Sunday, 30 January 2011

Intelligent Women Unintelligent Choices

Why do so many successful and beautiful women end up so fragile and brittle? Especially those who have not managed to move into the seemingly safe zone of marriage and family before their shelf life expires ...

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, the writer Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes the concept of 'hambre del alma' or the starved soul. She explains that sometimes soul-starvation can come from the environment - a woman finds herself in a culture that does not quite support her, feeling always that she is in some way alone and different.

Under Viveka Babajee's awful suicide lies a larger story, an ongoing hazy nightmare filled with phantom wolves and women running with them, sometimes towards them. The question is, why do so many successful, beautiful, competent women end up so fragile and brittle? And why is there such a discrepancy between their external and internal worlds? While the disconnect may be more amplified in show business, it doesn't stop there. Clearly, there is something disturbing in the way society treats and perceives women - and in the way women perceive themselves, especially those who have not managed to move into the seemingly safe zone of marriage and family before their shelf life expires.

As a Mumbai socialite drily puts it, "At the end of the day, every one is looking for love, no matter how successful. Every woman needs to become a desperate housewife before she becomes desperate." Show business has serially spawned divas who have ended up lonely, miserable and even mentally unstable. Way back in the 1900s,a maverick singer called Gauhar Jaan - the first woman to have ever been recorded and one who could command any price, including a whimsical demand that an entire train be booked for her entourage - ended her career impoverished, after being brutally cheated by the man she loved.

The Hindi film world has numerous examples of gorgeous women who walked into sunset boulevard, suddenly bereft of trappings and, above all, of love. Meena Kumari drank herself to death; Madhubala ended up as a reclusive mystery woman; Suraiya became a creaking chandelier who would wear kilos of make-up and jewels right to the end. Sadhana closeted herself and refused to take a lifetime achievement award because she said she wanted her fans to remember her the way she was. And no one can forget how Zeenat Aman allowed herself to be brutally mishandled by the men she loved.

As film critic and director Khalid Mohamed says, "From what I've seen, over the decades in the film and modelling world, women are always secondary citizens. Some make a breakthrough using their beauty and sexuality, but they are always conscious that they have a limited shelf life compared with their male counterparts. Some cling on with the hope that they will continue to be popular. Others look for marriage, and if it doesn't work, things go terribly wrong."

Psychiatrist Dr Ashit Sheth explains the peculiar fragility of women who are viewed as sex objects: "This kind of woman desperately

wants to be understood internally. The fear of being abandoned by society and losing whatever she has created so far is very strong. I see this among air hostesses these days. Because, when they join the airline, their world changes so dramatically. In the end, emotional needs are felt by every body - whether you are a dog or a human being."

But does this vulnerability stop at showbiz or does it extend to women across the board? Activist and publisher of Zubaan Books, Urvashi Butalia suggests that whether she is a corporate executive, a model, or a village panchayat head, a woman usually has to pay a deep personal cost for success; she is often forced to make a choice between her career and family. The tragedy is that she can't seem to have both. "I have no doubt that the hollowness of success at the cost of all other things hits men also, but it hits women very differently," says Butalia. And that is, perhaps, where the "soul-starvation" comes in. "When the image in the mirror - of beauty, success or talent - doesn't match the image inside, you have the breeding ground for vulnerability," says literary critic and writer Nilanjana Roy. "Many of the great women writers had this: not so much a fragility as the lack of an extra skin, coupled with an abnormal sensitivity to their environments. I think of writers like Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf; all of them struggled and often overcame their tendencies to depression, learned to use their insecurities and fragilities as material, but in the end were brought down by this."

Roy questions the prevailing culture "which insists that the beautiful and the successful should be placed under the burden of also having to be flawless - why they can't always ask for or get the help and support they need. We still live in a society where it's considered a sign of weakness to ask for help, or to admit to having problems; the surface counts for more than what's going on inside, and that burden is doubled for the beautiful and the successful."

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