A few months ago, I had a personal encounter with a man – unable to find a better retort, his response was merely reduced to attacking my physical appearance. “Women like you who are bold, confident and arrogant now will become lonely in your mid-thirties when your physical appearance does not get you any attention!”
While it is easy to dismiss that as a sexist remark by someone who is drowning neck deep in male chauvinism, it is also important to understand the weight that the statement carries. There were two questions that immediately struck me.
- What made him equate all my self-worth and confidence and success to my physical appearance?
- If I were to ask myself and my friends about how we perceived beauty and ageing, what would our opinions be?
We ignore all the other qualities of a woman because we have been taught that for a woman, everything else is secondary in the face of beauty.
What makes a man or even another woman ignore all qualities and first look at the beauty of a woman? Even today, the first word (even I am guilty of this sometimes!) we choose most times to describe a woman has something to do with the way she looks.
At home, my two year old niece is constantly told how “pretty” she looks in whatever it is she is wearing and my family believes it is “cute” that she has already learnt to stare at the mirror. A stand-up comedian looked at my confident, intelligent and talented friend and made an “age joke” to keep her in place. We ignore all the other qualities of a woman because we have been taught time and again that for a woman, everything else is secondary in the face of beauty.
If we recognize the politics behind the language and understand why they ask for a picture of the bride first but always ask what the groom does for a living as the first question – we would understand that beauty standards are one of the ugliest tricks of patriarchy!
Is this why women grow up with insecurities about their appearances? Is this why men believe that attacking a woman’s appearance will push her in a corner?
This brings us to the next question – how do women like me perceive beauty and ageing and the inevitable diminishing of beauty (as defined by the society) as one grows older?
A lot of women, including myself, have internalized the idea that we need to be beautiful and that beauty comprises of a certain set of rules. I often find myself spending a lot of time on what I am going to wear or how I look even when I know that it shouldn’t matter. Why has this conditioning taken roots so deep? It is because beauty as defined by the society is everywhere.
We start to believe that we must either coNform to beauty standards or stay “ugly”.
I once saw a post made by someone I know that was recruiting someone for a job and one of the pre-requisites was that the applicant should be a girl and that she should be “reasonably” good-looking. Being in marketing, it is not uncommon for me to hear phrases like “Use a photograph of a fair or beautiful person for the advert!”
We see beauty everywhere – beauty that conforms to the strict standards set by this society. We start believing that we must either stick to these beauty standards or be considered “ugly”.
Even those who create awareness and believe that it is okay to not conform to those standards, say something on the lines of “I am okay being unsexy” because apparently, all of these standards are what makes you sexy. The idea that we are beautiful irrespective of age, shape, size or skin colour seems to be mere lip service.
The problem with believing that beauty is defined by a set of standards is that we often start applying it our own lives, creating insecurities and causing mental anguish. Why am I not tall enough? Why do I have acne? Why do I have so much facial hair? Why does my skin look so pale?
If we choose and continue to define beauty the way the standards are set in the society, beauty will be a diminishing asset. It will be a diminishing asset on which we spend time, money and effort thereby readily giving away a part of our financial independence and peace of mind away to a sexist society.
And, who is this society? Let’s not fool ourselves and believe that this is about people we know and see on a daily basis. I am talking about industries, fashion magazines and big firms that operate in the beauty market and peg their stock prices based on our insecurities. And no points for guessing that a large share of them are owned by men.
we are more than the lines on our forehead and the hair on our upper-lips.
Every single time I walk into a beauty store – I hear the well trained staff cry out something that is wrong with me. Blackheads. Whiteheads. Pigmentation. You are ageing too soon! Your skin has lost its sheen! And these accusations are often followed by a miracle solution – buy our product and be okay! From creams that keep my nails soft to vaginal whitening cream – the trick of these industries is to create a problem that was never a problem until they pointed it out and then offer a miracle solution to the problem and pretend like they are fixing life itself.
So, where do you strike the balance? Is this about renouncing everything that is beauty-related or is this about sticking to the narrative that conforming to beauty standards is a personal choice?
Not necessarily – it is simply about starting to recognise the politics behind the simple choices we make every day and trying to understand if our choices are really benefitting us or if it is benefitting bigger players who exploit us and profit off of our insecurities.
As far as that man who told me that women lose everything when beauty fades and to the other men and women who tell girls the same message – they need to come to terms with the fact that while beauty might be a strong hold on women today, we are more than the lines on our forehead and the hair on our upper-lips.
Perhaps beauty as mediocrely defined by the society will fade away but our loud voices, confidence and the spirit to live will not fade with time.
Featured Image Credit: Penielle Echille