3 years


The Elixir Clinic

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write together as Kalpish Ratna. They are working on a biography of Garcia d’Orta
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In search of the perfect body

Eleven years into the new century, how lookist are we? The word lookism dates only to 1978. It legitimises an ancient prejudice: discrimination based on personal appearance. As long as it stayed decently in the closet, it was no more than an embarrassing human foible. It could even be passed off with panache as eccentricity. Once outed, lookism began its career as a crime. In its first decade, it was considered a definite delinquency. There were protests that ranged from the amused and politically correct to the gung-ho and rabid. Anybody who didn’t match the Barbie and Ken prototype had a justifiable chip on the shoulder, and flash it they did, every time they felt short-changed by life. But it could not last. There weren’t enough protesters. Too many people, everywhere, already had too much invested in becoming Barbie (and Ken, but that’s a story for later).

It followed that those who didn’t look like Barbie, and much worse, didn’t even want to try, were simply asking for trouble. By the turn of the millennium, lookism had become the norm.

Of course we expected all sorts of changes. The twentieth century had been way too anarchic. War was no longer glorious. Women demanded equal rights and occasionally got them too. Parents weren’t supposed to thrash their kids. Children had rights like other human beings. Torture and rape were recognised as punishable crimes. It got so bad, it almost reached the point where war, hunger and poverty were all considered crimes. Nations apologised to each other for the crimes of their fathers.

Naturally, all this guilt was bound to produce a whiplash.


Yeah, you could call it that. The immediate knee-jerk reaction was to round up the herd. No mavericks needed. To come in and get counted, you had to be an identifiable member of the herd. You had to look like the herd. Anything less was a crime. Lookism now was much more than norm. It had become fiat, fad and faith—all in one. Eleven years into the new millennium, lookism is on the brink of becoming biology.

In a country where 90 per cent of us are dark-skinned, all TV anchors are fair. In fact they’re all clones: white skin, straight hair, faces sculpted with maquillage into wide-eyed, high cheekboned, heart-shaped cookie-cutter exactitude.

Some pop psych guru sent out the message about thirty years ago that this was the blueprint for sex appeal, and the myth stuck. But now the diktat has gained in menace. ‘If you weren’t born looking like that, you better get that way’—is the message.

That isn’t difficult. Fliers were slid into the newspaper every morning to remind me that Diwali was round the corner, and if I hurried, I could get myself peeled, abraded, lasered, injected, lifted, pulled — all in time for crackers and mithai. What would Diwali be, without these multiple torments?

Time was when a bikini wax seemed the acme of SM, but that’s history. Intense Pulsed Light with a xenon flash is what you get now. It is focused, unisex, permanent and painful as hell. It leaves you bald and bumpy, and if it was that bikini you were after, contend with the R2D2 splay to your walk. For more routine jobs, like the morning shave, you can blast your face with a Nd-YAG laser.

Fair smooth hairless skin, taut over the blank forehead and knife-edge jawline. Razor-sharp nose with pinched nostrils, retroussé for women, patrician for men. Perfect Clara Bow lips, plumped to a Jolie pout for women. Men get the same blueprint, minus the pout. Eyebrows poised in permanent take-off, each hair carefully tutored in line. Eyelids starched and ironed. Apple cheeks that conform to the ideal facial skeleton: high cheekbones, jaw angled just right.

And that’s just the face.

So if that is not what you see in the mirror, how do you get it right?

I have an unfair advantage of knowing the techniques, so I’m not going that route. Let’s just take a look at the sell.

‘Enhance your self esteem’ is the sales pitch, and ‘look how easy it is.’ You can get this new face during your lunch hour. (With a face bloating like a balloon in the next few hours, where do you go after lunch?) It’s ‘practically painless, and you can use a numbing cream.’

Note how the words are insistently de-medicalised.

‘Local anaesthesia’ sounds too much like surgery. ‘Numbing cream’ is a delicious dumb-down.

Incisions are always tiny, needles are fine or hair-like, and bruises are brushed off as ‘spots.’ Bandages are always ‘protective.’ Every word for assault is carefully wadded in euphemism.

These advertisements appear in newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and fliers, signboards and websites. Only rarely is a plastic surgeon featured anywhere: s/he’s probably gagged and bound till the patient—sorry, client—is slathered with numbing cream.

How is this prototype of beauty achieved? Lines, wrinkles, creases can be ironed out with injections of botox, or fillers of hyaluronic acid or fat, which can also work for sunken cheeks and cavernous eyes. Cheek implants of silicone, rather like the actor’s cheek pad, can be slid into place through an incision in the lining of the mouth. With luck, within the week you’ll be looking like Sophia Loren.

Do you lack pugnacity? Do not despair. You can get a great chin sculpted out of collagen or fat. Or, have your jawbone pared down to Euclidean perfection.

Naturally the Michelangelo with the knife needn’t stop at the face. Triceps and biceps implants can turn a wimpy David into Goliath. Calves and the butt now have great options: implants and fat transfers. In the Brazilian butt lift, extracted fat is magicked into a firmer, rounder version of its unctuous self and somehow made to behave.

Of course, all this means a lot of surgery. It will involve more than your lunch break and a spritz of benumbing. But the faint of heart may still hope. For the truly dejected derriere there is a bum bra that can cantilever the crack. The abdomen can be ‘etched’—picked clean of fat, leaving the six-pack in public view.

Women, of course, can run the gamut from lift to implant to complete reconstruction of their breasts. Come the inevitable sag, they can then start all over again.

That’s right. None of it lasts the season. Fat reductions done at the last minute to fit into a designer dress will refill before that dress is worn a second time.

What makes it easy to sculpt your body? It isn’t cheap. It isn’t painless.

This is not about self-esteem as the sales pitch tells us. This is about idealising the body.

How old do you think this ideal image is?

Long legs, flat tummy, pert breasts, arrogant butt, taut calves, unlined face, 20 inch waistline—when did you last look like that?

At 16, awash with sex hormones, untouched by life? No, you had pimples then. Armpit hair. Eeek!

We’re looking at an ideal: smooth skin, clean limbs, not a hair in sight.

Twelve. Eleven. Ten. Yeah, ten is on the other side of the barbed wire of puberty.

Today’s ideal of beauty is the pre-adolescent body: smooth, hairless, unisex. To this add a pair of inflated breasts and it’s female. Pump up the muscles a tad more, and hello, it’s male.

And the truth is men and women of forty and more are required to conform to this prototype of nymph and ephebe. Or else.


Especially now, when the life expectancy nears a century of active life, why should we want to look ten years old for the rest of our lives

To answer that, we need to examine lookism as a symptom of a human crisis. Let’s face it, the human body is passé. We’ve slouched around in it for 2 million years, and the wear is beginning to show. It doesn’t look good anymore—it’s too slow, too weak, too crowded, and completely out of sync with life.

The body bespoke is here already: impeccably custom-made with tailored genes, snugfit inter-changeable organs and seamless casing. Efficiency incarnate, but haute couture. The breadline evolves by the clock of the long now, geological time. It will take a few millennia more for this new model to turn prêt-a-porter.

Meanwhile, all that’s in the mirror is a blur.

You don’t believe me? Take a look at what’s haute for Spring 2012, and tell me otherwise.

The enfant terrible of British fashion, Gareth Pugh swathes his models in wetlook black. No matter what the shape of her dress, each woman wears a hangman’s hood, a pointy black mask that completely obscures the face. There must be eye-slits—she can’t possibly walk the ramp blindfold on those gladiator stilts. All we see is a conical encasement of the head and neck. This complicated candle-snuffer is fitted with rigid shoulders like a coat hanger and ends in a plastic shield clamped over the breasts. Must be agony.

Another design seems to define the phrase ‘bat out of hell’—swirls of chiffon over a black carapace shiny like a beetle’s tough exoskeleton of chitin.

Alexander McQueen takes the idea of the hood even further. His models are hooded in a black and white fungoid knit that looks like creeping rot. The face is obscured, but through the mesh we get a glimpse of the model’s helpless glare. The dress itself is eroticised shrinkwrap, concupiscence tattooed in black lace. At first glance, the model doesn’t look human. She could be mistaken for a trans-species chimera, with reptilian markings. The wet sheen of the not-there fabrics suggests moist membranes—equally the cherishing tissues of birth, and the liquescence of putrefaction. Another McQueen creation is fuzzy caterpillar from the hip down, the sternum and midriff are plastered with what may be sequins, but resembles a particularly vile fungus. The breasts are provocatively sheathed in sheer black chiffon. And all this is crowned with the piebald hood that cancels identity.

What does the bizarre world of haute couture have to do with the human condition?


Haute couture isn’t about wearability. It’s both immediate and predictive, a comment on the body as a work of art, a comment on the times and their direction.

Both Gareth Pugh and Alexander McQueen are talking metamorphosis. The term, literally ‘other body,’ is weighed down with so much baggage that the biological process is overlooked. The commonest ones—jelly to frog, bristly larva to elegant butterfly—are transitions so dramatic they seem like instant evolution, aeons of change compressed into a few weeks.

But there are subtle metamorphoses too. Beside the butterfly’s operatic disclosure, these seem banal—until we connect them with the human condition.

Many insects exhibit incomplete metamorphosis: they skip the dingy pupation, and instead, produce nymphs—adult look-alikes that do everything but reproduce. Nymphs go through multiple ecdyses, and each change produces another nymph, called an instar.

Eventually, when they hit adulthood, the end is imminent. One fast fuck, and then—oblivion. The ancient Greeks, gluttons for poetic tragedy, named these insects ephemeron: just for the day.

The link between incomplete metamorphosis and the human condition may have passed unnoticed, were it not for the emergence of a pandemic: lookism.

Lookism is a multi-billion dollar industry. Half an hour of watching TV will tell you that. In that time you will be sold fairness creams that empower guys and gals, sunblocks of the strength you’ll only need on Mercury, rejuvenating creams and lotions, pills and potions.

At the end of it all you’ll be advised to OD on calcium and Vitamin D3 because all that sunblock has given you osteoporosis.

And what a great time this is to have your toes tailored with a Cinderella procedure for perfect toe cleavage. It’s a small matter of chopping off bits of your toes till you have the perfect declivity peeping out of your designer shoes.

Lookism is media driven only because it has infected human imagination. Haute couture is only one art form. The preferred voice in popular music is a shrill, breathy lisp, the brat voice. Pedro Almodóvar’s new film The Skin I Live In takes the idea of controlled creation to an extreme: a plastic surgeon keeps a nymph captive in his clinic, and reconstructs her body, inch by square inch, to match that of his dead wife.

True, the idea of the elixir is as old as human memory, but what was once human desire has now become overwhelming need. And half the species is willing to go any route to satisfy this insane compulsion.

Why are we so intent on changing into nymphs? Why are we caught up in this repeat transition from one instar to another, with the incomplete metamorphosis never achieving the reality of adulthood?

Insect nymphs keep moulting because they’re flush with a juvenile hormone that keeps them jejune until a cellular alarm rings and—Bang! Life is suddenly harsh and purposeful—and over.

We live in a perpetual elixir clinic for quite the same reason: to dodge a biological reality that we’re accelerating towards. Lookism might be no more than a symptom of a Malthusian pressure our species can no longer deny. We’re changing, we’re changing, and all our attempts to impose a sameness will not stop that change. What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem this time?

Bombay surgeons Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write together as Kalpish Ratna. Their novel, The Quarantine Papers, was published by HarperCollinsIndia in January 2010