Over the years women are gaslighted and have become insulated in not noticing how they are written about and portrayed by the media with the condescending male gaze. Women in power are mostly the subjects of patriarchy where they are viewed with a pair of binoculars pointed on the exterior of her personality and not what is going on in her head. News reports will often write about what a woman leader in position wore for an occasion and about the choice they made in dressing up, that in turn enhanced their beauty.
A recent photograph of the Biocon chief, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw meeting the President of India, Draupadi Murmu made for headlines in a leading financial daily. The article went on to describe the look of both the leaders. The article read “The biotech boss opted for a purple silk saree with gold & kalka; motif embroidery and peach pink zari border. She completed her look with a pearl necklace. On the other hand, President Murmu kept it simple in a sky blue saree with a zari border and a bright yellow blouse.” This makes us wonder, if a male in power would ever be noticed for what they wore for a meeting. The question that also arises is would the reporter notice and write what Ratan Tata wore as he met the PM of our country to discuss his business or the future of India.
The answer we all know is that, there would not be a single line on what colour he choose to wear, the accessories he matched or the type of dressing up or dressing down he did. This is the reality of the gender bias, expectations that women face regularly over the years and remain silent about it. The tables are turned only if a man in a power position shocks the onlookers by wearing a skirt to a meeting. Apart from that no one will ever discuss a man’s clothing choices or his looks. He can be unkempt and unshaven for all he cares.
Women in power, on the other hand are forced to choose clothing that will make her feel stronger among her male colleagues. Therefore women unknowingly start to embrace the skewed feminine notion of looking not too feminine and also not too masculine, to not intimidate her male colleagues and peers and all along also cleverly retaining her gender identity.
In the world of the entertainment business, the only popular Indian male actor, Ranveer Singh till date has had the courage to wear a skirt for a campaign. He was trolled, noticed and written about for becoming androgynous in his fashion sensibilities. He of course went further, to shed all his clothes for a photoshoot and pose for the cameras in the buff. We all know that Deepika Padukone won’t ever dare to do this. Also nor will she be spared if she tried this gimmick for publicity.
President Draupadi Murmu is the first tribal President of our country and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw is the icon of a woman leading a business empire without any family inheritance whatsoever.
They are self starters and are inspirational women. Both are beacons of hope to a society where women can lead their lives based on their examples of grit and success, in a male dominated world of politics and business.
Dressing to please oneself is one of the primary joys most human beings have. But inspite of this there is a lack of autonomy that women face as they choose clothing to express themselves. If one looks closer the judgement on women is the same tiring cliched ideas of how men perceive decency among women based on their clothing choices. Often men wish that the women would wear clothes that showed off their bodies.
In all this is also the idea of the perfect hourglass bodies that women must have and women in turn an are self-conscious about their bodies, to not be judged for not having the male gaze appropriate body. So they don’t want to show them off. Women in power also remain in fear of not being taken seriously or viewed frivolous or easy with the clothing she chooses.
In 2019, Lok Sabha, India had the highest-ever number of women leaders. However, at 78, women still made up only 14% of the total leadership. But the percentage in Rajya Sabha in 2020 also stood at around 10.2. Womens participation in political leadership is only increasing. So it is time to look at her achievements and not her choice of clothing or beauty.
For women till date it is damned if she looks beautiful, she runs the risk of being considered silly and irrelevant and she is also damned if she doesn’t look beautiful enough according to the society beauty standards. The slurs are galore.
Mohua Chinappa is an author and runs a podcast called The Mohua Show.