Tag Archives: body language

The Venus Flytrap: Beauty & Outer Beauty

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One of the truest signs I know of a person being untrustworthy is if, after being introduced to someone who they are aware has caused you or another immense pain, they comment on their perceived physical attractiveness. It does not speak well of someone’s character if everything they know about a person and what they have done can fly out of their hearts and heads because their presence so easily dazes them. How can they see anything else, being aware of their nature? What follows for me is that sinking feeling: like has spoken to like, and I’d witnessed a warning.

What are you wired to see first: inner beauty or its lack, or the façade? Even when meeting someone new, you can re-wire yourself so that aura, body language, and above all else the subtle changes in your own energy and emotion are the lenses through which you see. Both an open heart and bitter experience are great co-teachers. But we must keep getting refresher courses in things like this. They don’t call being deeply perceptive as having “second sight” for no reason.

Before you trust a person, do you check that you can trust your instincts? Two friends of mine recently encountered someone I have been fortunate not to have to engage with directly yet, but whose manipulations are well-known to everyone but the person they are with. One was simply unable to extend a handshake even out of habit, no matter how awkward it looked. The other found herself unable to make eye contact with that person, despite their wide grin and eager expression. Politeness and courtesy are the next level of honing that instinct – when you’re able to match façade with façade without absorbing or being influenced by toxicity. Save the winter wonderland approach for the ones who know what they did to you; offer the cordialities to the ones who don’t know that you know what they did to others.

Even the strong allure of initial sexual attraction can be upended when one’s antenna is working. I recently hung out with someone whose good looks had left me slack-jawed on our first meeting. In the interim, however, I’d learned over personal messages and social media that his political beliefs – i.e. an extension of his conscience and values – were highly suspect. I stared at him across the table and wondered why I found him so very lacklustre-looking all of a sudden when I’d gawked over his calf eyelashes and brawny shoulders earlier. I was thankful to have seen past all that prettiness to the actual person, quickly.

But what is inner beauty, anyway? A bit of a misnomer, I think. Why isn’t it “beauty” and “outer beauty” instead? Imagine a value system that isn’t based on one (the inner) being the flip side, or the redeemer of, the other (the outer). So beauty then is judged on who one is, based on what they do, their effect on other people, what connecting with them feels like, and what looking into (or not being able to look into!) their eyes reveals. When you look at someone, do you see the whole picture?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 25th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Smile Or Snarl

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The photoshoot had a brief I’d never encountered before: Don’t Smile. Instead: look angry, displeased or exasperated. I was to look, in short, like the difficult woman society thinks I am. The task should have been easy. But standing there in my pretty make-up and my prettier fabrics, hoping the sun would neither make me sweaty nor wash my dark skin out on camera, I hesitated. Forget looking intimidating or pissed off. I was just going to look worried. Worried that I wouldn’t look good trying to fulfil a rather wonderful opportunity, that is: to defy the expectation that women should smile more. Smile always. Smile through everything.

The gendered regulation of smiling came up often during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, when she was first criticised for not appearing cheerful enough, then for “smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party”. Russian President Putin said this in his International Women’s Day speech last week: “We will do our outmost [sic] to surround the women we love with care and attention, so that they can smile more often.” His speech did not mention how the Russian parliament recently voted 380-3 to decriminalise domestic violence that does not result in injury. Or how a newspaper responded to this decision by telling women to be proud of their bruises.

I’ve been told that my face at rest is a sad one, but most women are told they look angry. Hence the phenomenon of “resting bitch face” (RBF), which became a buzzword a few years ago. A woman can be thinking deeply, waiting, being stoic rather than emoting, listening intently – doing anything but smiling, basically – and she has RBF. All because she is doing something other than transmitting signals of acquiescence, agreement or availability through a smile.

Here, I must interpolate a cultural issue. Certain places are known for the friendliness of locals (unsurprisingly, tourism tends to be major economic source in these places). I grew up in two such places, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, where it is true that people generally smile more, to strangers and known people alike – at least, as compared to Chennai. This remains a source of lasting culture shock to me, and I clock it as one of the ways in which I misunderstand others, and in which I am also misunderstood. This may be why I couldn’t really fulfil the photoshoot’s requirements, to be the Nasty Woman (thanks, Trump) I am. I don’t personally get told to Smile More. Instead, the fact that I smile frequently – habitually, and through conditioning – is seen, not unlike what happened to Clinton, as being condescending or cunning – at best, coy. And often, sexually available.

But once, browsing transfixed in a bookstore, I didn’t pay heed to a man who seemed to always be hovering nearby, muttering under his breath. The moment he managed to grab my attention, I automatically smiled at him, unaware I was being harassed. He looked utterly taken back, and fled. It’s funny, isn’t it, what people will find scary in a woman? A snarl or a smile, it’s all the same to someone who seeks only to control a woman’s reaction – and fails.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The #BossBitch With Sweaty Palms

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I spent the weekend at a literary festival where I found myself skirting away from a certain famous author every time I encountered her. We smiled at each other courteously, she probably acknowledging that I was also wearing a Speaker tag, and me because I had no idea what to say to her. But I wasn’t starstruck. In fact, the situation was quite odd: since the age of 14, I had read nearly all her books. Except I’d never quite liked them. To go up to her for a selfie and a handshake felt hypocritical to me, and I reflected on these mixed feelings. Surely her books had taught or given me something? The problem: there was no way I could say what that was without seeming trite, artificial or downright rude.

So I smiled and kept walking each time I saw her, unable to acknowledge the many hours I had spent on her work. She must have found me haughty. The truth was more nuanced, and I had spared her the explanation.

n inverse of sorts also happened. I was among the audience at one session when a male author said something so offensively sexist that before my mind could react, my body did. I stood up and walked out without a thought – but not without a tweet (which didn’t name him) immediately after. Imagine the awkwardness the following day when a case of mistaken identity put me face to face with that author. I introduced myself, and he responded with, “I’m X, the one you don’t like.” Politeness kicked in, and “Sorry” was the first word that flew out of my mouth. And then I regained clarity. “Actually,” I said frankly. “Not sorry at all.”

Back in the authors’ lounge, I regaled my friends with the incident. “Looks like they put you on the right panel!” said someone, good-humouredly. She was referring to an all-woman session called Bitch Please.

These encounters and thoughts on open statements, private musings and the nuances in between all culminated for me at that panel, which was about being a woman in the public sphere. I balked a little, because it’s my words that I see in the world, not myself.  But later, looking at photos from all my sessions, I was surprised by my body language: straight back, crossed legs, direct gaze. Hashtag #bossbitch. If I didn’t know myself, I would have thought I was radiating power. My tension is invisible, even at the session where bright lights, noise and a migraine were making me so uncomfortable that my palms were literally sweating. I suspect many authors guzzle water onstage thanks to hangovers, but I do it as a nervous reflex. I wasn’t lying when I said in one panel that I am deeply shy and anxious. But I have to concede: to an observer, it probably looks like I am. Lying, that is.

Our interior selves react to other people’s public appearances. But it’s our public selves that respond openly to one another. Much falls between the cracks. Which has more integrity: getting the two to align more consistently, or admitting that they just don’t?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.