How to Be a Freaky Grandma:

What It Means to Be Old, Attractive, Female in India

Published by The Phosphene, a quarterly art and expression magazine by South Asian queer youth.

Image by Repent of Your Sins & Seek Lord Jesus

This morning, as I opened the newspaper, an article on page 3 made me stop and think of an incident with my mother from a few days ago. I wanted to give my mum a curly hair makeover for the first time in my life (and hers). It was a big deal for my 63-year-old mum, a traditional Maharashtrian, simple woman, rarely indulging in any beauty rituals. She was excited about it. Undoubtedly so, after about an hour of conditioning, scrunching, and styling, her hair looked stunning, and she loved her new look. We sent pictures of her to our close family members, and everyone, including my father, seemed to think that my mum looked 30-35 years younger, with her sultry, attractive curls.

 

A few days after my mum received, and continued to receive, many compliments about her beautiful new hairdo, something changed. Suddenly, she began tying up her hair. And before I knew the reason, she stopped sporting those sexy curls. After much probing and many one-sided conversations, my mother reluctantly admitted – it isn’t my age to look attractive, you know? What will people think? They will pass comments saying - look at this grandma trying to be all sexy. I disagreed but made peace with the fact that my stubborn mum would never sport those sultry curls again.

 

As I opened the newspaper this morning, an article on page 3 reminded me of the above incident with my mother. This article was about Rajini Chandy, the 6-years-older-than-my-mum actor, who was trolled for being “too sexy” after some pictures from her photoshoot were released on Instagram. In these pictures, a stunning Rajini, clad in western attire (denim, a tee, a jumpsuit) looked about 30-35 years younger than her age. Intrigued, I looked up her profile on Instagram and spent the next 20 minutes, putting some of those millennial stalking skills to use. I went through the comments on her pictures, a few of which are mentioned below.

 

Comment 1: Freaky, Grandma!

Comment 2: (a series of poop emoticons)

Comment 3: (a series of laugh emoticons)

 

The more recent pictures had a few encouraging comments, perhaps posted by others like me after they’d read the article on news portals and had decided to look for Rajini’s social handle with the intent of doing some damage control on behalf of social media. After a little while of tireless stalking, I sank back in my reading chair to ponder upon the question - What makes society uncomfortable with aged women being attractive or sexy when the same society sees millions of young women wear sexier clothes on a platform like Instagram, every day?

 

It is important to note the way society is a lot more okay with older women looking beautiful vs. looking sexy. Even advertisements like Dove’s Real Beauty have taken steps towards normalizing beauty for aged women in India. However, when it comes to older women being sexy, it’s a whole different ballgame. To understand this a little better, let’s first look at why the same society permits (and even encourages) young women to look sexy and attractive. Of course, the question of how sexy is again to be considered because if a woman is too bold and too sexy, she is called names. Nonetheless, society has been okay with young women looking attractive in the Instagram world for the most part.

 

It is advantageous for capitalism and patriarchy if young women looked attractive (or aspired to look gorgeous). The cosmetic/beauty/fashion industry thrives on a particular ‘scarcity’ as Tressie McMillan Cottom states in her book ‘Thick: And Other Essays’.

 

In the book, she elaborates on how capitalism creates and breeds unattainable standards of beauty, thus propagating the belief that the way a woman looks or what she owns at any given moment, isn’t enough. This ‘scarcity’ that most advertisements piggyback on and harbour, when it comes to beauty/fashion products, makes us women aspire to have what we think we don’t so that we are driven to purchase their products even more. It is, therefore, advantageous for capitalism to encourage young women to look sexy and attractive. Why else would young women purchase their products?

 

Additionally, the definition of sexy itself comes from what appeals to a male gaze, thus making patriarchy benefit from it. For instance, it is sexy for a woman to wear lingerie, even though it may or may not be comfortable for the woman herself. Being sexy and attractive for a young woman is thus, a performance for a society that looks at us the way a man would.

 

Nonetheless, when it comes to aged women, this whole dynamic changes completely. Capitalism doesn’t have much to gain from this group, as there are hardly any fashion/beauty products made for older women (over the age of 60 years), to make them look attractive or sexy in India. Hence, there isn’t a reason for advertisements to make aged attractiveness aspirational. As no product can replenish the ‘scarcity’, there is no need to create this ‘scarcity’ in the first place. Hence, the representation of old, attractive women in India is also marginal.

 

And as for patriarchy, it assigns a completely different role to women, this age. As opposed to the young women who perform for the male gaze, the older women are expected to propagate patriarchal stereotypes to the younger ones in this stage of life. They are expected to teach traditions, most (if not all) of which have patriarchal undertones. In this way, the older women are made to feel like they are a central part of the hegemony, and that it is their duty to carry forward the stereotypes they faced throughout their lives.

 

Due to this role that society assigns them, older women like my mother internalize patriarchal notions gravely. After all, unless you believe and internalize it fully, there isn’t the question of passing it on to others. For this reason, my mother does not need another person to comment about how attractive she looks for her to stop sporting those sultry curls. She is already convinced that a woman can either look old or attractive, but not both, at once. And if a woman does try to be both, she is deemed a ‘freaky grandma’, as the Instagram jury of India has sadly demonstrated.