On what it means to be ‘attractive’ as a woman

The Dalai Lama’s office in a statement on July 2 said he was “deeply sorry” that people had been hurt by his statements about women

The controversy kicked up by Dalai Lama's statements raises the question whether we are now prone to take offence too easily. (PTI File Photo)

The Dalai Lama recently stirred up a controversy by telling a BBC journalist that if his next reincarnation was a woman, she should be attractive. “If female Dalai Lama comes, she should be more attractive. If female Dalai Lama [makes a scrunched up face] like that, then people not prefer see that face. (sic)”

I was struck by His Holiness’ gentle, almost grandfatherly sexist crack about whether people would want to really look at a female Dalai Lama if she was not attractive. And I feel, given our modern sensibilities, it is impossible not to agree with the interviewer, Rajini Vaidyanathan, when she asked in response whether the Tibetan spiritual leader was able to see why a lot of women found his statement (also made in the past in other interviews) quite offensive and “objectifying’ of women.

Therefore, it came as something of a surprise when the Dalai Lama’s office in a statement on July 2 said he was “deeply sorry” that people had been hurt by his statements and put it out unambiguously that he meant “no offence”. A world renowned person had apologised for words that seemed to suggest that women needed to be attractive to hold important offices, even in fields quite as removed from everyday pressures as the spiritual head of Tibetans around the world!

That should have been the end of that. But something about the whole incident continued to be unresolved for me. Irrespective of my political views on the question, I decided to work out what my relationship with the idea of attractiveness, as a woman, was.

So, if I ask myself the question what makes me feel good – attractive – about myself, on many days, shockingly, I find it is the act of making myself attractive. Perhaps I could qualify this further by saying that making myself attractive for myself seems to give me a lot of happiness. (Let’s just simply call this dressing up.)

Some would say this is indistinguishable from cultural conditioning. Aren’t we as women trained to manifest a certain ideal of socially-accepted attractiveness? Yes, of course. But thinking about this deeply, or rather examining my feelings around this subject, I am certain there is something more at work in the act of dressing up. There is an almost visceral, physical pleasure in beauty that is perhaps not even limited to gender. Therefore, the question – when I dress up am I responding to the part of my being that craves beauty or to that part which is socially conditioned? When the Dalai Lama speaks of the need for his next reincarnation, if she were a woman, to be attractive what is he speaking about?

The answers are not clear and definitely not as clearly-enunciated as politics would like them to be. Human beings respond to beauty in strange ways and they also have strange ways of assessing what is beautiful. I’m surprised actually that when I think of attractive women – women whom I find irresistible – kind, wise and happy women come to mind. Women like Oprah Winfrey or Elizabeth Gilbert (who decided to follow her dreams of being the kind of writer she wanted to be even though her books are dubbed 'Chick Lit'), or someone like Sushma Swaraj, who can hold forth on most subjects in a manner that would put the current prime minister – he of the great oratorical fame – under immense pressure to match up.

And why not someone like my grandmother? A working woman before there was such a thing and stay-at home-grandmother to half a dozen grandchildren at a time when there was no such thing, I don’t think she had the kind of existential unhappiness that so many women of my generation and those younger to me have.

I think in the final conclusion, the controversy over the Dalai Lama’s statement was a bit overdone. A bit, mind you.

Women have become unhappy and angry in so many ways. In addition to being suppressed and subjugated, we are constantly angry. That’s not a great state of collective mind. Perhaps the Dalai Lama, like all great teachers, did have a message for women like me who have the fact of our womanhood on our minds all the time. Let’s not lose sight of the tender stuff that comes with the territory of being women. Heck, of being human. The stuff that makes us so happy to be alive and appreciate the aliveness of other beings. That is, their beauty, their attractiveness.

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