Why can’t we do sexy?

I generally like rapper Sofia Ashraf’s work. I was impressed by her video on lead poisoning in Kodaikanal by Unilever. I watched her latest song  ‘Can’t Do Sexy’, and I must say that it was not something I expected out of such a conscientious artist. Almost everything that can and is wrong for a woman regarding her body is glorified in this rap.

Let’s talk about body image –
Taking the route to the cliched but oft repeated route to navigate the ideal image of the Indian woman’s body in India, we have to go back to Ravi Varma’s paintings. Those paintings canonised the body of the Indian woman as desirable and as the ideal in popular consciousness. Over the last 100 years, screen cultures, including cinema and advertising more than reinforced how the ideal Indian woman ought to look. Early Indian advertising had the memsahib as the protagonist and later the upper-caste and upper-class Indian housewife, who was of course fair. Without going into much details for this FB post, I just want to argue that screen cultures have always constructed who is desirable. For in the 2000s we had the ‘size zero’ fad because Kareena Kapoor decided that frolicking in this near anorexic state in a lime green bikini was the most desirable. So, in this video Ashraf declares gleefully that she can’t be sexy and uses tropes that go against women to drive home her point.

Here, she uses the same tropes that are applied to make women appear beautiful and desirable – long hair, make up, high heels etc. She goes on to rap that she cannot do or wear any of these and thus, she is ‘can’t do sexy’. Then at one point she raps that her LBD makes her appear as a waitress. Now, among the many problematic things in the video, I want to talk about these. What happens when you wear an LBD and you appear as a waitress? That is ‘unsexy’? This is one of the most classist arguments I have heard. Sophia just did a step better than stooping to write ‘domestic help’. What is wrong in appearing as a waitress? Or why associate LBD with a waitress? Waitresses are unsexy? This is such a racist and classist argument. I say racist, because I do know many young women from the North-East work in various business establishments across the country, including in the hospitality sector. They have to wear their uniforms which more often than not are LBDs. This makes them appear unsexy or sexy? What happened to dignity of labour? Can we not have the most liminal forms of respect accorded to women working in the most exploitative of capitalist systems where their labour is always almost underestimated and not properly compensated. To make your frivolous argument about how you are cool despite being ‘unsexy’ Sophia, you just said the most un-feminist and degrading of all comments related to a woman’s wage and labour.

Secondly, what has been bothering me for the last few months is the idea of a ‘bimbo’ and its association with high heels and make-up. This is an argument, rather a mental state that I have observed even in the most progressive of people that women who use make up or are fond of dressing up are unintellectual or dumb. This binary that Ashraf uses to delineate who is sexy and un-sexy verges on again being rather anti-women. Not everyone who wears make-up is sexy nor anyone who does not wear make-up is unsexy. The more I think over these tropes and binaries, the more affected I am over the ideas of control and diktats on a woman’s body. I am seriously done with arguments about models or those in the fashion industry being dumb. The blonde dumb jokes make me nauseous now. When we make judgments such as these over a woman’s choice what are we basically stating? Whither the woman’s agency? What will happen if there is a NASA scientist who loves her red lipstick as much as the ramp model? (And I sincerely hope that there is a scientist like her).

In the last few years, what I have also observed is the surge in positive body image representations and visuals/texts that urge the plus size woman is also beautiful. I fully endorse these campaigns, but nevertheless, there is always the reverse embedded in most of these campaigns. Inadvertently, there has been thin shaming couched in them. Anorexia and bulimia are serious mental disorders that can be fatal. Shaming of anyone over their choice of a body type is not what feminism is for me. Rather it ought to be addressing physical and mental health issues related to any sort of body type. I am someone who identifies herself as thin. But am I healthy? No. I have many health issues including arrhythmia of the heart, which needs a lot of care. So, I have started with a fitness regime to take care of my health issues more than anything. Again, can we say that all plus size people are healthy? Doesn’t obesity come with its own share of health risks?
No, the issue here is far beyond sexy and unsexy. We reduce serious issues to a certain frivolous realm when we neglect the not so obvious to the most obvious in terms of visuality. Ultimately, we just play to the gallery.

The personal is the political –
This post stems from some of the body image issues that I have personally been struggling with all my life and as a researcher on visual representations of the woman’s body. In more ways than one, I indeed identify with Sophia’s personality as shown in the video. I have had short hair for half my life. I am thin (as I mentioned earlier), I am a klutz too and I don’t really look good in spectacles which cover my deep dark circles. I have rebelled against prescribed norms of beauty and I literally shaved off my head in my video artwork Refuse/Resist as statement against long hair being beautiful. I have always struggled with my body image for being almost flat chested, for which I have also been humiliated in the past and I still struggle with these image issues.
But the more I work on these issues, the more I refuse to see the woman’s body as a battleground for binaries.

But this piece is not only about critiquing Sophia’s rap. What I did find worthy in the rap is Sophia addressing body hair in women, which is the elephant in the room. About 18 percent of Indian women are affected by PCOS or Polycistic Ovary Syndrome which leads to excess hair growth. It’s a deeply embarrassing and humiliating situation for most women. However, more than Sophia, it’s Harnam Kaur and her taking charge of her body is what’s inspirational. From being a bullied teenager for facial hair some years back, to gracing magazine covers with her beard, Kaur has given hope to many young women facing these issues. I too like 1 out 5 Indian women, suffer from PCOS, and its high time that we start talking about these issues.

What I tried to attempt here was to take Sophia Ashraf’s rap as a starting point to talk about all the points that I have mentioned here. We need to have healthy discussions over these issues rather than denigrate women over their choices. Would the unibrow still be sexy if Frida didn’t have it but rather the working class Dalit woman labouring in our villages and cities?

High time, we let women be.


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Shaheen Ahmed Written by:

PhD (Visual Studies) JNU, New Delhi

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