Not Just a Mannequin: An Excerpt

As glamour was being packaged and sold to Indian women by ingenious magazine editors and feminist groups were protesting the ‘integration of India into a highly exploitative international market’, something important was happening unnoticed. A new class of working women was being formed. Girls were coming from across social classes, plotting to be part of this new workforce that seemed to offer a shot at something big. They were scouring satellite TV, poring over glossies, to learn how to read the signposts to this highway of social mobility, sending off awkward photos of themselves in shiny jackets and pants in neighborhood photo studios to beauty pageant organizers. They were readying to plunge into this exciting new winning field where there seemed to be no English-speaking, passport-demanding guards at the gate preventing entry. And where women seemed to be on top. They were disappointed, of course. What seemed like a global, modern profession (which it was, in terms of the time period and context in which it came into prominence in the West) based on merit and impersonal, professional relationships turned out to be not free of conservatism. It was strongly influenced by existing Indian models of patronage and networks of personal alliances where transactions were made usually on the basis of friendships amongst class peers.

A seniority-based hierarchy existed behind the scenes rather than egalitarian relations or a system of ascendancy based on merit. A Sudanese woman from a war-torn village or a Vietnamese woman from a poverty-torn one could go from rags to riches in this field (as the international fashion world had seen), 42 but an Indian girl from a village or even a small town met subtle rules of inclusion and exclusion. An inherent bias seemed to prevail that privileged English, cultural capital, urban sensibilities, sophistication, and a minimal level of human development with regard to nutrition, education and infrastructure, and knowledge of ‘trade secrets’ – ways of disciplining the body, trickeries of maquillage, dieting footnotes and rules of self-presentation. Neither was it really a women-dominated industry. Merely because it comprised a disproportionate number of women as compared to men because of the gendered demands of fashion, advertising, and marketing, it didn’t translate into better status for women. In the larger hierarchy of the glamour industry, most models were seen as mute mannequins or designers’ muses, with the little creative potential of their own. ‘We don’t have a voice. That is known from the beginning. We are there to be looked at,’ Vinita had said to me grimly. You would think the economies of glamour would be organized, structured with well-built systems, but a closer look showed in its characteristics of the informal sector – unskilled, with a floating labor population, relative ease of entry, operating on informal transactions, with no minimum remuneration, a chain of third parties facilitating work between two parties and the absence of any institutionalized body to oversee or regulate matters arising from the conflict. Parts of the industry – the agencies to some extent – showed some semblance of structure but often operated in opaque ways. One thing though was true. It did offer social mobility in the new India that had not been possible for women before. Those who met some of its minimal qualifications, even with a shaky pedigree, could climb its rungs with a plan, with luck, by aligning with an international agency, and in some cases, by simply not giving up.

Being a model with some success and visibility meant a shot at stepping across class and caste boundaries. It meant that Pragati from working-class East Delhi and Tina from posh South Delhi, from two vastly different ends of the social spectrum, could share the same platform at their agency and have equal chances at something. (Ironically, Pragati has modeled for international magazines while Tina has done shoots for Indian language women’s magazines.) The girls were pushed to ‘grow up quick’, to transform from ugly ducklings to graceful swans, to perform not just gender but enact class and embody globalization. A model’s lifestyle after all often exemplifies it – endless travel, moving not just from city to city for shows but transitioning between compartments of the traditional and the modern in trips back to conservative hometowns, in a whirl of images, and in the eternal service of global capital. She embodies with her miraculous transformation how a nation too can transform. Get a ‘make-over’. Like Pragati or Shivani or Kavita can emerge swan-like with their newfound global knowledge, so can India. But the darker side was also true. It only applied to some kinds of people. What is the formula that puts some kinds of people on the upside of globalized India, and pushes others further and further into exclusion, rightlessness, invisibility? Like Mayuri, a school drop out from a village in Assam. While girls like Pragati (from a Hindi medium school in East Delhi), Kavita (convent educated from Agra), and Shivani (from a conservative household in Benaras) manage to create a niche in the industry, Mayuri’s obstacles were still too prohibitive. Besides the disadvantage of cultural and class distance, she was subject to another kind of viciousness in the industry: intolerance for those who are more than ordinarily disadvantaged with regard to English, modernity, and urbanity. Mayuri had caught onto this rejection, and therefore, hoped to bypass this class system, by aiming instead (like others before her) for the international modeling scenario – where those very qualities that brought condescension and derisive smirks in India (accent, being from a village, her ‘tribal’ looks), would be applauded as exotic. Who wins and who loses in this new India? Who decides?


In Mannequin: Women in the Glamour Industry, bridging the gap between fashion and feminism, NIF Fellow Manjima Bhattacharjya offers us a sweeping history of India’s beauty industry. Tracing the rise of the modeling and beauty industry from the 1960s to the present day, Bhattacharjya argues that modeling is work, and should be recognized. At the heart of the book lies a difficult question: should the industry be seen as objectifying women or as acknowledging their agency?

Manjima Bhattacharjya is a feminist researcher, writer, and activist.

Excerpted with permission from Zubaan Books. The book is available online at Amazon.

The New India Foundation