Body politics in the Indian Subcontinent: “The worse a woman feels, the better should she look”

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Manu says, “Do not marry a girl whose hair is pale, whose body is flawed, who is eternally ill, who has no body hair at all or has too much hair, who speaks too much, or whose eyes are brown. Discard her, who is named after the stars, the trees, the rivers, the barbarians, the mountains, the birds, the serpents, the slaves or has dreadful names, do not marry her.” (Sripantha, 1988, p.61)

Manusamhita was written in the 5th Century CE. However, the olden teachings of the verses and the subtextual connotation encoded in them remain heavily influential even in the Post-Vedic modern times in determining the worth of a woman from her body and appearances; it is still an ultimate guide for characterizing a woman in subcontinental society.

The Indian Subcontinent is a ginormous pot of a 5,000-year-old soup of religions, cultures, values, and ideas that is prepared by a multitude of unorganized cooks. The heterogenous mixture of Hinduism with Buddhism with Christianity with Islam with Sufism with Feudalism with Colonialism with Imperialism with romantic Socialism with a half-cooked Capitalism with a dash of Nationalism provides a weird and confused ‘lack of identity’ aftertaste in the mouth. People do not know whether they are Pakistanis first Muslims later, or Hindus first Indians later, or if they are both Bangladeshis or Muslims together, or if they are just Muslims or just Bangladeshis. And therefore, it is a no-brainer to see why the confused subcontinent faces good old Western ‘Madonna and Whore’ dichotomy regarding women and their bodies, treating them simultaneously as goddesses and slaves in its own oh-so-dilemmatic continental fashion even before the imported Victorian Ideas came into play.

The body of a subcontinental woman was never her own, is never her own. The woman’s body is an epitome of contradiction. Her body is ‘something’ that is precious and dirty, holy and evil at the same time and has always been a property of libidinal – and by libidinal, I mean societal, political, cultural and religious masters of the Universe, or maybe Multiverses. Her beauty is enjoyed and feared for its alluring and destructive power at the same time; her (re)generative power is ostensibly praised and worshiped yet the conflation and parturition processes are considered unholily ugly; her menstruation is absolute necessity in protecting the human race, while a menstruating unmarried woman is a threat to the social homeostasis; she is fetishized and sexually objectified; yet is the ultimate custodian of the patriarchal values created by organized religions and worshiped as a goddess of divine feminine archetype while being an eternal slave in all her past, present, future, possible and impossible lives.

It would be a rookie mistake if we consider organized religions as a separate identity from the surplus dependent economy. Indeed, religion(s), economy and politics were never individual bodies; they are constantly-fighting inseparable spouses (or should I say threesome partners?) who disharmoniously work together for a failed institution.

In ‘The Political Economy of Growth’ (1968), Paul Baran showed that by investigating which socio-economic classes received the surplus and the manner in which they were inclined towards it, the power creating and perpetuating impecuniousness could be measured. And it was never limited just to economic classes, (Kim et al., 2020; Lippit, 2016) as one can expect. The subjugation of women was and is related to economy, and organized religions were the ‘side-kicks’ of the economic power struggle. In ‘Sexual selection and religion: Can the evolution of religion be explained in terms of mating strategies?’ authors talked about the evolution of at least some of the components of religion in terms of sexual selection and, consequently, normative gender role. They showed how the primary religious idea was to take the environmental cues to influence the adoption of different sexual strategies (Van Slyke & Szocik, 2020).

Now one might naïvely ask, “why is that so?”

Because organized religions are ultimately the Human Resource Management System for economic institutions. Their biologically essentialist idea was- Since men are good at physical labor, let them go outside of home and earn food and, since women are good at pushing things out of their vaginas, let us make them stay at home to do that all year long.

Never mind the fact that women’s (and indeed, men’s) bodies are not so easily categorized.

And since women are pushing multiple things out of their bodies, it is crucial that they keep their bodies in shape. They also need to be beautiful all year long. They need to protect their vaginas at all cost. Because their vaginas and the produce of the vaginas belong to the masters who control the coins. And more production of vagina means more coins, and more coins mean more power. Easy layman equation that is.

From Manusamhita to Quran, Sanatana to Islam, if we look at the evolution of organized religions, we see that women are highly regarded as mothers. And no one is allowed to ask why. Why can she not just be a woman and respected as she is? Islam asks women to dress modestly, to cover up her ‘beauty.’ The antithesis of the slave-making is the process of making a woman into an object, into a burden, into something that is fragile, something that needs to be taken care of, something that is a ‘prey’ that needs to be veiled away from the ‘predator.’ In the above mentioned study, the authors stated, “religious veiling may serve as a mate-guarding function by restricting visual access to areas of the female body that males find more attractive and thus decreasing the male motivation to seek them out as extra-pair copulations” (Van Slyke & Szocik, 2020).  Indeed, the stripping off and covering up of a woman is all related to reproduction.

The authors continued, “Reproduction is often one of the primary interests of many religious traditions. Religions not only emphasize the importance of human reproduction but also offer many rules and values connected to all stages of human sexual and reproductive life—from the first stages of dating through the later years of a marriage relationship. This would seem to indicate the importance of evolutionary explanations of religion focused on the control and regulation of a human sexuality.”

And it is interesting to see that the idea of beauty always has a strong correlation with human sexuality and reproduction. Why did you think Manu recommended to not marry a girl who has too much or too less hair? Was it just a whim? Did he hate women with too much or too less hair, or was it just a personal preference? Why were voluptuous or curvy women highly appreciated in pre-world war era? Why was the idea of thin women hyped up during and after the industrial revolution? Why did the beauty standards become homogenized, and how was an ideal body created?

Let us see Tilottama, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s sixteen-year-old creation. He wrote this piece in 1865, during the early period of British Rule on the Indian Subcontinent.

“Although well-made, Tilottama’s limbs had not yet attained their full proportions; yet whether owing to her youth or to its natural make, not a tinge of corpulency was perceptible in her beautiful person. Yet all the members of her slender frame were well rounded and delicate—on the well-rounded wrist, the Marwari bracelet; on the well-rounded arm, the diamond-studded tar; on the well-rounded finger, the ring; on the well-rounded loins, the zone; over the well-rounded shoulders the golden chain; on the well-rounded neck the jeweled necklace;—the make of all the parts was exquisitely beautiful” (Chattopadhyay, 1865).

Well, one might say- there is nothing wrong in appreciating a woman’s (or in this case, a sixteen-year-old girl’s) beauty, because this was the norm back then! Hundreds of sixteen years olds were getting married to one much older man, because society and religion permitted polygamy for men, whose single key could unlock millions of locks to unleash heavenly pleasure on earth! And this is no artistic exaggeration; in 1871, 2,151 young girls were said to be married to 33 Kulin Brahmin men, (Sripantha, 1988, p.55).  Yet, the deeply ingrained issues of pedophilia and polygamy were only secondary (if at all commented on) to the primacy of judging feminine beauty.

If one has a critical mind to see the world, it will be obvious to understand how the standard of beauty or beauty in general was created in the poetic and artistic hands of males like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Vatsayana, Govinda Das, Kritibas, Kailas Chandra Basu, Kasi Ram Das and countless other male artists and authors from the ancient to modern times. The male concept of subcontinental beauty can be seen everywhere from Hindkush to Arakan Mountain to the Himalayas, from Mauryan Era to the contemporary times, in the Ramayana, in Mahabharata, in Vaishnav Pada Bali, in Kama-Sutra, in Krishna-Katha, in the colorful lithographs in Kansharipara, in Kalighata Pots, in the murals of Paharpur and Maynamati: the thin waisted blooming young girl is everywhere with well-endowed pointed breasts that are protruding from her rib cage, her skin flawlessly honey toned, her hair dark and curly, as she unlace herself in slow graceful transcendental erotica. There is a shyness in her eyes or maybe she is staring sightlessly into the darkness. She has a childlike timid face yet a bold voluptuous body, as she is innocent and playfully, erotically beautiful. Such is the universalized depiction of the attractive feminine.

Now let us enjoy a little cliché and ask a basic question for a starter.

What is beauty? And who is beautiful?

According to the prevalent societal ‘should and must’ codes and cultural definitions, Beauty- and by that, I mean, male-defined male-constructed ‘Ideal’- is an indicator of how fertile, healthy and secure a person can be. Nature is never symmetrical, nature is balanced, but not symmetrical. It is therefore very easy to see how the standard of human beauty is artificially created symmetrical in the hands of patriarchy, and therefore becomes inorganic, hence unscientific, hence unnatural; and since this inorganic unscientific unnatural symmetry allegedly indicated higher chances of producing healthier babies, taller girls with a broader pelvis and larger breasts became a symbol of fertility AKA a standard of beauty because they allegedly indicated easy child birth, low mortality, higher chances of surviving, while lighter toned skin indicated  proximity to colonial overseers who historically claimed to be of superior race. Darker skin tone, on the other hand, although demographically natural in the subcontinent, was ostracized and less valued, even in the Vedic Period. We see dark skinned goddesses worshiped in the temples while the ‘Rakhyash-Kokhyash’ named demons – who were actually natives to the land – were depicted in derogatory ways with dark skin in oral literary culture.

In the growing context of colonization and westernization (AKA globalization), and the consequent proliferation of sociocultural and media attitudes about the Ideal Beauty, it is clear how the subjectivity of beauty became categorically very objective, deformed the status of women, and shaped the structural change of their socio-economic predicament. Darker, shorter, thicker women were and are forced to feel guilt, forced to be subservient to ill-fate, forced to make themselves look artificially ‘pretty’, and forced to be charming, meritorious and talented in household chores to compensate for their ‘eternal flaws’. The acute misogynistic covetousness for younger tender flawless Bankim-Chattopadhya-ish ‘well-rounded’ flesh forced women to be limited within a psychologically and physically disturbing derogatory beauty regime. They were and are still forced to see themselves by the values that were and are created in the eyes of their potential ‘buyers’ or ‘consumers’.  In ‘The Struggle Between the Real and Ideal: Impact of Acute Media Exposure on Body Image of Young Indian Women’ authors wrote how the “ideal body images and objectification of women as is done in the mass media, puts women at risk for negative affect, body shame, body image disturbance, eating disorders, and depression” (Nagar & Virk, 2017). Indeed, the culturally constructed notion of beauty AKA Bourdieu’s ‘Cultural Capital’ in subcontinental setting was and is solely responsible for uncountable psychological damages, socio-economic oppression, class division and gender inequality in a nutshell (Pandian, 2020).

What hope then, in challenging such deeply embedded embodiments of beauty?

Does an anarchist individualist modernist yet somewhat anti-capitalist approach of parenthetical ‘I don’t give a flying F’ have the power not only to fight against the thousands of years old ‘Daddy’ institutions who have fetishized and sexually objectified certain kinds of beauty and ostracized the rest- but also to rewrite the definitions of it- if that is at all needed? Can this approach perform a ritual of purification to detox the S out of the system?

Can we just say, I am beautiful without your effing definition? Can we just say, I am what I am? Can we just say, I am fat and dark, thin and short, I have stretch marks on my thighs, I have pimples on my face, I have body hair and I am still Beautiful, because I AM?

Can we?




Chattopadhyay, B. C. (1865). Durgesa Nandini: Vol. Book 1/Chapter 7. Wikisource.

Kim, Y.-M., Kwon, H., & Kwon, H. (2020). Categorical Matching as an Organizational Condition for Gender Inequality in the Korean Labor Market. Sociological Perspectives, 63(1), 29–49.

Lippit, V. D. (2016). The Concept of the Surplus in Economic Development: Review of Radical Political Economics.

Nagar, I., & Virk, R. (2017). The Struggle Between the Real and Ideal: Impact of Acute Media Exposure on Body Image of Young Indian Women. SAGE Open, 7(1), 2158244017691327.

Pandian, L. V. K. (2020). Patriarchy and Beauty: The Power Over Indian Women. Journal of the Anthropological Survey of India, 69(1), 117–123.

Sripantha. (1988). Keyabat Meye (4th ed.). Ananda Publishers Private Limited, Calcutta-700009.

Van Slyke, J. A., & Szocik, K. (2020). Sexual selection and religion: Can the evolution of religion be explained in terms of mating strategies? Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 42(1), 123–141.


Image credit: Aanmona Priyadarshini



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