Recently at the Sydney Airport, I swung by the Clinique counter in Duty Free to pick up my usual lip colour before flight. A lovely lady in a lab coat with the prettiest of pink lipstick serving me, told that my shade was out of stock. But she could suggest some other colours that would suit my skin tone. I hate trying on makeup in stores but she was so insistent that I couldn’t say no. She pulled out some disposable brushes, the sort one would see at hospitals for scoping samples to test for scabies or something and began dabbing them with new lip colours and handing over to try. It’s hard enough for me to put on lip colour straight from a stick so imagine fiddling with those tiny brushes! After a few miserable strokes, I was ready to flee. She wouldn’t let me escape and gave me two more samples to try when I finally said, “look I’m not very good with all this…” She calmly replied, “Yes I noticed. Now how about you just sit down and let me do this?” When I feebly tried to back away again, I got a firm “Oh just shut up and sit down!”
— Where is Shyamni? (@MaharishiSharon) December 13, 2015
After a few trials, she narrowed it down to 3 outrageously beautiful colours that I would never wear. My usual shade is slightly darker than my natural lip tone and blends in perfectly. “What’s wrong with a little bit of colour?” she asked. “Nothing. Just I won’t wear them.” “Why not?” “umm..” “Are you afraid the boys will think you are a dumb Sheila?” I hung my face in shame.
She was right. I’ve been aware of this tendency of mine to ‘blend in’ for some time now and though I’ve been trying very hard to work out of it, I occasionally fall back.
At a time when there is such strong for advocacy for women’s inner beauty, I’d like a moment for the outer beauty. Yes, today I’d like to talk about the cosmetic, outer appearances of a woman and especially that of desi women.
Growing up there were 2 types of Indo-Fijians girls in high school. Ones who maintained their eyebrows and kept them to an arched perfection and ones who sported virgin; never plucked, bushy Bert-from-The-Sesame-Street brows. No points for guessing which side I belonged to. Till the final year of high school, I wasn’t allowed to shave my legs. If you’ve been around on this blog for a while, dear reader you must have by now also depicted that I’m quite the hairy person from the number of times I’m at a wax appointment!
I vividly remember in class 8, there was a larger gap between my desk and the desk in front because of the teacher’s cupboard on the side. The class wit sat in front of me and one day I found him turned, hanging to the back of his chair, staring at my legs. Afraid my underwear was showing, I pulled down on my uniform and asked him what the hell was he staring it. He shrugged and said causally, “Nothing. I was just counting the hairs on your legs.” Bitch. He drives a passenger carrier van around Nadi these days and pulls his head out like a lawaki to wave every time he sees me. I’m not sure if he still remembers the number of hairs he counted on my legs but I sure as hell haven’t forgotten how mortified I was that day!
Indulging in makeup, up-do hairstyles, any priming and grooming during school years were usually disallowed by desi mothers. Perception was, perhaps even to some extent today, that girls who went to school sporting a bit of lip-gloss and eyeliner were ‘out’ and interested more in ‘other things’. There is a school of thought some desi folks believe in; that a girl’s beauty lies in her simplicity. Spending time looking at oneself in the mirror was vain. A good desi girl was supposed to equally divide her time between her books and helping with household chores.
And so in the ye old days, the implication was that any sort of enhancement to your body to make you look and feel better, was trying to ‘sexy’ yourself up which is not a good desirable attribute for a ‘gharelu’ desi girl. Highlighting your features and focusing on one’s physical advantages (like taking in your uniform in the sides to accentuate your figure) was bad; selfish. Attention-seeking. And that’s certainly how I was raised. To blend in. To never draw attention to myself.
A desi girl’s appearance only takes prominence when she comes of ‘age’. Then she is plucked and sparkled and displayed out as if some Thanksgiving turkey. Whitening creams, slimming teas, deep-neck sari blouses all to bait in a good potential suitor.
Desi society largely dictates a women’s physical appearance. At no point are girls taught to look after themselves for them. To dress for themselves. To look pretty, to feel pretty for themselves. Our outer appearances have always been a reflection of how others expect to see us. Like the older men in the family, like your father’s friends and your cousin’s husband’s extended family.
Some desi girls grow out of the simple, blend in mindset when they go to university or start working and become independent or start discovering themselves. Most of the time it’s a natural progression when we start wearing heels for men. But I’ve found that a large number of Indian women never get out of this ‘simple’ mindset. In Australian universities, there is a significant number of Indian international students. Out of them, these simple-looking girls used to be known as the fob (fobby) desi girls in my time. Number of Indian professional women working in Sydney and Melbourne metropolitan areas still go to work donning well-oiled braids. Of course, nothing wrong with them if you think you look your best in a Vatika-drenched plait! It’s just that as women we’ve never been told to celebrate how we look for ourselves unless there is an ulterior motive or an occasion associated with it or for the boys.
20’s was particularly complicated. And confusing. I was working on construction sites and I avoided anything pink like a plaque, afraid I’d be taken for a ‘Sheila’ by co-workers! Long sleeve shirts tucked in khaki pants with Bluntstones became my staple wardrobe. In trying to blend in and fit in, anything cosmetic apart from a hair cut/color felt like a selfish waste of time and money. I am a good person inside, isn’t that all that’s supposed to matter? And all through my life, I’ve scoffed and rolled my eyes, and actually slightly wary of elegant, poised women. Bit of the ugly duckling complex I suppose.
I’m lucky though that along the way, and I’ll always be in gratitude, to have met some wonderful women with a fierce and loyal sense of friendship and sisterhood who’ve made me realize the value of appreciating your own self, both inwardly and outward. Especially this kindred soul in San Francisco. I was returning from Peru one year and had only an afternoon to spend with her. In a subtle outing, in her big kind-hearted way without even letting me realize – she made a world of difference. And then there’s me mate in Sydney whom I’ll always be indebted to for a decade of lessons to put myself first. Women like Dana who love their jobs.
Today freshly painted pink toenails make me feel good. In my younger days it was a frivolous task for the blonde girls. Recently I met a female who commented that I looked nothing like a builder or how women usually look who work in a trade environment. I smiled to myself thinking if only she had met me a few years ago! It’s taken me some time to realize but my work has nothing to do with my femininity. How I looked and feel as a female, as a woman; was a choice that I made and how pretty I looked on a good hair day had nothing to do with the way my job was done.
Of course, inner beauty is what really matters. But one cannot deny that feeling when a member of the opposite sex runs their gaze up and down in pure appreciation for you. The euphoria between two attracted individuals is intoxicating and though on a cosmetic, outer level, in this fast moving, 10-second attention span lifestyle, it’s very important to reflect who we are on the inside, outside.
Not so long ago over chai, I asked Suruj (my ever elegant mother with the most gorgeous skin) why had she always down played on how important looks were. On why instead of teaching her daughters that your outer self was something to be proud of, celebrated – she endorsed the blend in, hide yourself path? Suruj wistfully said she wished she knew better then. But she raised her daughters in time where the only way to ‘protect’ your daughter was to make her look undesirable. Such is our desi world.
These days though every morning before I go to work, without fail, without fail Suruj always adds ‘you look great, my pretty girl!’ In a way, this blog is also a documentation of how Suruj has also grown over the years, questioned her thoughts, changed her perceptions and dealt with a different Shyamni every year and while still fiercely loving me as her first child.
While inner beauty is priceless, outer beauty must be celebrated. Not in a like those before & after wedding makeup photos on Facebook or in support of a ‘total coverage’ product but in a holistic way – literally teaching our daughters to flaunt what your mamma gave you! No matter what color, size, shape, texture. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and we must empower our daughters that every time, they look into the mirror – they smile at themselves confident as the prettiest of all.
Tell your daughter she’s smart but also tell her she’s the best looking thing in the world as well. If we affirm to our daughters that they look beautiful as well – we’ll just be making more content, happier women for the future.