The Superwoman’s Struggle

INDIAN EXPRESS

The Superwoman’s Struggle

Indian women are the most stressed in the world,says a Nielsen survey. They de-stress by splurging on themselves,and remain optimistic about the future. What explains the dichotomy?

A bronzer thoughtfully named Light over Dark is a best-selling MAC cosmetic product. A fascinating make-up item,it mixes rusted bronze with luscious white-gold,nude and almond hues to highlight your face. “I cannot live without it. Like good Scotch whisky,it is my instant pick-me-up. It’s also my survivor mask,I wear it even when I visit my gastroenterologist,” says 39-year-old Arpita Joseph from Delhi. She utters doctor,whisky and bronzer in the same breath. Odd,till you hear that Joseph,an executive with a global accounting firm,mother of two,wife of a high-earning trading analyst,developed stress-related intestinal pains three years ago when she was diagnosed with colon trauma. She earns well,looks good for her age but is a textbook example of unmanaged stress. Curiously,the bronzer Joseph carries in her Burberry bag is a part of her “personal survival kit”. Besides painkillers,“I have a blessed rosary from the Vatican,a pocket-sized Bible,a white lace kerchief from a set my mother gifted me when I got married,and photographs of my two kids,” she says.

Joseph’s is a familiar story. It is the story of someone you know,if not of yourself. The many demands of her life — two pre-teen kids,parent-teacher meetings,father-in-law’s battle with cancer,her husband’s transferable job,preparations for a marriage in the family — make it a “modern Indian woman’s life”.

Operative words: Indian woman. A recent study by Nielsen calls us “Women of Tomorrow”. The study examined consumer and media habits of women in emerging and developed countries and found that those in India,Mexico,and Nigeria were more stressed than their counterparts in the developed world.

Indians topped the list: 87 per cent Indian women said they felt stressed most of the time,with 82 per cent claiming they had no time to relax. Paradoxically — and this might explain Joseph’s dependence on the bronzer and the gastroenterologist — they were also the most likely to spend a large amount of their disposable income on health and beauty products,vacations and groceries. Ninety-six per cent said they would buy clothes.

“It’s not surprising. The 21st century urban Indian woman has had to learn new skills and aptitudes since her gamut of roles has expanded,” says Chennai-based therapist Dr Vijay Nagaswami,who is also author of a series of books on cou­rtship,marriage and relationships. “She works,is a homemaker,a wife,a mom,a daughter,a daughter-in-law,a sibling,a friend. In the past,she was primarily a homemaker and a mom,and her other roles were secondary. The man,on the other hand,hasn’t had to add new roles to his repertoire,except sharing some home-making tasks — if he’s a sensitive guy,that is,” he says.

The stereotype of the Superwoman Who Has it All is not new. It was minted in the post-liberalisation phase. But the definition of success for Indian women is slung between old and new expectations. Global dreams are attractive as long as they come tempered with moral values. Financial success is fantastic as long as women make sacrifices for family and children. They should be problem-solvers like men,manage the plumber and the car insurer,have maternal skills and rustle up perfect meals; be responsible for mother-in-law’s moods as well as make sure there is curd in the house. While all this is going on,they mustn’t allow their breasts to sag,skin to blemish and legs to succumb to cellulite. In For Her Own Good (1978),a book that compiles two centuries of experts’ advice to women,American authors Barbara Ehrenriech and Deirdre English explain this conflict as “The Uterus vs The Brain.”

Sumita Misra agrees. “If you are intelligent,educated,earn well,you are more open to scrutiny and criticism from your family,society and work environment. They also have very high expectations from you. We feel we have to get it right every time,” says Misra,who is the chief electoral officer of the government of Haryana. A 44-year-old,1990 batch IAS officer from the Haryana cadre,she believes that men of her generation are reaping the benefits because of women who are able to handle multiple roles. She says working women in high-profile and male-dominated workforces have to learn early on in their careers to cope with the stress that is a result of a collision of personal and professional demands. Anjoo Mohun,head of communications,British Council,Delhi,a 45-year-old single mother of a teenaged daughter,says the script of her life is about being stressed. “Between performance anxiety as a mother,as a manager and as a survivor,I work myself into a frenzy. Sometimes,I do the job of four people,man and wife,father and mother. Stress is the result of combination of factors — guilt and the need to deliver targets at home and work,” she says.

Dr Shaifali Sandhya empathises with this. “Women in India are raised as caregivers not receivers. They are responsible for everything in the house. It is all about guilt and a race against time,” says the Chicago-based clinical psychologist,who interviewed urban Indian men and women for over a decade for her book Love Will Follow: Why the Indian Marriage is Burning. During her research,she found the odds stacked against women. “They grapple with complex and new physical and psychological stressors now. Five of them are: in-laws,family,and parenting,intimacy with their partners,careers,their sexuality and sex lives. Besides,there are environmental stressors for urban,middle-class Indian women such as lack of safety,domestic abuse and rape,” she says. Researchers across the board say that suicide rates among women in India are among the highest in the world.

Seventy-two per cent of women from middle-to-upper classes,according to Sandhya’s research,reported mild to severe depression. “Our cultures have a feudal legacy,in which women are considered upholders of family name and honour,so they are more susceptible to being shamed. Fewer supports are available to them for the usual human frailties,” says analyst and psychotherapist Dr Madhu Sarin.

Married women and single mothers have it the worst. The stress levels are different for the young and unattached. Ask Mumbai-based Devita Saraf,30,CEO of Vu Technologies,single and financially secure. She runs two businesses,one in India,one abroad. She feels stressed alright but says it is could be a by-product of long working hours. “If I am physically and mentally in one place and I can focus,I am seldom stressed.”

Career is a common stress factor in everyone’s lives. But 36-year-old Alaknanda Dayal,director,food supplies,government of India,who is also a mother of two,says that her family and husband help her fight the stress that results from professional demands. “I feel less stressed when my husband is around as there is someone to fall back on,” she says.

Not many share her views. Family support,the traditional cornerstone of most Indians,doesn’t seem to be holding up for most women. “Sadly,today the biggest stressor in our country is the family. The intentions are good,but the demands made by the family and other social sub-systems are extremely difficult to accommodate in our punishing schedules,” says Nagaswami.

Sarin says it is important to factor in caste,class and age group of the women surveyed. The Nielsen survey did not include women labourers who toil in the heat and dust to earn minimum daily wages (less for women compared to men) without any recourse to primary health care.

Their stress cannot be compared with that of actor,model,and entertainment host Simone Singh,who is beautiful,privileged and lives in a pretty home in south Mumbai. Singh agrees. “On the face of it,my life has no real stressors that emanate from environmental conditions. I have a fairly easy-going family life. But over the years,I have realised I am a part of the same stress syndrome,” says the 37-year-old. “I learnt to recognise that I was stressed through illness. I am a worry wart too,” she says.

The stress hormone is positively disposed towards women as numerous studies across the world reveal. “Essentially,men use a process that is stress-distracting and women use a process that’s stress-absorbent. Men deflect whatever causes stress,whereas women internalise stress and get into the victim trap or the martyr role. Neither is healthy,” says Nagaswami.

But as the findings of the survey point out,if there is a stress hormone,there is also the shopping gene. “Women feel empowered to reach their goals and get what they want,but at the same time,this level of empowerment results in added stress,” said Susan Whiting,co-chair of Nielsen. “Companies marketing to women should consider highlighting ways their products can ease stress and provide convenience.”

In India,that seems to be happening quite well. Working women spending on brands,beauty and grooming products and vacations is common. Advertising of consumer goods in India feeds on all the contradictions of being a modern Indian woman: the stress and the shopping,the need for marriage,power and beauty. If Tanishq hardsells its bridal jewellery,it equally pushes the 9-to-5 range of 22-carat work-wear accessories. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan sells you L’Oreal Hair Colour “because you are worth it”. Optimism is led by women — be it in green tea bags or Hermes Birkins. “If the consumer economy had a sex,it would be female,” wrote American author Bridget Brennan in her book Why She Buys,adding that marketing executives should learn to become female-literate.

That the most stressed women are also those who splurge the most on retail therapy is not a riddle for anyone. “Women are so devalued in our culture that by focusing on themselves,they try to add value. In their own inner private lives,they need to look out,and look after themselves,” says Sarin. But as Nagaswami says,“There is a difference between ‘treating’ yourself when you’re down in the dumps and shopaholic behaviour. And while there’s nothing wrong with occasional retail therapy,if this becomes the only stress-buster in a person’s life,then the slope has become far too slippery,” he adds.

Women of Tomorrow understand this too well. Not one of them — happy shoppers like Saraf or Misra; spa addicts like Mohun; glamorous women like Singh — believes that spending on clothes or cosmetics helps bust stress in the long run. “A luscious lip gloss is a temporary fix it but that’s it,” says Singh firmly. She relies instead on relaxation techniques and books to beat stress. Each woman has her own recipe but optimism is a common and key ingredient.

Misra’s comment comes from experience. “We will do ourselves a big service if we shift our attitudes from ‘maximising’ everything to ‘good enough’. The chase of the perfect is not worth it,” she says.

Indian women,say experts,have nerves of steel. In the words of Sandhya,“I believe the strength of Indian women,which is in essence their resilience,exists not because of cultural elements but despite them.” Let’s raise a toast to that.