Of late, I have been very regular and disciplined about self-care and making sure I allot time for it in my everyday schedule. My calendar pops up with reminders to take care of myself in different ways. Sometimes, it asks me to read a poem. Other days, it asks me to write a letter to someone I love (on particularly positive days, I write letters to myself). But there’s one task in particular that I have been working on even before I understood the critical importance of self-care, self-love and body images, and that’s self-grooming.
Personally, I look at it as an incredible act of self-care, especially in a consumerist world of rising prices and beauty standards. An experimental haircut, trying on a new pair of earrings, a bright lip colour, or even wearing a skirt when your legs aren’t waxed and walking confidently down the street: these are revolutionary acts of self-care and self-love.
Of course, a lot of self-grooming activities that we indulge in are shaped by our class, caste, religion, sexuality, and more. I was once told by a classmate that she was forced to get her eyebrows threaded as early as when she was 15. This was because “well-shaped brows” are the only thing one can see when wearing a burqa. This did not make sense to me then and I concluded that she is definitely ‘a victim of oppression’ until much later, in high school, when she told me she feels beautiful every time she steps out of the parlour. I had bushy, unshaped eyebrows as a 17-year-old and my pity for her oppression suddenly turned into my envy about her perfect brows. It dawned on me how an act can liberate as well as shame a person, almost at the same time.
I was in graduate college, I think, when I had a conversation with an acquaintance who used to go to a men’s parlour regularly. He informed me about a nice little place in North Delhi that he used to visit regularly to trim his beard and moustache just the right length, get a chocolate facial at least once every two months, and get his eyebrows threaded. “Don’t get me wrong. I am not gay. I just like looking good,” he had told me. And I was both stumped and confused at the same time. When had looking good become related to one’s sexuality? Self-grooming, along with a million other things, apparently, not only had a gender but also a sexual identity. At that time, I had begun hearing the term ‘metrosexual’, which, frankly, sounded like a desperate attempt to hide one’s homophobia with an intellectual-sounding word. Like you just had to defend that you are straight with a straight face and straight eyebrows. Pun intended.
A man’s grooming needs are as much an aberration as a woman’s non-grooming needs. Every single time I have visited a parlour (irregularly, if I may add), I am lectured on the “abnormal” growth rate of my armpit hair or the white spots/pimples/freckles on my face that make me “ugly”. They tell me that my “tanned look needs to be removed” and I have to “work hard to look less dark”. Like it’s some kind of a communicable disease that needs to be taken care of, lest it spreads everywhere.
I have understood that beauty parlours are spaces where consumerism, capitalism and patriarchy amalgamate in the most vicious ways. Over the course of years, I have experimented and hopped from one parlour to another in search of a non-judgemental, happy and positive place. A place that doesn’t advise me to spend more money so I look less hideous. Of course, I am privileged enough to make that decision to spend or not spend the money that I have. But I have come to realise that a beauty parlour is a place that body-shames you the most. It is ironic because you go there to feel better about yourself, hoping that you will emerge looking different, feeling better and exuding increased levels of confidence.
A few years ago (when I was single), ahead of a friend’s wedding in Benaras, I visited a local parlour to get help with sari-draping and make-up. While the lady was helping me out, she gasped in horror looking at the hair on my stomach. She asked me why I hadn’t got it waxed. A simple “Because I didn’t want to” did not satisfy her. She probed further.
“I like hair over there. It makes me feel happy when I look at it,” I told her.
She seemed very uneasy and uncomfortable with that response.
“And your boyfriend is fine with it?” she asked. (But of course, as a woman, I need to be straight and in need of a boyfriend, potentially a husband.)
“Um. I don’t have one.”
“And now you know why,” she stated, as a matter of fact.
I never forgot that. But I learned that there is no one else that can make me feel good about myself except me. Not even the people I pay money to look/feel different (if not better). Learning to love myself became much easier after that. Because I figured if I wouldn’t be okay with my body – whether it is shaved, tanned, hairy, skinny, voluptuous, or freckled – no one else would be. And I will not let that happen.
*said Yrsa Daley-Ward
Cover image courtesy of Morgan Amelia