Manal Ahmad talks about the appearance-obsession that has invaded our society
We’ve always ridiculed America for being the land of the plastic goddess, where girls regurgitate their dinners in the bathroom and live on celery sticks and mineral water to desiccate themselves into looking like one-dimensional Levi’s models in suffocatingly skinny jeans. After all, Americans have been the proud pioneers of plastic surgery, tummy tucks, liposuction and DIY botox, the uncontested monopolists in the manufacture of Barbie-doll beauty worldwide. And over the past decade of breaking trade barriers, we seem to have imported much more from the superlative land of appearances than just fertilizers and fighter airplanes.
Today, if you flip open any fashion magazine, from She to Libas, Visage to Gen Y, or the dozens of other glossies that line the stands of every bookstore in Lahore, there’s not much of a difference between what you see there and what you see on Fashion TV or in the pages of Vogue and Seventeen. The ‘Social’ pages in our weeklies are especially bizarre; looking at the pictures one would think that the celebrity-clique of our country is composed entirely of the purveyors of plasticity – supermodels, make-up artists, hair-stylists, fashion designers, fashion photographers, fashion ‘choreographers’, buxom Lollywood ‘heartthrobs’ and the occasional passable musicians and mini-screen actors. One would also gather, from the photographs of their dingy soirees and award-ceremonies, the way they tinkle those champagne glasses, puff those cigarettes, wear blond curls and sashay in strapless décolleté evening gowns like they’re play-acting the Oscars, that our celebrities believe they live in terraced seaside mansions in Beverly Hills and not in a Lahore or Karachi with potholed roads, load-shedding and hungry homeless children.
Sadly enough, both these things are true. Admitting that exceptions always exist, and without passing any moral judgments on the fashion industry, which does avail some purpose in our country (even if it is for less than 1% of the population), I’ll go so far as to say that at the bottom of it all – behind the adhesive Colgate smiles, Anglicized nicknames and chemically bonded hair – there lies a truly serious problem. That problem, partly inherited and partly imported – a tentacle of materialism and globalization – is called appearance-worship. Pakistan suffers from many evils, of course, and we’re aware of most of the obvious ones – poverty, illiteracy, inequality and corruption topping the age-old list. But the deeper-rooted evil afflicting the elites of the country and trickling down to the middle-classes is superficiality – an absolute wannabe-obsession with the Western world.
Needless to say Western media plays a gigantic role in the propagation of these ‘material morals’ – of brand-mania and beauty benchmarks, to the kind of clothes we wear, the language we speak, our everyday tastes and amusements. Leaving aside the anti-globalization debate, however, with which we are all too familiar, we cannot perpetually accuse the cultural imperialism of the West for what we see on center-spreads or Style Duniya or the Social pages or in co-ed English-medium schools and colleges. We cannot blame the goras (whites) for the prodigality of our weddings, for the drunk teenagers at farmhouse parties and the car accidents on the way back, for 12-year old girls on secret dates at murky purple cafés, for communal doping in university dormitories. We hear these stories everyday, but most of us just shrug them off and say, “So what? That’s normal now” or “Everybody does it”. And what alarms me is how we, the privileged few of this country who actually have the opportunity to attend school and college and who’ve really leeched this land of the best it had to offer, can so willingly abandon ourselves to an essentially alien culture dictated by Hollywood and cable TV, and giddily fling into the non-navigable crossroads of identity.
There are positive qualities to Western culture as well – their community spirit and work-ethic, their inventiveness and honesty, their wonderful art, literature, music and minds – but for some reason we have been determined to imbibe only the dregs of their civilization, substituting with them whatever was of value and worth in our own. Some things, perhaps, we can attribute to lingering colonialism – our English-speakingness, for instance – but the things we throw away consciously, like our faith and values, are irreplaceable. We try to find alternatives – we put up plastic idols – we begin to worship images. We believe we can find satisfaction in the mantra the world tells us to follow, the mantra of our supremely self-conscious generation: “You must look beautiful, people must find you attractive, you must wear the most fashionable clothes in the world, you must be popular, you must do whatever it takes to be that way.” True, it feels good to look good, and it does immense things for your self-confidence when someone compliments you on your appearance – but the point where that compliment, sincere or insincere, becomes the only thing of importance to you is the point when you the person, the human being, the beautiful ageless intelligent soul begins to dissipate, and a shallow brainless clone-of-a-clone emerges who lasts only as long as he or she can pretend to be young, not at heart but on the face. People are deluded into thinking that somehow, if they become thin and beautiful and famous, wear skimpy clothes, throw ‘morals’ and ‘respectability’ to the winds and mutate into goras, it will bring them happiness; it will bring them success and satisfaction, because there is no room for anybody “old-fashioned” and “conservative” in the world today, and we must “move with the times”.
But I am skeptical about that kind of ‘success’, that kind of progress you achieve at the expense of your spirit and humanness. I wonder if people realize that you can never be happy trying to be something you are not, and at the end of the day no one is going to respect you or fondly remember you for rubbing your birth and identity and faith into the dirt – because those are the only things of true and lasting value. When I see the plastic people on MTV celebrating decadence in their videos or the bleached shiny faces of our celebrities in the Social pages or the models in the magazines with the convoluted expressions who spend half their lives in beauty salons and the other half trying desperately to seduce an inanimate object called a camera, I feel sorry for them. When I hear stories about kids getting wasted at parties, school-age drug addicts and 8th graders lying to their mothers to meet with 28-year old ‘boyfriends’, I feel sorry for them. I want to just shake them up and sit them down and ask them “Why?”, and I want to tell them that anyone who does anything at the cost of their faith or values is cruelly deceiving themselves. And it is sad and ironic that while the educated echelons of our society profess liberality and open-mindedness on every issue under the sky, there is none more dogmatic and bigoted than them on the issue of faith – when our faith is really the only thing that can liberate us from the materialistic dogmas of this appearance-obsessed world.