Friday, March 11, 2011

In a Room of Mirrors

A bunch of girls walk into a popular hair and body saloon in the city. One of the girls is going to celebrate her 16th birthday in a few days, and the purpose of this visit with her friends is-because she wants a new look, a makeover. In the heavily mirrored space of the saloon, the girls are looking at themselves and each other. And looking at them are lot of advertisements of a cosmetic brand the saloon endorses. Models with brown and blonde hairstyles-with dashes of color, impeccable skins, size zero figures and branded clothing stare at them through the mirrors. No matter these posters are stuck away on the walls and the products are displayed in neat order admist them, the mirrors do a smart job of reflecting and placing these aspirational entities in conjunction with the girls- for the girls to see themselves…where they are not yet!

The saloonist walks over and starts explaining the girl what kind of new looks she can experiment. He first criticizes her present look, the condition of her hair, skin and very sweetly scolds her to take good care of it and subtly pointing out the new products she can use- a clear marketing strategy. He points out at the models in the mirrors suggesting whom would she look the best like. Her friends check and pool in their suggestions. And the saloonist sets about at his task of ‘make over’, while the girl gingerly keeps an eye looking into the mirror. Her friends simultaneously are browsing through a film magazine with a fashion coverage of a latest movie ‘Aisha’, wowing at the actresses clothes and figure.

This is definitely not one of the examples, when every day we are prolifically bombarded with images and ideas telling us what to wear (because everyone is wearing it), what to eat (because everyone is eating it), what to do (because everyone is doing it). These advertisers know how to appeal to our senses. They use peer pressure very heavily. "You need to wear these tennis shoes because (add a big name sports star) is wearing them and everyone else is going to wear them. You want to be cool don't you?" You have to have a fast car that can go 120 mph even though the speed limit is set at about half that. We are made to realise what we lack and how we will achieve fulfilment only when use the product. This is the general format all advertisements use.

Also in many Indian cities like Ahmedabad, such body care salons are recent phenomena – an undebated implication on the changing ideas of beauty. Also conspicuous consumption is one explanation for such mechanics of our growing consumer societies, and the massive growth of goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining their social status. [1 In a society where there were clear gender demarcations, does the arrival of a unisex saloon indicate changing social order?

To a critical eye, space of the saloon may seem like Guy Debord’s quote in The Society of the Spectacle, “how we have become a society which has moved away from lived reality to consciousness of a represented reality.”

A detailed understanding of which can be gained by perhaps by looking at the two main elements which make up the salon (or that matter any beauty salon) – the images and the mirror.

1. Images:
Evidently there is a politics of the image and the act of image-making. What is taking advantage of the power of the visual and repetition versus the knowledge and the explanations i.e. ‘the words can never do what the sight itself can do.’ [2] Although most of the advertisements in this space do not physically represent the product, they all provide an important iconic representation of both the product and what the product should stand for. [3] The array of images of models and celebrities looking into the camera ‘confidently’ and saying that the product has made her desirable. Also note-the confidence stems from being notionally beautiful. As one looks at these ‘beautiful’ men and women, the self becomes the binary opposite (the non-beautiful). The products and the space of the saloon are what help the consumer strive achieve their perfection.[4] It is interesting to see the use of color red on certain products.
'Whenever a sign is present an ideology is present too'[5] and the ideology in this context is ‘what is beautiful?’ The images which are repeated over and over in the mirrored space of the saloon, to only continue in magazines, hoardings, televisions, etc reinforce this particular notion of beauty -which is non-separable from the male gaze. When the woman as a trophy to be acquired and presented, the visual becomes crucial especially when the female body is one of the most commodified object in our visual dominated society. The metro-sexual man joins the charade of visual presentation.

2. Mirror
The act of seeing is an act of choice and our knowledge systems affect the way we see things. Also we cannot forget how we are so much affected by what we have seen that our knowledge systems are slowly unquestionably being altered. Foucault talks about the mirror as a heterotopia-a place where we see ourselves where we are not.[6] Buddhist monastic practice condemns the use of mirror. There are myths about not using broken mirrors, lest we see distorted and broken images of ourselves. In representations of shringara, the mirror is used as the symbol of beauty, thus desire.

The mirrors in the saloon stare at you, in conjunction with a multitude of aspirational images. For the idea of beauty the place constantly exaggerates about, the mirror becomes the climax- a device of evaluation.

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