When I was ten, I had a nightly ritual. I’d brush my teeth and look into the mirror. Then I’d go to bed and pray. I may have prayed for my family, may have even prayed for world peace. But those are not prayers that I remember because my one constant petition was for beauty. I wanted to be beautiful.
I was easily the darkest girl in my extended family, my neighbourhood and my school. Each time I visited Goa, my native land, my relatives, who were not as dark would urge me into using Fair & Lovely. When I returned to Bombay after my first memorable trip to Goa, I even tried some of it. I applied just a little bit of it and a thin white film seemed to overshadow my face. For the first time I questioned how a fairness cream could possibly tamper with the levels of melanin in my skin. So by the age of twelve, I changed the texture of my prayer. I stopped praying for beauty, I asked for wisdom instead.
I write this having recently turned 26. I cannot say for sure whether I am wiser now. But I have, over the course of sixteen years, acquired more than a few shades of wisdom. I’m still as dark as I always was. Every parlour I go to encourages me to bleach my face. Where earlier I would have cringed in shame, now I mock the suggestion. The wisest decision I ever made was to avoid mirrors. Women who come home are always shocked by the fact that I do not own a single full-length mirror. I have a bathroom mirror, so I can apply kajal, eye-liner and mascara and that is enough. This single decision to renounce the need for a full-length mirror has single-handedly changed the way I relate to my body, and has in-turn changed my life. It isn’t that I’m afraid to confront my reflection, it’s just that I don’t need a mirror to tell me how I look. I’ve learned instead to be comfortable in my own skin. I’ve never joined a gym. Like Nigella Lawson, I never skimp on butter or cheese, and I have no trouble seducing men. (It’s true what Alain de Botton says, “We charm by coincidence rather by design).
It’s no wonder then that I was aghast when I read Open Magazine’s three-part series on the body that was published in three consecutive issues in June. Not only was the series limited to the female body, but the degree to with the three different authors were preoccupied with size and weight disturbed me. The narratives were wholly immersed in self-pity and suffered from an acute dearth of self-esteem and confidence. The overarching tone of each account was one of resignation, of battle and struggle with cellulite or the lack of it. The question each piece sought to answer was in itself problematic: Do our bodies shape our personalities? The answer seemed to be a resounding yes with no room for celebration or sensuality or even debate. And each author seemed oblivious to the relationship between the body and sexuality. What the series reaffirmed with startling tenacity was that even our more intelligent women have begun to subscribe to the beauty myth instead of outrightly rejecting it. The battle for gender equality has yet to be won, because women are so tortured by the idea that men are shallow, myopic creatures who couldn’t recognise real beauty if it kissed them on the mouth.
In “Diary of a Thin Girl,” for instance, the sub-zero sized Atreyee Majundar drowns in obvious clichés about her minimal bone structure and shuns the attempts made by the American Medical Establishment to fatten her up, so to speak, with protein shakes and granola bars. She defends her sub-zero status claiming she’d been that way since she was 14. It’s difficult not to read her account as an anorexic in denial. Her tone smacks of resignation to the fate and the fact of her body structure as against a joyous acceptance and celebration of it which would have redeemed it from the clutches of clichés in which it revels.
Ramya Swayamprakash’s “Diary of a Large Girl” is similarly disappointing. In her attempt at honesty, she compromises on insight and her account comes across as the bitter ranting of a woman who has been victimized by society because her waistline is far from ideal. A mixture of confession and whining, Swayamprakash is beyond redemption, not because as a society we have consistently fostered certain notions not only of ideal body weight, but because she herself has bought into the philosophy of beauty as superficial at the cost of her self-confidence. “Coming out of the underconfident closet was more important than coming out of the fat closet,” she says, promisingly, only to follow it up with: “I am still inching my way out of the latter.” While one cannot but respect her honesty, one cannot help but feel disconcerted by the fatalistic nature of her struggle. Earlier in her account she says, “Fat is in the head.” After reading the piece, one has to fight to urge to find this woman and shake her out of her self-pitying stupor and get her to believe in her own proclamation.
It’s Sohini Chattopadhyay’s account, “Diary of a Newly Thin Person,” that seems intent on ruffling feminist feathers because of the extent to which the author has allowed the perspective of the beholder to intercept her notions of beauty and her perception of her body. It could have been a fantastic account peppered with insight and wisdom, especially since her narrative is one of a transition from a larger size and body structure to a slimmer one. Except the author’s motivation for such a transformation seemed to have been external rather than internal. While one respects her choice to move from large to small, one must question the intention which seems to stem more from self-loathing than self-love. By the end of the piece one wonders if in the process of weight loss, the author also lost her sense of self since newly thin, all her observations about herself and the people around her seem shallow and trivial. Hardest to digest is her last line which tragically demonstrates her loss of perspective. “My shelves groan with glorious food memoirs and books,’ she says, which indicates her inherent love for the sensuality of food. She follows this with—“… while my table is delightfully minimalist”— an admission of her denial of this sensuality. She garnishes this with the most dreadful, dangerous and submissive statement explaining her decision to compromise sensuality and even nutrition for the sake of appearance. “And I have the perfect answer when anyone insists I try a piece of something irresistible: thin feels better than any food can possibly taste.”
What this three-part series has proved, unintentionally, is that women increasingly see themselves as the casualties of a superficial society hung up on appearances. But the most dangerous side effect of this self-perception, which this series aptly demonstrates, is that women have bought into the beauty myth and are now active propagators of it. The colonization is complete. We have relinquished to the beholder the right to decide what is beautiful. What we have lost, in exchange, is our right to feel comfortable in our own skin, the right to guiltlessly indulge in food that is sensual though calorie inducing, the right to strut down the street without fearing if the blouse we’re wearing reveals our paunch, the right to feel good about ourselves irrespective of our weight and height and size and skin colour. When was the last time you, as a woman, looked appreciatively into a full-length mirror? When was the last time you simply smiled at yourself because you felt good and not because a man or a woman complimented the dress you were wearing?
Do our bodies shape our personalities? Only if we let it. It’s time we realised that beauty is really skin deep, it comes from being confident and assertive, from being blatantly comfortable in your own skin. It’s time to celebrate the body instead of denigrating and denying it through our perverse obsessions with appearance. As a photographer friend once said to me, “Beauty is what shines through from within.” I couldn’t but agree.