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The Fashion Industry and Disfigurement

Reshma Qureshi, an acid attack survivor, walked the ramp for the New York Fashion Week on Thursday, September 8.

That same day, three years after he threw acid on Preeti Rathi causing her death from severe burns, Ankur Pathak, her spurned suitor, flashed a victory sign after the court awarded him the death sentence.

Pathak got sentenced because his victim died. Reshma’s assaulters are free; most such perverted criminals in India are free. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) cites 309 registered cases in one year. They have access to all manner of chemicals and these come for as cheap as Rs. 25 (37 cents).

Reshma was assaulted by her brother-in-law. She was 17 then. As she lay writhing in pain, nobody came forward to help. At the hospital the doctors would not attend to her peeling skin and flesh until she had filed a first information report with the police. The cops made them wait. It took eight hours before she was attended to. By then she had lost vision and most part of one eye, her face had turned pulpy. It would take months of reconstruction surgery before she could get a face, not her own anymore.

The mirror became the enemy.

That day on the ramp, all eyes were mirrors. She was the face of acid attack, like others are the faces of Dior and Givenchy. Few must have noticed what she wore or how she walked. But they would have seen the scars.

***

The ‘fetishisation’ of scars should concern us.

Much as I admire Reshma Qureshi for her immense courage and poise, I do not believe that the fashion industry exploiting her disfigurement conveys any message other than the primacy of beauty.

Reshma’s videos for Make Love Not Scars have a powerful message. As its representative Bharat Nayak explained: “We wanted to create a contrast by using a topic as superficial as makeup to address a hard hitting issue of acid attacks. There is so much stigma attached to this, that we felt that video of this kind can change people’s heart and make them feel survivors are as normal as they are.”

Applying lipstick and eyeliner, and then telling us that acid can be procured as easily, she immediately connects and forms an intimate bond with the viewer. On the other hand, as an audience nurtured to watch silhouettes of seasonal garments and pulchritude on the ramp she is held up as an anachronism, the celebration of which is philanthropic rather than intrinsic.

The producer at FTL Moda New York, the fashion house that invited Reshma, said, “We want to give voice to these amazing women, who have been silently suffering, hiding, and too often depriving themselves of the opportunity to declare how beastly, and cruelly they have been attacked. FTL MODA and Global Disability Inclusion are activating a powerful movement called #TakeBeautyBack, in partnership with Fashion Week Online, to make all diverse models, feel beautiful and included in fashion and entertainment. We are working to create a world where acids used in these attacks are unavailable to the public.”

Did any of those watching her even imagine the pain she went through lying in the street? What sort of awareness is possible in a bespoke controlled environment?

***

This is a huge personal victory for Reshma and her intent to inspire other women who have suffered is commendable. However, the sheer eyeball-grabbing might act as a hindrance for others due to the overwhelming global attention it has garnered. An acid attack survivor might want to be a teacher, a doctor, a cab driver or a homemaker if she chooses, and such examples too need to be highlighted. The world is not a ramp and women, especially those who have been targeted with intent to make them invisible, should not have the disfigurement projected as their selling point by an avaricious industry.

The assumption behind reinventing the idea of beauty is that there is only one. There isn’t and there never has been. The fashion industry itself shows off thick eyebrows, man boobs and curvy profiles during different seasons as the beauty trend; a trend is not supposed to be perennial. An acid attacked face or the lack of an arm or leg is.

By flaunting one or two examples, you only underscore the trending standardised looks. Amputees, including children, somebody with Down’s Syndrome, acid attack survivors are coopted into buffering the looks trade. The Bionic Model, for example, stands apart and if anything is a tribute to ‘otherness’.

Beauty is certainly not everything, but one does not hear it said when a Giselle Bundchen or a Kate Moss sashays down the ramp. Reshma has been told this. All the time. The belief that this will end the stigma is stigmatic.

***

The higher purpose of ‘beauty beyond’ is firmly embedded in the beauty myth. It is not easy even for those with no apparent ‘handicap’ to conform to exhibionistic norms. In cases such as Reshma’s why does the fashion house emphasise “Take back beauty” and not self esteem? Although self-esteem too is hinged on the idea of looks because confidence is low due to its loss.

Pause here for a moment to consider what Rekha Lodhi did to herself. Six years ago, she was the toast of Pilibhit in North India. Her husband and his family showed her off as their charming daughter-in-law. She became popular in the town and drew a lot of attention. In a couple of years, her husband and his father began to taunt her for being “too beautiful”. Rekha could not take it anymore. She burned and disfigured her face.

So powerful and patriarchal is the hold of what is deemed to be beautiful that a woman sought to destroy it to become acceptable to an insecure spouse. Her self-inflicted scars are as much a comment against the beauty stranglehold as somebody attacking a woman for it.

An attack of another kind occurs when she is held up as an example of a distinctive allure. There is nothing unconventional about an acid attack victim. She is the target of a crime, and while her grit to survive and conquer is admirable the fashion industry trying to give it a soft-focus halo reduces the severity of the crime.

***

Uniqueness in fashion is a market creation. It helps corporate business to expand. To be fair, one cannot accuse it of such expansionism in the case of the subject under discussion here. However, causes often come in handy as a peg to hang wares and corner new markets. Remember the Benetton ad that ‘celebrated’ models from different races? The ‘multi’ industry seems to create its own stereotypes, and stereotypes in the bazaar are lucrative. It is to be noted that mainstream fashion decides on what is different and what those who are different may wear.

Instead of dealing with biases, the fashion industry indulges in symbolic opportunism.

During the period of supposed self-realisation it might even appear to be downplaying its pet contoured mascots. But you will never hear about a celebration of blemishes and pigmentation that regular models too suffer from, for it will cash with their allied interests.

Holding a pennant on the ramp for those who are victims of a heinous crime or accident and are battling with more than beauty issues is the equivalent of finger-pointing in the street. It’s like a dose of realism in the fairytale world. How can you normalise a physical impediment when you make all the effort to highlight it?

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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