Wednesday, 14 May 2014

India's Obsession With Skinny Airhostesses

Two years ago, I boarded an international flight for the first time in my life. It was a British Airways aircraft, and I was flying to Boston, USA, with a layover at London, UK. The aircraft was huge indeed. Since the first flight was from Bombay to London, there were Indian as well as non-Indian (all White) crew members. The Indian women were slim and near-skinny, but what struck me most was the rest of the White cabin crew. They were not slim. And they were good at their jobs.

The next flight, from London to Boston, had an all-White crew. This time too, there were several men and women in the crew who could be best described -- in the words of today's moralistic media -- as "fat". I was nearly shocked to see them. The fact that they wore smart uniforms and were swift in their job of taking care of both kind and cranky passengers, was not enough to get my mind off their fatness.

Through my eight months in the US, I took several flights on many different airlines, and witnessed the same thing: the cabin crew's body size or age did not matter. Their were amazing in their job, and the air-hostesses on South West Airlines had a special knack of joking on the aircraft, about wearing those safety belts and the mad landing in truly windy Chicago. One air-hostess seemed old enough to be my mother, yet was very strict on baggage placement rules. She was doing her job. One male cabin crew member was huge -- he had Hrithik Roshan-style biceps and a pretty good big bum, yet not for a moment did he get stuck in the aisle or slow down in his pace to meet the demands of passengers on a long flight. The envelope given to every passenger on a British Airways flight, to make a donation to some NGO, has the photograph of an air-hostess with a child. The air-hostess has a beautiful smile, and is, well, fat. And I am guessing they picked the photogenic of the air-hostesses for this photograph.
British Airways cabin crew (Photograph source: The Guardian/Getty Images)

Looking at them, I could not for a moment forget the cabin crew members of airlines in India, and the increasing insistence on their image. Why, so many fairness creams ads have depicted a successfully-fair girl to have secured a job as an air-hostess. Many years ago, when, in the desperation to find any way to see the world, I was checking the ads to hire air-hostesses, I knew I would never make the cut because only those with a minimum height and weight and waist length could apply. There was no room for intelligence there; it seemed like a different version of being on a catwalk. The ads for recruitment - and even the current crop of air-hostesses in India - are made to look as only eye-candy during your time amid clouds. And perhaps this is why taking up a job as an air-hostess is looked down upon among upper-middle-class Indians: because of the way it has been portrayed.

And why do I write this now? Because of the recent news whereby the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation, of the Government of India) has issued strict requirements on body weight, vision and hearing for cabin crew members in India. While I understand that requirements of vision and hearing are crucial, and the overall health of any employee is crucial, I doubt that health is the main concern here. Even if it is, I suspect airlines would now push their already-skinny air-hostesses to go on some crazier diet, just so that they can keep their job.

Cabin crew of Kingfisher Airlines (Photograph source: 

I am saddened by this news, because it is an attack on a profession, and a confirmation that only looks matter. It is a reiteration of the fact that Indians value fair skin and a skinny body over professionalism and true health. I have heard enough "jokes" from Indian men, who say how flying by Indian Airlines is a such a sad experience, because of the "aunties" as air-hostesses (because the air-hostesses on the Indian Airlines aircraft wore sarees and indeed, they were not pretty-young-things, unlike in the private airlines).

Back in India, and having taken a few flights, I am shocked how passengers continue to speak on the mobile phone even when the aircraft is on the runway, and how, more importantly, cabin crew members often choose to ignore such careless passengers. While many might deny the co-relation between talking on the mobile phone and air crashes due to issues with electronic signals, I would want to be assured on the flight that nobody is jeopardising my safety. On at least three instances while flying in the US did I notice cabin crew members raising their eyebrows and voices, like a principal, admonishing a passenger to "turn off that goddamn phone now". Not so in the flights in India. I wish the DGCA - instead of attacking the bodies of the cabin crews - gave more teeth and power to the cabin crew to ensure greater safety on flights, by protecting those efficient workers who get careless passengers to behave on the flight.

I am guilty for having once imagined being an air-hostess to be the next thing to do for those girls who did not make it to the finals in beauty queen contests. I am glad my perspective has changed, towards seeing that being a cabin crew member is work, big time important work. Let's keep their body shape and size out of their work.

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Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Period. Exposed. Bloody Red.

Why is it so difficult for educated women to wrap their soiled sanitary napkins?

Make no mistake here. I amaze myself – and disgust others -- at my own ability to talk about poop, pee, fart and puke with complete nonchalance. I was raised to understand that these are essential body functions, and many childhood evenings were spent with my father and brother discussing the fart sounds of different people we knew; the mother would bury herself behind a book, pretending she had no relation to us. Only a couple of ex-boyfriends have not winced when I would attempt a minute-long monologue about either of the four taboo topics before them (I would shut my mouth at the right moment, because I knew they were always wearing running shoes).

But hygiene – or the lack of it – makes me wince. And no, this is not about the laments of the lack of toilets in India. This is also not about women still wearing pieces of cloth instead of the ones that are advertised promising a ‘happy period’. This is about educated women who know it well that soiled sanitary napkins need to be wrapped before disposed. You might feel this is a non-issue. An unintentional sighting of the dustbin in toilets of the institutions with squeaky clean facades would reveal something else.

I work in the office of a large newspaper, and this particular floor of the building houses three different publications. The Siberia-type-cold office where I work is flanked between offices of glossy magazines where extremely beautiful women and men work. Women in beautiful clothes, just the right amount of make-up, swanky heels, and artfully-acquired fake accents. Women who wouldn’t smile at each other when they adjust their chiffons and silks in the cramped bathroom space. Educated women, with absolute access to drinking water, and water in their faucets, and more.

Yet, the other day, and yet another day, I went into the toilet, only to see a blob of bright red tissue staring at me from the uncovered paper bin. There was no attempt at covering it with a pile of tissue paper (which flows like the Nile in such offices).

When I lived in New York in a women’s residence that can house 373 women, I assumed that I was living with mature women. We were about 30 women living on each storey. Every morning around 8am was a rush hour in the achingly slow elevators, and we jostled for space amid the fragrance of expensive perfumes and the sights of the best brands off the racks from Times Square. Photographers, fashion designers, bankers, researchers, students, journalists, analysts – the brightest of the brains in the most beautiful female bodies covered in the latest fashion trends, were on their way to work.

We had two sets of bathrooms with individual showers and toilets to share, and the housekeeping did an impeccable job of keeping the place clean. Yet, every now and then, a soiled sanitary napkin, with its crumbling sides and red-to-brown middle and netted top cover lay exposed in the bins near the showers. Was it so tough for such smart women to wrap their own sanitary napkins? I once lamented before the front desk that this was unbelievable. The lady there sighed with a smile, “Darling, why is this unbelievable? We hear this all the time!”

These might be the same women who would “Yuck!” aloud when the stench of ammonia from public toilets reaches their nostrils. They would refuse to use such public toilets, and I know of many women who would hold up their bladder until they reached a clean toilet. But women not wrapping their soiled sanitary napkins is a stupidly global phenomenon.

Few years ago, I had done a story about an organisation in Pune that works with waste pickers. With some smart origami moves, they had created a paper packet, with a sticker on it that announced its purpose – for the disposal of soiled sanitary napkins. The idea of the packet was to restore some dignity in the hands of the waste pickers, so that they do not have to confront a soiled sanitary napkin – or a diaper – with their bare hands, when women refuse to wrap them. The idea has its flaws, but they surely can be fixed. When I had told my mother about this idea, her surprised eyes soon turned moist, and then she said, “They are doing such a work of punya.” (= a spiritually noble deed).

But if there is such a huge market of being hygienic – right from anti-dandruff shampoos to metallic foot scrubbers – can’t women learn to behave with something as personal as their own sanitary napkins?