(Published in Zetigeist, The New Indian Express, dated 17th May, 2008)
I remember, as a child, I used to wonder why the working women in my family asked each other, anxiously, "does this saree go okay with the blouse? Do my slippers match my handbag? Does the side-parting look better?" It wasn't like they were setting off to a party. It was work! Who cares?! But decades later, I can relate to the same sense of dread every time I step into my office.
It is a genetic curse, somehow cyclical in nature, that women feel a compulsion to comment on at least one other woman's appearance the moment they see her. Sometimes, you're met with a barrage of concerned questions, which will temporarily wipe out every ounce of self-confidence you have. "God! Why do you look so horrible? Didn't you sleep well? Your eyes are all puffy!" or "You seem to have black patches around your eyes! You should use cucumber and potato slices on them" (yes, these useful tips are also usually worked into the conversation) or "Your hair looks really weird! What happened? Did you get wet while coming to work?" or "Are your eyebrows crooked?" or even, "Your floaters make your feet look really broad! Why don't you wear those tapering slippers?"
The worst part of it, though, is even the compliments are couched in something offensive, as if to keep away the Evil Eye. When they're not telling you your eyebrows and upper lip need threading, or you need to get yourself a wax, or there are white patches on your skin, or blackheads on your nose, or your arms are so dry they look like old leather, they're always asking what you've had done. "Hey! Your face looks really nice today! Did you go to the salon?" and before you can even say "thank you", they're out with, "those suntanned patches are gone, and your open pores are less obvious".
"Nice skirt!" someone will call out, and then wrinkle her nose, "but why're you wearing it with this top???"
"Where did you buy those earrings? You should wear them with a necklace…your neck looks very bare without accessories!"
"Your hair looks really good! Makes your face look less chubby."
"That lipstick is just the right colour for you! And it hides the blueness on your lips so well!"
"You can really carry off sarees beautifully! But have you put on weight?"
The speed with which the salvo comes is one of those miracles of existence. I think men envy us, sometimes. One male friend whined, after watching an exchange of this breed wide-eyed, "how do you guys do it?! I would never be able to tell my boss 'Hey, nice shoes…did you buy them with your bonus? On the subject, when's my appraisal?' He would think I was hitting on him!" Yes, it is quite remarkable how the wrong halves of these sentences linger in our minds. While fuming in a blur of backhanded-complimenteedom, I completely forgot this woman had said, "You've got such perfect teeth!" before asking me why I did not use lipstick to brighten up my face a little bit.
What most women do not seem to factor in, though, is the discomfiture they put their male colleagues through when they conduct an analysis of this sort. I was once witness to this scene where this girl walked up to another and said, "hey, your face looks very different today. You've done something?"
"No, ya, why?"
"Okay…let me be a little politically incorrect." A giggle. "You look less hairy."
I don't think the now-non-hairy woman was as embarrassed as the two men who were standing with her. With blanched faces, they stood still for a few seconds. Then, in a moment of panic, one of them turned to the other and coughed out, "uh…you want to…uh…outside…smoke?" and the other was too overwrought to do anything more than nod with relief.