sees no conventionally redemptive future for Lalli. Like Tun Tun, she is the brain-dead, undesirable girl. But unlike Tun Tun or Manorama or any female Hindi film comic, Lalli’s humour is a statement as much about the overweight girl as it is about those who make fun of overweight people. ‘Everything boils down to one thing,’ says Singh. ‘If you are comfortable in your skin and you think you can laugh at yourself, you wouldn’t feel any hitch doing the same in front of audiences.’ She gets invited to host award shows, to private parties, small towns across India and even to the income tax department’s annual get-togethers.” But the fact remains that because she is fat, she is both an object of laughter with her body as agency and the subject of evoking laughter, but putting that fatness to fatten her fame and her bank balance. This makes no dent in the average woman’s conception about a beautiful body equated with being slim and definitely not obese. If Bharti Singh is taking full advantage of her obese condition and laughing all the way to the bank, it means that she has coped with her body size, but it does not mean that she has broken the social conditioning of the taboo against overweight women. Besides, television and public audiences will offer just that one vacant space to one Bharti Singh. Will it provide equal space to other overweight women across the board?
Fat women working as corporate honchos or doing well otherwise in their careers, find it extremely difficult to find the right match for an arranged marriage. In love marriages, size might not count much, but even in these cases, you find more fat men marrying slim women than the other way round. In many cases, where jobs are not linked to the weight of the female candidate, they cannot cross the first interview because they are fat. Going back to Adler’s study as a frame of reference, messages in women’s magazines, such as “Get the Body You Want” placed next to “How to Get Your Husband to Really Listen” and “Lose 10 Pounds” next to “Ways to make your Life Easier, Happier and Better” give women the false idea that changing the appearance of their bodies will lead to better relationships, stronger friendships, and happier lives.
The findings of the study suggest that women are not only being told that they should focus on obtaining an impossible body shape through dieting and exercising, but they are also being told that they should be able to do so while eating, or at least preparing for others, foods that are high in fat content. These fattening foods, obviously not typical diet foods, may make women think that it is even more impossible for them to obtain the thin ideal that is being presented to them or the ideal life that goes with it. The consequences of striving for these unrealistic ideals may be that an increasing number of women take aggressive means to control and reduce their weight.