April 11, 2020 Asmita Aggarwal

North Star

Strapline: She is a P(h)D from JNU and has written a book High heels and Rainbow Hijaab, to be published at the South Asian department of Hamburg University. This political science professor is a new face for the runway! Meet the brightest on the block—Nancy Pathak

 By Asmita Aggarwal

Tell us where you were you born and raised?

I was born at Agra, but I was raised all over the country, as my father was in a transferable job. I changed 12 schools and then shifted my base to Delhi, for graduation that is why I had a very multicultural and liberal upbringing.

What got you interested in fashion?

Fashion was always a social observation for me. So my first interest in fashion rose when I realised in my teen years that fashion was power. All my friends, school mates, cousins, and even my sister were heavily influenced by fashion at the most basic level, at the level of body and biology. It wielded power over me as well. It started determining what I would like and not like about my body.  How I would want my body to be and be presented in front of the world. That is when the nerd within me started looking at fashion as a weapon to gain social acceptance.

What was your first exposure to fashion?

My first exposure to fashion as a participant was when a friend started convincing me that I could actually become a plus-size model and that I should go for auditions. I had absolutely no expectations of the auditions. I was rather there to have fun and feel good about myself. But my selection in the auditions gave me a new confidence. I had been extensively reading on body politics and had written on gender issues in the past, for me it was an opportunity I had scored to work on the field now.

Your parents are into academics, how did they react to your career choice?

My father is a Judge and my mother is a homemaker, who devoted her life to the upbringing and education of her children. I come from an extremely academic family, so my deflection from core academics towards modelling came as a shock to them. They have always known that their child is unconventional and a rule-breaker, but this time I had really pushed the limits. It took me some time to convince them that my career in modelling was not taking me away from my academic pursuits in any way. Now they are making peace with it and showing some confidence in me.

You studied in JNU, known for its intellectual prowess, tell us your experiences there?

 JNU is a utopia and a paradise of theories. It is actually how the society should really be, liberal, tolerant, open to ideas and opinions, respectful towards women and celebrating diversity. JNU was liberating. I wish society could be more like JNU. I did my master’s in Political Science and went on to complete my Ph.D. in School of International studies. My specialisation is on Elites, ideological state apparatuses, and propaganda as a means of legitimacy creation.

Do your JNU friends turn up their noses when you tell them you work in fashion?

Very interestingly, they have been proud of me and have applauded my efforts, but definitely, they do not see it as serious business and it definitely falls much lower in the ranks of activisms in their understanding. They usually do not see fashion as anything more than a system that objectifies and promotes consumerism, but what they fail to see is that fashion has a lot of cultural power. It can become a very effective instrument of mass change if used efficiently. Like most of the languages of masses discounted by academic elitism, fashion is also a very powerful language that academicians are yet to realise.

You are writing a book on gender’s role in fashion, what prompted you to pen it? 

My book is on (re)claiming one’s bodies through means of fashion. I had written on the question of gender in various international journals in the past. For all the genders, body and clothing become a very important part of the identity and the debate on their rights. I wanted to specially raise the question of the LGBTQ+ identity in the context of their religious and cultural rights, especially when the orthodox religion was not offering much acceptance to the community. Modernity and fashion became an important means to express their gender. But fashion also provided the scope of innovation to accommodate the expression of the religious and gender identity both at the same time. Hence the book got the title High heels and rainbow hijaab. It is under review at the South Asian department of Hamburg University and is expected to release by December 2020.

It was the belief ingrained in me by my JNU teachers like Nivedita Menon, that academics is not just limited to classrooms, but must acquire some activism. My book and my participation in the inclusive modelling culture are all part of my activism for the inclusion of the ‘invisible bodies’.

What changes would you like to bring about in fashion?

Fashion has been a domain of cultural and capitalist elites for a very long period of time. It is high time that it becomes more representative. I would want fashion to innovate and provide space to the bodies which have been brushed under the carpet for so long and have been made invisible. Fashion has to change the common sense and acceptance that societies have towards bodies. I would like fashion to promote real bodies, specially-abled bodies, healthy bodies, bodies of all ages and all genders and the ‘invisible bodies’ in the public eyes. I would want it to shift from gender binary dressing towards a more rainbow spectrum of dressing. The change has already begun, we just have to prevent it from falling prey to a very objectified understanding of bodies. Fashion should no longer be about just consumption, but it should also be about empowerment and reclaiming cultural representation in the public eye. It has to change the definition of ‘acceptable’ through making style statements and by starting positive and gender-sensitive trends. Why should the masses aspire to follow the fashion? Why can fashion not adapt to the needs of the masses?

How do you think we can break gender stereotypes? 

First and foremost, we can start defying the stereotypes ourselves. Our bodies become the biggest prisoners of these stereotypes. Embrace your own individuality, love your bodies, follow your sexuality and express it unapologetically in public spaces.

Secondly, learn beyond the gender binary. Treat all genders equally. Read and keep your arguments ready to defend your beliefs in gender diversity, they will come handy against the people you will disturb in the process of expressing yourself and challenging the norms.

Thirdly, don’t let anything or anybody define your limits based on your gender. Prove them wrong with your capabilities and hard work. Excel at what you do, become a role model for all genders irrespective of what gender you are in your environment.

Fourthly, if you are raising young ones or are elder siblings to them, take your job as an educator and a role model seriously. Raise kids who respect gender differences and desist gender hierarchies.

What role did you as a teacher play in creating awareness about body positivity? 

As a teacher of political science, I am tasked with the job of discussing gender politics every now and then. I take that as an opportunity and do not refrain from talking about body politics to the young minds who also happen to be the main audience of my activism.  By this process, I try to discuss with them how they can’t let their bodies become an object of capitalist consumption. They cannot feel incomplete just because they do not fit the definition of “perfect” as the market wants to sell to them. My main motive remains to teach them to find beauty within their bodies, resisting the temptation that the market offers them and look for beauty even beyond their bodies, to help them develop confidence in their capabilities and other abilities that are not always body dependent.

Tell us about how many pages is your book and what topics have you tried to cover in it?

It is still under the process of review so it will really be unfair to comment on the number of the pages of the book at the moment, but I have covered various topics under the book, such as the history of bodies in fashion, the position of Islam on the queers, representation of LGBTQ+ community in fashion, new spaces opened by fashion for the representation of the category of genders within religious categories, innovation in fashion by the Muslim LGBTQ+ community members.

Are women in glamour becoming more inclusive, how have you used your voice to raise concerns about health? 

The answer to this question will be, yes, I think women in fashion are becoming relatively more inclusive than they used to be. I grew up in times when there were literally anorexic models walking the ramps of some of the most high-end fashion shows. We have reached that understanding that such beauty standards are completely un-aesthetic, de-humanising and unacceptable. But even today I see the aspiration among the women to imitate the bodies of other women and brooding over un-achievable beauty standards set by the industry.

 I have time and again tried to reach out to the women through the means of social media content where I have created videos with models of all sizes, raising issues like mental health, and different notions of aesthetics. I try to be a good role model. I do not edit my body in the pictures I upload on my social media and whenever I take grooming classes with young women I tell them that their confidence and their smile is their best features.

What are your future plans and what do you aspire to do? 

I aspire to continue my work in academics, but I do not want to lose touch of the ground reality at the same time. I want to be an inclusivity and health policy expert in the long run. I wish to not only keep contributing towards it academically but also on the field I would like to work with the organisations who work in the field of public health and gender rights. At the same time, I would like to keep mass media and fashion as my means of communication with the young minds. I wish someday, some of my research will contribute towards some useful policy formation and contribute towards a society more gender-sensitive than today’s.

What is your personal style mantra and how do you think fashion is a powerful means of communication?

My style mantra is that ‘best style is the one that makes me feel my best’, anything else whether it is trendy or not should not matter to me, if it does not make me feel and look good. Not all styles are meant for all bodies. We need to realise that everybody has its own aesthetics and fashion must cater to the needs of the diversity rather than enforcing the same standards on different bodies.

Fashion is a very powerful tool of communication because it has a visual appeal to itself which makes it very easy for the consumption of the masses. One style trend has the power to influence much more than any book or any print article has. I think Ashley Graham alone brought about much more acceptance, to bodies of all sizes then any book on feminism ever did.  In my opinion fashion has been a missed opportunity, but it is never too late to reclaim the cultural spaces that the scope of innovation in fashion opens up to masses, specially in the age of social media.

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