The Beauty Myth

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Not-so-long-ago, I remember myself sitting crouched in the corner of the School Auditorium, pretending to be lost in a book, but glancing surreptitiously at the door every two minutes, hoping to catch-a-glance. Of him.

It was the summer camp 1999 at the Modern High School, Dubai. It would be just another summer had it not been for a painful catastrophe that had struck the gawky thirteen year-old that I was. There I was with braces, acne, unwaxed legs, bushmen eyebrows, a clumsy gait and clothes almost double my size, but I had also developed an unfortunate crush on the boy who was the only other seventh grader at camp. I was also made to drown my head in coconut oil; it was this special concoction that guaranteed a powerful odour too. To avoid oiled hair during camp, I cleverly took up ‘Swimming’ and firmly declared to my mother that “Swimmers were not allowed oiled hair under any circumstances.” And I was always there at the corner every morning at 11.30 AM waiting for Archit Hari to pass by as he would head to the tennis courts, well-aware that with my braces, acne and unwaxed legs, a polite smile as he passed by would be the closest I would get to the popular and athletic boy that he was.

It has been over a decade since the summer of 1999 but, I can still recall every day of the troubled metamorphosis – I was a dork – plain, unassuming and moderately talented. But many of us are at that age, right? But back then, I was the victim of a manufactured thought process that I was the most unfortunate person ever – conscious of my every flaw thus magnified by my own misery.

In hindsight, one realises that I was suffering from the oft-heard troubled pangs of adolescence, of a shy teenager who was forced to grow up sooner than her peers, and had to ‘find her own’ between a constant shifting of her place,  her friends and thereby, even her own identity. Adult acne was splotched all over my face, and one would often see me in tears for no apparent reason. It wouldn’t be as painful as I make it out to be, but for the everyday kind interventions I would get from friends, family, peers, random strangers and chance encounters, (including an auto rickshaw driver in Pune who swore by the under skin of an overripe banana to be applied for fifteen minutes every morning for a week) for suggestions to cure my acne. From toothpaste to papaya peels, tablets, dermatologists, endocrinologists, gynaecologists and nearly every product available in the market … my skin was the guinea pig for every ‘miraculous’ form of acne treatment.

A popular advertisement on TV through the years, for Himalaya’s Pure Neem face wash, would make every member of my family go into peals of laughter each time it was aired – as it featured my own story, creams to home treatments, to trying to hide my face and even making excuses not to come out on weekends when friends would call me over… the skin problem invited every other problem. I had gotten tired of people constantly saying “Oh! She has such a pretty face, and a fair complexion – why don’t you do something about her acne?!?” I had gotten sick of hearing my mother having to respond to them pityingly “We have tried and tried, but she has oily skin, diet issues…this and that,” as she would become more agitated than I did when my eyes would well up in tears, holding back my frustration. My exact thoughts would be – “Well, if it isn’t my fault that I have problem skin, then why do I have it? Why me?”  

Fortunately, those days have passed – not that my skin is clearer, fairer or lighter – but simply because I finally stopped obsessing about it. Hours spent pouring into fashion magazines and ‘beauty basics’ guidance pieces or viewing television advertisements and shows taught me one hard-hitting reality. The ‘flawless’ skin, hair and body that is viewed, reviewed , clicked, adored and desired by many is pure myth.

Clichéd as it may be, Beauty lies only in the eyes of the beholder.

Sadly, an entire industry thrives on shaping our notions of beauty, and we as individuals conform to its judgement every single day.  Minutes of the day could run into dozens of hours that we look into advertisements on TV, the internet, billboards, newspapers, magazines, shop boards or nearly every available space one finds for hoardings of products that guarantee lustrous hair, an hourglass shape, cures for baldness and the ever omnipotent for the collective thought of the women in South Asia – fair and flawless skin. Anti-ageing creams and fairness creams for men are a decade old in India – almost simultaneous to when the ‘age of beauty’[i] penetrated India.

While all the Ms. India’s Universe’s World’s Asia-Pacific’s, Earth‘s, International’s conquered the global beauty cult – every young girl was well-tutored to believe that a leggy, fair, long-haired girl – with a particular numerical specification was the necessary type to win pageants, or job interviews, contracts, legal cases, be doctors or any other emancipatory avenue where women can break through like never before. The disturbing premise is that the very notion of an ethereal quality that is Beauty – what simply ought not to be defined but recognised when one sees it – became any other achievable target that the global market can provide for you. Botox, Collagen, liposuction, surgical implants for hair and skin, lasers passed through every pore of one’s body … money and a good doctor is all it takes to become ‘beautiful’.

But what does this do for every young mind who aspires for more? Do we simply sit back and wonder if how we look controls our self-esteem? Or wonder how much time can be spent otherwise when we are not eyeing someone else’s hair, eyes, skin, speech, posture or poise purely because we as collective choose to call someone more attractive or beautiful than ourselves?

It so happened that I soon realised, in one honest conversation with a bunch of friends – that I had tears and tantrums over my acne, another friend over her hair, another of her weight, a male friend about his skin tone, another boy about his height … each had developed a complex over some physical attribute they desired to possess. But each found one attribute of another more appealing, and called the other luckier. I told myself that my problem skin shall no longer hold back my inner strengths and I would stop thinking about how my face looked and concentrate on bringing forth my personality instead.

It was strange how even my skin conformed to my new attitude. By taking the plunge into interacting with people more, esp. boys of my age –smiling and standing straight – the spots on my face no longer spoke louder than my voice. People then asked- what did you use on your skin … and I was glad to reply … “Absolutely nothing!”

I preached this thought often henceforth – my only “beauty secret” is to ‘defy every stereotype’.  I refused to participate in pseudo-beauty contests held in college or be called ‘Ms. Beautiful Hair/Eyes’ – five years in college was enough for me to make a strong speech to a large gathering of first and second years in my defence. I quote from the concluding note there “…On a farewell note, I would like to toast all of you for being beautiful people –You all have given me an audience to hear what I have to say against what I oft-call “the Beauty Myth.” And why I say so, is because my eyes and hair was always there, but nobody noticed back then thanks to my acne.  I see a sea of promising faces before me – beauty lies here in your conviction to become something more than you are today, in your faith in me that I could be a role-model to you and in our collective desire to make peace with ourselves and others for simply being who we are!” I was humbled by the round of applause that followed. There is a truth in positivity somewhere – After all, “a problem becomes a problem only if you believe it to be so. And often others see you as you see yourself”[ii].

[i] The Age of Beauty is a reference to the period post-1994 till around 2000 in India when the Liberalization Privatization Globalization regime had taken root in India, and with the influx of wide-ranging cosmetics in our market there were simultaneous instances of several of the Ms. Indias’ winning global beauty pageants.

[ii] As told by Krishna to Draupadi in ‘The Palace of Illusions- Panchaali’s Mahabharat’ by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, (Picador India, 2008) when she wonders how someone with skin as dark as hers is destined to change the course of History.

"Me with the Acne!"

Me with the Acne ...

And me without the acne! (Just a new attitude changed it all!)


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