How we see beauty

Exactly three weeks ago, my mother and I were in India preparing for my cousin’s wedding. We were getting facials done, and when the stylist arrived, my mother turned to me and asked me, oh-so-casually, “Would you like to get your face bleached?”

She asked the question like it was not a big deal, but I was immediately horrified. I shook my head and hurriedly told her no, I would not like bleach on my face, thank you very much. She shrugged, but gave me an admonishing look, like, “maybe someday you’ll understand.” A few days later, just hours before an event, I also threw a (small) diva fit when the stylist doing my makeup painted my skin at least four shades lighter than my actual skin color. My mother and sister gasped out loud when they saw it – in appreciation. I fumed angrily and cursed at my face before I wiped the makeup off and began re-doing it myself.

Bleaching your skin or painting your skin practically white might sound ridiculous to us here in the US, but, then again, how different is it from frying your skin in a tanning salon? Here, most of us might crave that perfect tan, but in India and indeed much of Asia in general, fairness cream advertisements have bombarded mainstream media, and, indeed, the mainstream consciousness. When it comes to beauty, it seems that we always want what we can’t have — but it begs the question — how do you know the difference between what you want and what you’ve been told you should want? In other words, are our ideas of beauty contrived?

Let’s make one thing clear: I have nothing against cosmetic surgery, skin creams, or diets. In fact, if I’d been offered a chance to bleach my skin a few years ago, I probably would have said yes. And it’s not as if there’s anything intrinsically wrong with wanting or indulging in the desire to make yourself look more conventionally beautiful (if you have the means, that is).

But I think it is important to recognize where our ideas of beauty come from and ensure that they aren’t negatively tied to our self-worth. Outer beauty is a part, and not a whole, of one’s identity.

There’s a statistic that says that women and girls see an average of 6,000 ads a day aimed at their physical appearance in some way. 6,000 ads. Let that sink in. And with the rise of visual-based social media platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, where fashionistas and beauty gurus dominate the scene, the quest for beauty has become a near-addiction for many. The line between what we see as beautiful and what we’ve been told to see as beautiful has blurred.

I’ll be honest and say that for a long time my standard of beauty, within my own head, was horrifically unhealthy. I wanted to look like a different race and a different body type, when I physically could not ever look that way. In part, it was a representation issue. How would I ever have considered myself beautiful when I saw no one who looked like me in the media? But, it was also part of the message that the media has thrown to females for decades now, that beauty is everything, and will get us everything, respect, money, power, or even love.

The truth, I’ve discovered, is that the way I look is a part of my life, but that’s it. Sure, it feels nice when someone compliments my appearance, but I know it doesn’t really mean anything. Nothing of great importance hinges on it. Self-worth, I’ve realized, is the best investment you can make, and giving that job to someone else, such as friends, relatives, or significant others, is an incredibly dangerous thing to do. It’s not to say don’t care about the way you look. But rather, shift the emphasis of your life to yourself: your emotional and physical health, finding your passions in life, expressing your creativity, and broadening your definition of beauty beyond society’s narrow interpretation.

Today, I actually want to look the way I do. I love the golden brown color of my skin. I like my “ethnic” features. I even like my flaws (as maddening as they can be sometimes). I’ve come to a place of acceptance with what I look like after realizing that achieving a particular standard of beauty, even one I’ve formulated for myself in my own head, hardly matters. With that knowledge, why wouldn’t I love myself? Beauty, at the end of the day, should be an expression of the healthy relationship you have with yourself. If you love yourself, you will look beautiful, whether you’re wearing a thousand coats of makeup or none at all.

About the Author

Namankita Rana
Passionate about technology, women's issues, art, fashion, and global politics. Though maybe not in that exact order.