Wednesday, May 02, 2018

'Modelling is hard work, but it is stigmatized': Manjima Bhattacharjya on fashion and feminism

[Did a short piece for India Today about Manjima Bhattacharjya’s new book Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry. Here is my interview with the author, in Q&A form]

Intro: Mannequin
: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry is, among other things, an account of the emergence of the glamour industry in India, from Jeannie Naoroji’s “girls” in 1960s Bombay to the post-liberalization era when the influence of satellite TV, India’s wins at the Miss Universe and Miss World contests in 1994, and the advent of India Fashion Week opened new ways of looking at luxury and beauty. It examines the hierarchies within the profession and the prejudices of the Indian middle class towards those who are perceived as trying to “exceed their brief”. It is about young women, often from conservative families and small cities like Benares and Agra, making little strides for themselves. “For her, the anonymity and cosmopolitan freedom in a metro is non-negotiable, and she is willing to fight for it.”

The result is a book that is wide-ranging and personal even while it mostly maintains its focus on the challenges and prejudices facing women in the profession of modelling – “profession” being the key word because, as Bhattacharjya points out, this work sometimes isn’t viewed as work at all.


While the growth of the modelling industry (or the “glamour industry”) is your primary subject, you also use it to shed light on how the feminist movement – and its perceptions on objectification and agency – has changed over the decades. What was the starting point for this book? Did it come out of an innate interest in the beauty industry, or from your grappling with feminist issues?

Neither, actually. When I started my Ph.D (in the mid-2000s) I had no idea I was going to be studying women working in the glamour industry. The group hadn’t even registered on my radar as a possible area of serious study. All I knew was that I wanted to look at new areas of work that women, particularly young women, were being drawn into in post-globalization India.

At the time, for example, there were hordes of women across South Asia being employed in export processing zones and in garment factories. Tribal girls were migrating en masse to metro cities to work as live in domestic help in newly nuclear families. And there were also a remarkably high number of young girls wanting to be models and participants in beauty pageants – which is what I finally chose to explore in detail because it was so under-studied; in fact I couldn’t find any academic literature on it at all. 

Bringing the feminist movement into the picture and even putting myself into the narrative came much later, much more recently. (I’ve been working on this book for a while!)

As you point out, words like “sashay” (to describe walking down the ramp) seem geared to making modelling sound like a breeze – all fun, no real work – whereas the reality of a model’s life is very different. Tell us something about the challenges and difficulties they face.

Models do different kinds of work. There is the performative work, or physical and emotional labour involved in preparing for and performing at fashion shows and shoots. The networking, inculcating a commercially viable image, the enterprise or business part of it, which is also hard work. Then there is which bucket of “modelling” they do – ramp, TV advertising, magazine editorials. The nature of work in all these is different. And then there’s the body work or “aesthetic labour” – like many in the service industry, the work involved in having to look a certain way. And that’s a lot of work! It’s not just vanity, it is their bread and butter, the source of their livelihood.

Challenges include working odd hours, long hours, having to look as fresh as a daisy and maintain poise and smile even when they are bone-tired after a 12-hour shoot, all kinds of (sometimes harmful) products being used on their hair, body, face, doing things that might endanger them for the right shot. And the cherry on top: not getting paid on time or at all or only in part for the work rendered. And often there’s nothing they can do about it because they didn’t have a written contract. But I’d say what irks many of them most is the suggestion that what they do is not really “work”.

You mention how models are often treated as dolls or puppets, or as canvases for designers: hair pulled carelessly, sequins stuck on them with glue etc. Given the inherent nature of the fashion industry, are there any practical ways of improving the treatment of models?

I think what’s important is to acknowledge that everyone has a role to play and should be treated with compassion and respect, beyond the right as workers to be paid fairly, on time, work in decent conditions without exploitation and abuse. Practical ways might be to have written contracts, payments processed on time, more transparency in dealings, more egalitarian work cultures, a regulatory body that can respond to cases of sexual harassment.

Why has the organizing of unions for models’ rights not really worked?

Well, there have been experiments in the past to unionize models. In Russia, for example, in the late 1990s. In India too, the last big attempt was around 2003, when a group of models tried to set up “Models United”, and I’ve documented that interesting moment in the book because not many people actually know about it. The effort fell apart for various reasons – mostly, lack of solidarity amongst the models because of the insecure nature of modelling. Ultimately the models who had joined the union could not stay united, because some were scared of losing the patronage of powerful choreographers and designers if they stuck to the charter of demands made by the union.

As you put it near the end of the book, an important factor in defining empowerment is respectability. How, as a society, does one sensitize people towards modelling as a profession that deserves to be taken seriously?

I think it’s not just about modelling. The absence of dignity in labour is a long-standing issue in the country. And there are two additional problems when it comes to women: often, gender-based work (or things considered "women's work" traditionally) is not really valued as “work” at all – especially things like domestic work, or home-based work, child care and so on. Secondly, when it comes to labour that is linked to “performing sexuality” or where part of their occupation is presenting themselves publicly in a desirable or sexy way, it is devalued even more and stigmatized. Because all interactions are filtered through a moral and judgmental lens, and they are easily “othered”.

Many models face harassment or find people cross all kinds of boundaries because of their assumptions around what “models are like”. These assumptions – that they are “available”, not “good women” or not worthy of respect - become justifications for misbehaviour. (I remember one of the first articles I wrote - that I was paid for and made me feel like a real writer - was on this. It was called "Why the bikini is badnaam")

So the first step is probably to open up the space to talk about models as people, with interesting lives and struggles and dreams and hopes. And rights!

What do you see as the primary differences between the Indian modelling industry of the 70s/80s and the post-liberalisation world?

I’d say size is the biggest difference. Volume of work was completely different. I mean all we had in the 70s and 80s was Doordarshan, and Femina/ Women’s Era kind of magazines. There was limited work, and there were a handful of models. There was no fashion designer – the local darzi was the designer. All this changed with the setting up of NIFT, and the emergence of fashion design as a vocation in the 1990s. With satellite TV, and the opening up of trade restrictions, there was lots more to advertise, and more platforms for advertising to happen. Fashion magazines like Elle India also began in the late 1990s. The modelling industry sort of boomed from the late-1990s onward, and became diversified.

More generally, what are the main differences between the modelling industry in India vs in First World countries?

I think this has been changing. When I did my research, most women who’d modelled abroad would say it was more professional, better paid, more respectable, safer, but also involved much harder work to get gigs, and a lonely life. The girls who are modelling in the First World countries (and China) also start very, very young, much earlier than in India. In India it was more about being networked with the right people, and winning local titles to open up career paths. 

With the entry of international modelling agencies, some of these differences might have reduced. But I recently read an expose by a Venezuelan model named Anyelika Perez, which outlined all kinds of sexual, financial and emotional abuse she had faced at a young model (she started modelling at 15). And I wondered if there really was much difference in reality between the two. In both places, models seem to be silent and unheard, without much access to redress.

Perhaps one difference might be that some models in the West have managed to use social media to really speak out, or have a voice and put out their opinions on various things. Less so in India.

What about the hierarchies within the modelling world? Is it more difficult for models from small-town backgrounds, who don’t speak English well, to fit into this world?

It depends. Certainly, when I did my research, the industry did seem to exclude those who were disadvantaged by language or “class”. But some were able to overcome these obstacles by joining grooming classes, or finding the right networks, or joining international modelling agencies. Some weren’t.

From what I could see, senior models, or more prominent models were more powerful and able to command their dues. Younger and newer entrants were more vulnerable to exploitation.

I thought you covered a lot of fascinating ground in the “Short History of Objectification” chapter – particularly about how feminists and liberals should be careful not to mimic the behaviour of conservative groups who are always trying to ban things that discomfit them. And how some feminists of an earlier time may themselves have “objectified” women whom they saw as oppressed or exploited, by treating them only as voiceless victims.
How did your encounters with people in the modelling industry change your preconceptions and attitudes?

Listening to people tell their stories from their standpoints is a very powerful thing. And in the chapter you talk about, I think many of the older feminists are saying that: we should have listened to the girls' points of views. Just listening to the girls’ journeys, the kinds of struggles they’d faced to move to the city, the small victories, negotiating to not be married off, to work just a few years, step by step expanding their boundaries - made me appreciate their courage and ambition. 

It’s certainly not easy in our country for a girl to move from a small town to become a model. It sounds simple, but there are so many levels of negotiations and transgressions and hoops to cross, hurdles to jump over. Over time, I began to admire how these girls were able to make lives for themselves, create something independently when no opportunities really existed.

But I didn’t actually realize how these interviews were influencing me until much later. I started reflecting on this change only when I put myself in the book.


  1. Well the fact is objectification is a problem.

    Just because conservatives oppose it doesn't make it OK. Conservatives oppose it for good reasons, as it demeans women. Period. Several feminists concur with the conservative stand on this, but they don't want to sound as though they agree with the conservatives. After all, the liberal consensus is that "conservative" is a bad word. This results in a very very confused climate of opinion, where you have a section of hardened libertarians who have no qualms with objectification, and a much much larger group comprising of an odd mixture of both conservatives and liberals who both dislike objectification, but can't seem to join hands.

    Modeling is objectification. Period. I don't understand why we are mealy mouthed about it. And there is a puritanical streak in all of us (at some level) which opposes objectification.

    Does that mean modeling should be banned? No. I don't approve of cigarettes either. That doesn't mean cigarettes should be banned. Not everything undesirable in society deserves a ban. But just because something is legal doesn't mean it is desirable. There is no moral equivalence for instance between a lingerie model and a nuclear scientist.

    I defend people's right to be models. I defend people's right to smoke. I defend people's right to get drunk. That doesn't mean society should approve of it.

  2. "And how some feminists of an earlier time may themselves have “objectified” women whom they saw as oppressed or exploited, by treating them only as voiceless victims."
    "I think many of the older feminists are saying that: we should have listened to the girls' points of views."
    I don't see how understanding that women in the modeling industry can be victimized is the opposite of listening to their stories and treating them as people. Individuals trying to make the best of their situation (and working hard at it) is admirable. The conditions they have to put up with can still be opposed, no? I have nothing but respect for women who are "able to make lives for themselves, create something independently when no opportunities really existed." At the same time, I believe that the modeling industry by and large promotes objectification. Is this considered a controversial statement: throughout history, women have been expected to be beautiful and feminine? The requirements for "beauty" at any given time have involved practices that were at best, time-consuming and exhausting and at worst, dangerous in the long term. The particular practices have changed but they haven't become more benign: the ideal schoolboy-thin body type for models, high heels, body hair removal etc. Also, many times objectification is literally visible, like print ads that don't contain an entire woman. The face is cut out of the image while her body parts sell clothes, watches, what have you (see:

    I also agree with the commenter above on the 'be careful not to mimic conservatives' part. As a radical feminist, I would find a lot to disagree on with certain conservatives. I also find that on many issues, my interests align with some conservative quarters. The world is not divided into "good" people and conservatives. I appreciate the usefulness of political labels as shorthand but surely there is room for a more nuanced discussion?