by Menaka Raman
When I was growing up in Madras (now Chennai) in the 90s, there was a particular kind of ideal female beauty that was popular in the movies we watched: fair-skinned, full-lipped and voluptuous. In school, we would gossip over lunch about which actresses were really only 12 or 13 years old, but had been given hormone injections to seem ‘bigger.’
The episode is almost 9 years old, but it doesn’t feel old at all. Set in the streets of Kingston it takes a look at Jamaican culture, where women with ample curves and big bottoms who are ‘coca bottle-shaped’ are more desired by men as they are a marker of a man’s ability to provide and feed his family. ‘I don’t want a maga woman’ is a common phrase, where maga means a ‘meagre’ woman.
‘Chicken pills’ are hormone pills (which includes arsenic as an ingredient) given to chickens to fatten them up quickly, and are routinely taken by women in the hope that it will help them achieve the beauty ideal. As one voice says, ‘If you have a big bottom it means you are sitting on a lot of power.’ But in contrast to this more Afrocentric ideal of full-figured beauty are the small packets of bleaching creams intended to lighten dark skin, also sold alongside the chicken pills. One vendor cream says ‘if you’re white-skinned, then nothing you can do is wrong.’
The episode features the voices of professors of culture and literature from the region, and the music is transportive as much as it is part of the story, talking about the pervasiveness of these beauty standards in song lyrics that pay homage to flexible, ample derrieres with panache!
I was trying to decide what makes the episode still so fresh after nine years. Is it because we are still confronted by unattainable beauty standards? Or is it that it’s a masterfully produced episode rich in ambient sound, dance hall music, and lively audio that tells a story that resonates wherever you live in the world?