Shattering the ‘beauty myth’…

Reading and rereading classics is a constant source of joy for me. It amazes me that every couple of years when I revisit my favourites such as Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird; Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and of course that delightful and unputdownable novel by Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, the narrative unpeels for me a fresh layer of perspective, wonder, awe and admiration.

These days I am into reading the brilliant prose penned by black female writers… Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s searing and award-winning Half of a Yellow Sun; Alice Walker’s classic The Color Purple and the Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s unforgettable classic The Bluest Eye, about which a review in The New York Times had said: “so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry”. In a recent edition of The Bluest Eye, (I must confess here my weakness for hoarding several editions of my most favourite books!) the author says that the title of her book has its genesis in a childhood friend in elementary school once confessing to her that she yearned for blue eyes. The very thought and visual of a black girl with blue eyes “violently repelled” Morrison, and set her wondering why this girl was not happy with what she had and wished such a radical alteration in her external appearance which would actually make her grotesque.

Morrison’s reference to “racial beauty” and the American standards of seeing beauty only through a white prism… fair skin and blue eyes… much more strongly in the 1900s than now, gives us so much food for thought. Because in so many parts of India, even today, a woman’s beauty is equated to a fair complexion. The plethora of “whiteness” creams that have sprung up in the Indian markets over the last few decades, and their patronage, also by men in recent times, is a testimony to the Indian craze for white skin. We just have to go through our matrimonial ads to reaffirm the Indian male, or his entire family, craving for a “fair bride”. And slim too. Not only feminists, but all sensible people, have protested against the kind of pressure such stereotypes put on generations of Indian girls, blessed with healthy and glossy brown skin, but who believe that they are somehow wanting in that questionable department of ‘beauty’. Slowly but surely this beauty myth places and then tightens its vice-like grip around their insecurity, resulting in their rejection of themselves, for something as silly and stupid as not being born with a fair skin! The loss of self-esteem that can follow in the minds and hearts of millions of such women can have horrific consequences and leave them all broken inside.

The cover story of this issue is on depression. Rejection of oneself because of external appearance, and that too based on misplaced and warped notions of beauty, can also, and I’m sure does, result in depression.

As women… mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, aunts, etc, let’s come together in our family lives to firmly and forcefully reject this ridiculous stereotype… that fair and slim is beautiful. Let’s reaffirm and reiterate that while a brown/black skin can be stunningly beautiful, what makes a woman’s persona is not just her appearance, but her intelligence, her wit, the sparkle in her eye, the kindness in her heart… and a hundred other qualities which make a woman so special!

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Rasheeda Bhagat

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