Nov 7, 2023
Photo Credit: Courtesy: Designer Sabyasachi
Sabyasachi's 2023 fashion shoot
In the world of high fashion, controversy is as common as a size zero label on a runway model's dress. But when fashion designer Sabyasachi, the maestro of Indian couture, released his latest 2023 fashion shoot, the uproar was about more than just the stunning clothes. It was about the faces—or rather, the lack of smiles on them.
The shoot had models draped in Sabyasachi's opulent designs, their expressions as somber as a rainy day in monsoon-stricken Mumbai. The internet erupted, critics cried foul, and the term “funeral collection” was coined. Here's where we hit the brakes on the outrage wagon and ask ourselves: Why the long faces over long faces? Let's tackle the grimace-worthy expectation that women should perpetually sport a smile, as if their faces were billboards advertising eternal joy. Men, on the other hand, are allowed the full spectrum of human emotion. They can brood, they can glower, they can smize their way through a photoshoot without a single demand for a grin. But women? Oh, they better slap on that smile, because heaven forbid they look like they have a thought more complex than what's for dinner.
The smile mandate
Let's get one thing straight: the expectation for women to constantly parade around with a grin plastered on their faces is about as outdated as the corset—and equally as constricting. Yet, here we are in the 21st century, still being told to "smile" by random passersby, as if our faces are public property in dire need of renovation.
Why is it that a woman's neutral expression is often read as a billboard advertising everything from anger to an open invitation for unsolicited advice on her mood? "You'd look so much prettier if you smiled," they say, as if the sole purpose of a woman's existence is to be aesthetically pleasing to every Tom, Dick, and Harry on the street. Men, on the other hand, are permitted to scowl and brood to their heart's content. Their furrowed brows are signs of a man deep in thought, a rugged individualist, a brooding hero in a world that doesn't understand him. But a woman? Oh, no. A woman with a resting face that doesn't sparkle with the joy of a thousand suns is a puzzle, a project, a problem to be fixed.
The smile mandate is not just about policing women's bodies; it's about maintaining a power dynamic. It's a subtle reminder that you, as a woman, are expected to be accommodating, approachable, and above all, non-threatening. It's a way of saying, "Your emotional state is less important than my comfort, so please, put on a happy face." Let's not forget the workplace, where the smile politics take on a whole new level of absurdity. A man can stride into the office with a look of grim determination, and he's seen as a go-getter, a serious professional. A woman does the same, and she's met with a chorus of concern. "Is everything okay?" "You should smile more." Because, of course, her value is measured not just by her output, but by her outward display of cheerfulness.
Let's retire the smile patrol
Let's allow women the full range of human expression without interpreting it as a sign of weakness, an invitation for commentary, or a plea for validation. Let's stop telling women to smile and start asking ourselves why we're so uncomfortable with them simply existing in their natural state. Let's call this what it is: sexist, with a capital "S." It's the same tired tune we've been humming along to for ages, where a woman's value is tied up in her appearance and her approachability. It's not enough to be beautiful; you must also be perpetually pleasant, like a Stepford Wife. In the end, a woman's face is not up for public debate or popular vote. The next time the urge to instruct a woman to "smile" bubbles up, swallow it down and remember: her face, her rules. And if that's too much to handle, well, perhaps it's the critics who need to turn that frown upside down.
Now, let's wade into the murky waters of the “no bindi, no business” debacle. The bindi, a traditional Indian adornment, is rich with cultural significance, but when did it become a mandatory accessory, a barcode of authenticity without which Indian attire is rendered incomplete or, worse, disrespectful? The bindi-gate is a non-issue inflated into a controversy by those who have more opinions than understanding, more time than sense. The fashion world is notorious for its cultural appropriation, a serious issue where the line between inspiration and exploitation is as fine as the needle on a sewing machine. But in this case, Sabyasachi, an Indian designer showcasing Indian wear, is being chastised for not being Indian enough. It's like telling an Italian chef that his pizza isn't authentic because he didn't play Pavarotti in the kitchen.
Let's not conflate the absence of a bindi with a lack of respect for culture. Fashion is a form of expression, and designers have the artistic license to interpret culture as they see fit. If every sari needs a bindi to be complete, then every tuxedo should require a top hat, and every pair of jeans should come with a free guitar, because, you know, rock 'n' roll.
The backlash against Sabyasachi's "sad" models and "bindi-less" fashion is a cocktail of sexism and cultural gatekeeping with a twist of irony. It's time we stop dictating what women wear on their bodies and their faces. Let the models scowl if they want to. After all, fashion is about making a statement, and sometimes that statement is not delivered with a smile.