Tag Archives: body

Belly Beautiful

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From Kindle Magazine‘s March 2013 issue on reclaiming the female body.

A coquettish Maria de Medeiros, playing the moll in Pulp Fiction, lounges in bed, practically purring with a self-assured lazy sensuality. Sleepily, she fantasises about having a potbelly, how she would accentuate it with small tee shirts and how very sexy one is (but only, and she is vehement – and here I must respectfully disagree – on women). She praises the potbelly, while conceding its unfair reputation: “I don’t give a damn what men find attractive. It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.”

Who knows when the rounded belly began to be regarded as anything less glorious than the other womanly curves. The classical poets adored it; the sculptors chiseled its softness into stone. Among the customary markers of beauty were the three folds on the stomach – lines which inspired lines in religious and erotic literature. The paragon waist was tiny in comparison to the generousness of the breasts and hips, but the tummy itself ample of its own accord.  The Lalita Sahasranamam, for example, extols not only the contours of such a stomach (Sthana bhara dalan madhya patta bhandha valithraya – “she who has three stripes in her belly which appear to have been created to protect her tiny waist from her heavy breasts”), but even the down that grows upon it (Lakshya roma latha dharatha samunneya madhayama – “she who is suspected to have a waist because of the creeper-like hairs rising from there”).

There are beautiful names, too, for this hair of the stomach, which runs from pubis to navel, and sometimes from navel to solar plexus: take the Sanskrit romaraji, and the Latin linea nigra.

How intriguing that such loveliness is ascribed in language for things which, in the pursuit or only the perception of fitness or hygiene, so many shun.

Only some women have the linea nigra naturally – but almost all women develop it during pregnancy, when the protuberant belly is celebrated perhaps most of all. Baby bumps contain miracles: among all the numinous places in the body, the abdomen announces most evidently of all that there is no meaningful distinction between science and mystery.

And as a reminder of this, we have that lovely vestigial mark: the navel.

The navel is our original point of connection to anyone else. Within the lovely convex bellies of our mothers, the conduit of the umbilicus does its work, nourishing and expelling and making us whole. Our belly-buttons are almost our first mouths, allowing us to communicate and to feed.

And also like mouths, later on, how kissable they become. Prudence Glynn, who researched eroticism and fashion, wrote that the waist is the first place that a man would touch on a woman when seeking to insinuate “more than a formal courtesy”. If the waist is a suggestion, the navel is sheer invitation. Widely regarded as one of the standard erogenous zones, and said to originate from the same common tissue as the genitalia, its exposure is considered taboo in many cultures – sometimes surprisingly so. The belly-button was considered so provocative for most of the 20th century in America that there was an actual law banning its display on cinema. There is a scene in Some Like It Hot in which Marilyn Monroe wears a dress that leaves very little to the imagination – despite this, a small piece of cloth was used to cover her navel specifically. In other films, costume designers glued decorative stones into or onto the navels of actors and dancers – perhaps the first spark of the later trend for the bejeweled belly-button.

Here in India, the partially (as when wearing a sari) or completely (as when wearing certain regional ghagra cholis) bared midriff has rarely caused ruffles, provided it is displayed in traditional attire. The female navel, however, has had its moments of both subtlety and scandal. In that odd way in which Indian cinema is a vehicle of both exploitation and expression, navel-kissing was permissive on celluloid at a time when lip-kissing was not (censorship laws later changed). One thing’s for sure: the navel is seen as sexual in ways in which the tummy, the obliques and even the waist aren’t quite.

It’s also spiritual. In Amerindian shamanism, below the navel is where energetic cords that bind us to other people, particularly lovers, emerge. In yoga and other systems of mind-body harmony, it is a particularly powerful point. To “navel-gaze” is to ponder, perhaps philosophically – not for nothing did St. Thomas Aquinas call the navel “the bodily metaphor for spiritual things”.

The stomach, on the whole, is is also regarded as the site of intuition – “I have a gut feeling”, we say – or profound emotion – “When he said that, I burned from the bottom of my belly”.

The stomach is also happily practical, of course. A full breath, one that will replenish the entire system, reaches all the way down to the stomach and puffs it up. When it comes to food, taste resides in the mouth, but hunger – desire – is felt in the belly. An aching belly, groaning and beset by pangs. Eating keeps us alive – not the act itself, as pleasurable as it is, but the process of nourishing, work that takes places deep within the body and out of sight.

And how lovely is the thing in sight. Earlier, we considered how traditionally, folds of flesh, “lines”, on the stomach were markers of beauty. Equally eloquent are all the other lines and marks that also occur here. There are, for instance, the stretch marks of growth and weight loss, and the scars of Caesarean sections and appendix operations and botched piercings. Like the palms or the face, the belly is also a canvas of skin, on which stories from our lives present themselves – stories of feast and famine, stories of self-denial and self-sacrifice, stories of birthing and wrenching, stories of coveting and covering-up. Of pain and pleasure and truth and beauty and creation and craving and a hundred other things that go far beyond the objectified view.

The Venus Flytrap: Healing, Subtle As A Scar

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Without going into details, I was attacked last week and left with gashes on my chest which required medical attention and an injection. They were inflicted on me at the beginning of a nightmarish evening, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at the damage for myself until the next day. What happened then surprised even me.

Streaked across my decolletage, above my heart, were three bright, stinging maroon gashes. The deepest and longest rose from near my armpit like a wave unfurling in a torrent of movement. The one beside it looped in a small knot somewhere at the start of its trajectory. The last was shortest and extended almost directly under my suprasternal notch, that evocative hollow at the base of the throat. They were unequivocally, unexpectedly, beautiful.

Resting beside them on a thin silver chain was the rose quartz I had purchased just hours before the attack. I’d bought it to heal my heart chakra, and the literal effect – the surgery, if you will – laid bare across my flesh was not lost on me. Healing is rarely subtle work. I trust that which hurts.

Between the scarlet of the scarring and the calm pink of the quartz, dramatized against the brown of my skin, the only logical thing for me to do was to reach for my camera.

In the photographs that emerged, I look serene where my face can be seen. Where it cannot be seen I am all clavicle and throat, whisper of cleavage, shadow and light. The gashes tether every picture.

I know all about the documentation of scars. I’ve always found catharsis in creativity, in taking the trauma of a situation and subverting it. It is a manner of control, of reclamation, of hijacking Pavlovian associations before they fully form and replacing them with artistic ones. It is the duty of the artist to interrogate every experience. But although I had experimented with the subject of the self, in particular the wounded self, in a variety of disciplines – from autobiographical writing to self-portraiture in oil painting, and the body itself in dance – my photographic self-portraits had never been driven by anything but vanity. The horror of the scarring, however, and the overwhelming sensuality of their placement, had me transfixed.

Most people who saw the photographs reacted with horror. “I can’t look at it, Sharanya – I’m sorry, I just can’t,” friend after friend told me. I’m certain there were some who reacted with a different kind of horror – appalled at my exhibitionism, perhaps. I am very well aware that what to me was a meditation on pain, a means of negotiating with the multiple complexities of an event that had left me shaken and hurt in more ways than one, was for others just victim vogue.

The responses intrigued me. I had shared these photos not to shock people, but because it was truly healing for me to have taken them. Those close to me, I realised, were reacting to the violence I had experienced, and not to the process by which I was dealing with it. Many avoided it altogether. “I wanted to call and ask to meet,” said someone, when we eventually spoke. “But I saw the pictures.” Only one person told me the photos were beautiful, and asked – almost as an afterthought – what had happened.

I answered the question very rarely, when it was asked. What mattered was that if I was well enough to subvert it, it meant I had survived it.

The body is the canvas of our personal mythologies, but we are conditioned to titivate and obscure its realities. The reality of my body today includes three beautiful gashes across my chest, just as it includes the scar at my navel and an assortment of idiosyncrasies better left to poetry. They may fade, or they may stay, testament. The body and its blood. All of it is beautiful. And every last mark I carry is mine.

There are scars we see, and then there are scars we can’t. Perhaps what drew me to honour these ones, etched across my body with brutal intention, was that to do so gave me another way of calligraphing the invisible ones. I was here. I am here. Here I am.

An adapted version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Hunger

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I recently met with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in a year and a half because we had both left the city in which we’d lived. Prior to his arrival, he got in touch to ask if there was anything I wanted from his part of the world. I didn’t miss a beat. “Guarana berry shampoo,” I said. I didn’t even bother to be polite.

I have a fondness for edible things in my toilette. Between a Swiss vanilla shower gel, grapeseed oil body lotion, green tea scented moisturizer and the old world charm of my rose fragrances (dried petals in sharbat are lovely), I must smell – and taste – like confection. To put it as coyly as possible, you could say I would make a most delicious corpse.

I’ve had my experiments with olive body butter, chocolate lipstick, coffee cologne, goat’s milk soap, almond scrubs and seaweed face masks. I’ve clogged my drains putting raw eggs in my hair. And those are just the docile delicacies. Eventually, I suspect I will graduate to sheep’s placenta for my cheeks and awaiting wrinkles – I’ve already conditioned my hair with rabbit’s blood. Someone remarked that I bathe like a Greek goddess – a vengeful one, I laughed.

Perfumes are pleasant, but the smell of food is provocative, appealing to our base needs and instincts. Be they to eat or to be eaten. I don’t shower, I steep and season. I don’t moisturise, I marinate. Like some fatalistic Gretel in a fairytale gone awry, I prepare my body. I tend to it like the gods who made offspring from their dust.

It has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with pleasure. The pleasure of deep sleep, of a groan or a stretch, of a breath inhaled to fullness. The pleasure of waking before dawn to a blue that percolates into mellow yellow. The pleasure of catching your own eye in the mirror and falling for your own smile. The pleasure of perfect underwear, or none, on a night when I can be a woman with long hair, unbound, listening to Billie Holiday alone. Every road I walk along, I walk along with you. These are pleasures for the solitary ones. The slow burners. These are pleasures best enjoyed in a body seeped in ripe things, pungent.

I bring my braid to my mouth often, my scented wrist to my nose. I touch my bare arms under the canopy of a pashmina wrap, comforted by my own softness. I write poems to the fold at my stomach, such fullness on so small a frame as mine. To take pleasure in one’s own body is to wait without waiting. It’s to own one’s loneliness. To let it drift on its own weight, it’s full-bodied song.

So they’re worth it, all those expensive, imported, indulgent things that treat the body like a bronze doll being scrubbed, the delicate rounding of the cambers of her limbs with ash and coconut oil. Or rather, like the hours salivating at the oven over the centerpiece at a table; kneading, steaming, tasting, hoping. The rites of adornment. The gluttonous anticipation and sensuality of preparation, and then of waiting to feast. Or be feasted on.

Be slow to submit to devouring. Light every candle first. Sprinkle salt into the bath to sap away draining energy. Dress to undress, and then dress again. Get ready as though every act, every lifting of jewel to ear and tint to lip, is a bead in a rosary to the self.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Putting The “Bra” In Bravado

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The boss of a friend of mine had a business associate visit their office recently. Partway through their meeting, the boss abruptly went over to where his employees were seated, took off his shirt, turned it inside out, and put it back on again. “It was the wrong way round,” he told his gawking workforce. “And we have a guest.”

“I see,” said my friend. “And here I thought you were just happy to see me.”

If you can ignore the developing subplot between my friend and his boss, what’s really interesting about this incident is the casualness of male toplessness, and its machismo overtones. Hindu priests show off much more than their sacred threads while upholding their patriarchal paradigms, boxers parade their pectorals even as they pound each other senseless in a flood of testosterone and aggression, and football players – they of that hypermasculine pastime – streak across fields with their shirts off upon scoring a goal. There is bravado in barechestedness: nothing says Alpha Male like a flash of man-mammaries, nipples loud as neon signboards.

And putting the “bra” in that bravado is a Japanese e-boutique, Wishroom, which has sold hundreds of pink, black and white brassieres for men. Your menstrual envy (you know, the one that compensates with war and violent video games) got you down? You can now actually pull yourself up the bra straps and be a man.

These aren’t foam-filled cups meant for dressing in drag, and neither are they built for men with bountiful breast tissue (for that, the Australian “Male Support Vest”, which minimizes and de-feminizes, might be more your thing). There is no real aesthetic or functional purpose: no frills, no sequins, and no fancy cleavage-cushioning technology. They are meant, it seems, to be primarily a sensual secret – “I like this tight feeling,” says the boutique’s flat-chested representative as he unbuttons his shirt to reveal a black, leather-finish piece, in an online video. “It feels good.”

There’s a saying in Bombay that on a quiet day on Marine Drive, you can hear a thousand bras snap. The man bra (or the much catchier “Bro”, as they called it on Seinfeld nearly a decade and a half ago) might make it two thousand. Rest assured, though, that there is at least one bra (and its wearer) that won’t succumb. As a longtime admirer of blokes of the bellied and B-cupped variety, I don’t find the male bra a very uplifting idea. If anything, the thought of all that silly coverage plunges me into annoyance. It separates me from getting my cheap thrills and pushes up various types of resentment. It also supports ridiculousness and badly fleshed out metaphors.

Still, like any reasonable person, I think that people should wear whatever they damn well please, so I won’t get fashion fascist on you curious gentlemen. I can only subtly discourage you. As someone who once went bra-shopping without wearing a bra (a story for another time), I guarantee that less lingerie equals many more lingering glances. You may not have the necessary equipment, but if it’s good enough for Jacqueline Bisset swimming in that white tee and nothing else in The Deep as she – oh, um, sorry, got distracted – it’s good enough for you.

The curve may be mightier than the sword, as the marvellous Mae West said. She may have been right in more ways than one – just imagine a sumo wrestler or Turkish oil wrestler in a sports bra, or Michael Phelps in a bikini, and tell me you aren’t feeling slightly… unhooked.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.