January 25, 2021
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Body Watching

It might sound completely improbable to a foreigner, but the first time in my life that I looked at my body, as in really looked, was at the age of 35, when I visited Europe...

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Body Watching

It might sound completely improbable to a foreigner, but the first time in my life that I looked at my body, as in really looked, was at the age of 35, when I visited Europe. On reflection, I must concede, it sounds improbable even to me. Briefly, I am a journalist, I've trekked in the Sikkim Himalayas at 15,000 ft, gazed at the earth from a hot air balloon, and gadded about Europe alone. In short, I'm an outgoing sort, not reserved or radical conservative; just ordinary-nice, not wildly ugly or small poxy or ashamed of my body for any reason.

So it was quite odd that I should never have looked at it before. Looking back, I can trace some pretty underwhelming reasons for it. First of all, our house has never had a full-length mirror in which to gaze at the body. In the old house where I grew up, the only mirror we had was a cheap, hand-held mirror, which Amma used when placing her bindi on her forehead after her bath. And I remember monkeying around with it a couple of times, directing a shaft of sunlight into the eyes of a nasty boy in the next building, who started it fir. In our present home, my mirror is a small square above the bathroom washbasin. The family's only other mirror is a dressing table looking glass in my parent's bedroom, which I rarely visit. Anyway, it is full of stupid, wavy lines. My parents must have noticed this when they bought it 30 years ago, but I suppose it was never replace because no one in the family has ever taken mirrors seriously. That's why I've never seen my own body.

Besides, my dress sense is relatively conservative, covering most of my body. Minis and plunging necklines are mostly in the realm of what I call `boyfriend clothes' -- clothes best worn with a boyfriend attached: a single woman wearing them draws so much unpleasant attention from the men in the streets, it is simply not worth the bother.

What? Of course, I bathe every day. But when bathing, I look at my body only technically, if you know what I mean, never gaze at it. And, now, after relishing languorous bubble baths in Europe, it saddens me to think of all the years I saw my body only as an object to be scrubbed while bathing. What a waste of beauty and a source of wonder -- I wish I'd stolen more time with it.

But then for most Indians, baths have always been strictly functional affairs -- they are for the business of getting clean. You stand upright in a bathroom-cum-toilet, and use a bucket and mug to pour water over yourself. Only the upper crust use showers, and of those, only top crumbs use bathtubs. From the viewpoints of both aesthetics and pleasure, this upright bathing business engenders practical disadvantages on several counts. First, both the eyes and hands are too busy with stupid things like mugs and buckets and soaps, to linger and caress. Second, the vertical perspective of the human body is not necessarily flattering, unless you have a particular eye for beauty, in whichever form it comes. Third, it is not comfortable gazing at anything, as long as you are wet and standing. Fourth, nothing cuts shorts lingering, as sharing the same space as a commode bristlebrush.

So, one day, when I was travelling around Europe, I found myself in the flat of a friend in London, alone, cold and exhausted --  and discovered she had a bathtub. As I gingerly lowered myself into that invention for the first time in my life, I had a complete shock. This, despite being somewhat prepared to meet my body, since I had been taking flamenco lessons at the Marais in Paris. I had never been accosted by a reflection of my body in full-length, wall-to-wall mirror, until I had enrolled in the class.

Indian women, particularly those living in crowded cities such as Bombay, and especially those commuting in packed trains, have forward-stopping shoulders that close the body in on itself, contouring their defensive attitude towards the ogling and furtive pawing of men. (as a second line of defence, I always carry a huge bag, but that's digressing.) So I was deeply embarrassed when our flamenco teacher insisted that I dance with my spine erect, shoulders thrown back and chin in the air, as I stamped my feet to its rhythms. The posture meant thrusting my breasts and buttocks out, and it went against an entire lifetime of conditioning as an Indian woman. Nevertheless, I felt a tingle at the base of my spine as I danced. Once I got over my acute embarrassment, I found it exhilarating because I felt attractive and self-assured at the same time, qualities I had never acknowledged in myself.

And so, in the bathtub, I unfurled some more. Alone in the dead of winter, thousands of miles from home, I gazed at my nude body for the first time. It seemed so strange -- and rather idiotic -- that I should discover my body after three decades of living with it. I was as stunned by its unfamiliarity as its beauty. Merely changing my viewpoint from the vertical to the horizontal dramatically altered my perspective.

I lowered myself into the warm tub with a soft plop, and watched the waves travel to the far end of the tub and return to wash over my breasts. As the waves peaked and lapped and overlapped on the water's surface, they scribbled all over my body, as if with a light-tipped, aqueous marker. It was a fleeting underwater sign language, entailing busy toings and froings, urgent messages that scanned the length of my body, but lost their sense of mission the moment the water grew still. I only had to slosh my feet a bit for them to get all wired and chittering softly again.

The aromatic scents of the bubble bath soothed, even as the iridescent bubbles poppled about my ears. The idea of having a bath horizontally - a lounging bath - struck me as madly sybaritic. The buoyancy of a bathtub only heightens this sybaritic feeling, as against the hmm-get-on-with-your-bath gravity (in both senses) of a vertical bath.

Let me clarify again and without ado that I am not beautiful by conventional standards. Conventional beauty is dictated, corseted and liposuctioned to fit the statistics of greedy advertising copywriters, fashion countries and the beauty industrywallahs. I'm 5'3", tan-skinned, dark-haired, with small breasts, a slender waist and generous hips, not your clipboard Ingres goddess, but what was revealed to me was a joy to behold -- and I didn't care if I was in a minority of one.

What beautiful, sure, clean lines they were! I realised that there were almost no straight lines in the human body. Just curves of various degrees of gentleness -- circling, encompassing, rising, falling, duning, crinkling, a fluid smoothness that arched down shoulder, breast, stomach, thigh and calf.

And it was the first time I'd seen breasts up-close, apart from the movies and women breast-feeding their infants. My breasts were fair and rose so tenderly, they might well have been a teenager's. Except that, with the first touch of the water, my nipples contracted and grew business-like. In the large mirror across the tub, they looked like a pair of doleful squint-eyes, their 'astigmatism' rendering them all the more endearing. My waist nipped in sharply, but the curve of my hips was so generous, it embarrassed me to even notice it. What stirred me was the disproportionate, earthy appeal of my body, the sort you see in paintings by Renoir or Titian or Reubens, rather than the textbook symmetry of some porcelain princess.

Presently, as the water began to lose its warmth and popple, I drew my knees up and gave myself a lingering, rocking hug. I returned to India soon after, so it was the first and last time I ever saw my body.

(Meenakshi Shedde, Assistant Editor and Film Critic of The Times of India, Bombay, won the National Award for Best Film Critic of 1998. She has served on the juries of several international film festivals in India and Europe, including Cannes, Berlin, Oberhausen, Hannover and Mumbai. She has contributed to a book And Who Will Make the Chapatis? This is an extract from a travel book she is writing.)

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