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Beauty and SexualityCategoriesThe I Column

Beauty Lies in Contradictions

I think most children (and at times irrespective of gender) land up in front of the mirror with lipstick across their faces, and all kinds of makeup products on their body parts. I have definitely done this multiple times as a kid, which resulted in broken lipstick strewn across the floor. I was more often than not punished for destroying expensive imported cosmetic products. Now looking back, to two decades ago, I wonder what motivates and initiates children into putting on make up. Is it a simple imitation of women in the household dressing up? Is it the idea of colouring yourself like a colouring book? Or subconsciously is it doing a lot more? I am not claiming to present any answers here because I am not a psychoanalyst, not even remotely. But what I am is a feminist who is struggling to perform, actualise and articulate her position on ideas of beauty and sexuality.

We as women have always known beauty exists and it has standards. Themedia around us has ensuredthat we are aware of and constantly surrounded by material that defines beauty, mostly for heterosexual women,and that emphasises consumption. So, capitalism is at the root of how beauty is manufactured, presented and consumed, but I am not going to discuss capitalism, neoliberalism and its effects on women, because that’s a discussion for another time. What really perplexes, confuses, disturbs and amuses me are the notions of beauty and representations of sexuality that have changed over a period of time and how women are engaging and struggling to find their places in this paradigm.This is primarily also because we have been taught to function in binaries. Therefore, while beauty is equated with femininity, feminism is equated with dismissing the notion of beauty itself. But as all of us know it is not true and many women do not play by this rule. On my social media, I have fierce and absolutely kickass feminists posting photos with brightly coloured lips or telling me about new shades they are trying out. I feel inspired. I feel the brightness in very dark times. I feel like a phenomenal woman (not only because of the lipstick, nonetheless it’s a small part of it) as Maya Angelou very eloquently put it.

I know it might trouble some of you that this article is only discussing femininity through makeup and material things that define beauty. It is true, I am doing that, and there are a few reasons for it.  First, women are only viewed as corporeal beings embedded in roles that actualise them only through their bodies. Thus, ignoring femininity as an embodied process would be a true negligence on my part. Also, because theoretical discussions on beauty and sexuality are available in abundance by the superwomen and rock-stars of feminisms (see Maya Angelou, Naomi Wolff, Jessica Valenti, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and many more) who have done such a fabulous job that I do not need to repeat what they have said. What I essentially want to do is talk about sexuality and beauty through makeup and outer appearance because I have a sister who is 16 years old and who shapes herself and her sexuality in ways that challenge not only my ideas on beauty but my feminism.

It is a very painful and heart-breaking struggle when one’s feminism slips into making one into a protective patriarch (which one has fought against most of her life). If the discourse you have been part of suddenly seems inadequate, then what do you do? You find yourself amongst contradictions and hypocrisies and trust me, no feminist text or feminism prepared you for this. This article through a personal narrative is seeking to represent, pose concerns, challenge and understand how older generations of women need to discuss and debate with younger generations of women on the issue of beauty and sexuality. If beauty is a myth, so is the way we denounce it. Every person has their own understanding of it, but how it comes into being is the problem here.

Ramona, my 16-year-old sister, is 12 years younger than me. I have been a partial mother figure to her since the day she was born. I have not only changed her diapers and burped her but taken her to school, attended her Parent-Teacher Meetings, got her ears pierced and bought her first lip balm. This was all at an age when she would barely question my notions about womanhood, sexuality, beauty, makeup, gender roles. She would be happy to just be my doll (to be honest). In the last few years our relationship has changed. It’s not a discussion anymore.

Ramona and I had starkly different experiences in relation to beauty. She started getting pimples on her face at the age of 10 whereas I never did. She was made conscious of her bad skin by everyone around her: parents, friends, relatives, and even strangers. She was made to feel unfit amongst girls who had shiny and clean skin. It was often implied that she was not pretty, and it was because of her skin. Then one morning I saw her putting on makeup to go to school. I had gone to the same school and all I ever put on was moisturiser. I asked her why she was putting on make up. She said, because her skin is not bright and has patches. I said,“Who cares in school about this?” She said,“You won’t understand”, and walked away. Yes, I did not understand. It perturbed me. Why does a girl of 13 need foundation and face powder for school?Later on, I saw her put makeup while she was leaving to go shopping. This time I passed a snide comment about her obsession with looking conventionally beautiful, and how shameful it was. She just rolled her eyes at me and left. Now, when she is 16, not a single day passes by when she does not apply makeup. It has become as much a part of her, as writing in my journal is for me.

A couple of months back, when she was visiting me, I was getting ready to go to the university. I took out a bright shade of lipstick and applied it. She smirked at me and said, “Why don’t you stop being conventionally beautiful?” I looked at her and then the mirror. Was I setting an example of how to “be beautiful” or was I exhibiting hypocrisy of a kind? I did not know how to discuss it. She is young, a teenager who likes attention from friends and boys but not from family. How to explain my politics of makeup to her? Will she even understand that there is a politics to it? I was running late, and the words came out of my mouth before I could even realise what I was saying, “You will not understand.”

On my way to work I could not get what both of us had said out of my head. Are they irreconcilable ­– my politics and her everyday experience? How is it that my negotiations seem irrelevant to the ones she engages in? Am I imposing my ideals on her? Is that what most of us do as feminists, we agree on notions in our context and expect them to be accepted unconditionally by younger women? Maybe none of this is true for other feminists and women, but it did turn out to be true for me.

That same day I took Ramona out for coffee, away from family and household pressures. I asked her, “Why do you use makeup?” She rolled up her eyes and said, “I am not doing this with you again.” I said, “We need to because we both use makeup, but I think our reasons and intentions are different.” She asked, “Does it matter?” I said, “Yes, because there is a lot of history to it.” She asked, “How will anyone figure it out?” I said, “That’s precisely the point. Why should we care about what others think? And if we do care, what does it make us do? We should be responsible for our actions at the end of it all, even though we know pressure is not an easy thing to resist.” She stared at me for a bit and then said, “I like putting make-up because my skin looks even and glows. My pimples get covered. People do not look at me weirdly. I feel like everyone else and not somebody who is diseased. I know people used to laugh behind my back because of the way I looked. Also, I do not look too dark.” To be honest all of these reasons pierced through my heart but then I remembered how I was called the ugly duckling when I was in Class 7 and 8 because I was dark, short and had no boobs.

I held her hand and said, “I empathise more than you can imagine. I was called ugly for a large period of time when I was in middle school. But you need to realise that beauty standards are expectations created by society for women (mostly) and the bar is constantly raised. For now, you feel you are able to match your peers’ expectations by applying foundation. Tomorrow you might feel some other part of your body is inadequate and you will want to change that. It is a never-ending story. Also, the desire to be fair is our colonial baggage through which we have internalised racism. Why do you want to look ‘fair’? It is because you have grown up believing that fair is beautiful and dark is filthy. Our movies, media, family, friends and every other source around us have made us believe that.  The association of a particular colour with beauty is the most ridiculous thing because people all over the world possess different skin colours and they are all beautiful.

But I am not saying that you need to abstain from applying makeup. It does feel good to see a nice colour lipstick, kajal, eyeliner, or whatever it is that one uses, on our faces. But is it something that helps you feel better or is it because it helps you fit in? I know right now, fitting in matters a lot because it is definitely not easy to be a teen, but time should tell you that being beautiful can be comfortable. It should make you feel at ease. This morning when you asked me why I put lipstick and I dismissed you for it,what I really wanted to say was: it gives me confidence and makes me comfortable. I like bright lipstick on me. But this is not to say that I am not influenced by beauty standards of society. Obviously, subconsciously all of us act in ways that makes us feel part of our friends/peer circle. We are attracted to conventional beauty and we want to be part of it, but we should be aware and conscious of the fact that the women who follow rules of conventional beauty have to work really hard towards it, sometimes it is for the male gaze and sometimes it isn’t. Yet, there is a lot of pressure involved. Sometimes it is an uncritical act because most women grow up thinking that they need to be a‘perfect woman’ which is based on outer appearances. I have been thought of as ‘less of a woman’ on many occasions because I refuse to follow every norm and standard in the beauty book. We should be aware that women and people who do not apply makeup are also beautiful and perfect. We should not judge or mock them. In the same manner we should not call women bimbos, duds, or awful names because they follow conventions of beauty. We all have learnt to judge women and mock them for every little imperfection whereas cis-men can be as imperfect as they want. We are disciplined into being ‘women’ and cis-men are let loose to discover themselves. I am not giving you this lecture to tell you to not apply makeup. Obviously do it, but do it with awareness that it makes a certain statement and you should know why it is that outer appearance matters so much. You know we as humans follow ideologies and values, but we do fall prey to our subconscious more than we would like to admit.The subconscious makes us act or follow things that might not fit perfectly with our ideologies. We all experience saying things or acting in ways that we do not necessarily understand or find them contrasting with our beliefs. This is when we start to feel contradictions in our everyday lives, like judging someone for wearing makeup or a fellow feminist for using sindoor. These acts of judgment and thinking that we know what is ‘right’ are where contradictions appear.So, living with contradictions is that part of our lives that exposes the injustices and inequality in a society rooted in patriarchy. But we can, and should be, be alert and aware of contradictions. It is at these moments that we can resist becoming judgmental and intolerant, and try being empathetic — a quality desperately required by not only feminists but every human.”

After a moment Ramona looked at me and said, “I get it, but it is hard. How do you know your makeup is for you or for a boy? I do not dress up for boys but mostly because of my friends who put makeup, dress their hair and wear fashionable clothes. Everyone seems to like them. They are popular. They have a certain presence.” I said maybe sounding a little disappointed, “Yes, they must be, but they are not aware of why they trying to be a particular way or what is making them do it. They are simply following the rulebook which is written by certain privileged men to consume beauty in the manifestations they enjoy. But you can realise that beauty can be found in anyone. Presence can be felt through your personality. Men’s presence is often evaluated through their personality.”

Ramona, within a second, said, “Maybe what you’re saying is true and maybe I will realise it but for that I need to grow up and be older. You’re realising this now and I will reach my own conclusions, right?”

Yes, obviously she is right. She will reach her own conclusions. She will find her own reasons to negotiate with her body and people around her. This conversation, mostly a rant for her, did a lot more for me than for her. Younger generations of women with access to more information than we had, need their space to articulate their experiences and perceptions. They are not shaped by the same movements and struggles like we were. We should not expect them to be our accomplices because we have had to fight for certain things. It is time we realise that we need to find ways to communicate and share our experiences rather than making them normative. What troubles me is the post-feminist narrative that the current generation of women actualise, but, as I said, we should find a way and space to create dialogues rather than belittling them. All I could do was say what I felt and experienced. I have been the overprotective patriarch and now it is time for me to find solidarity with my sister who will go through myriad experiences. I need to be there to support her while at the same time make her question her decisions rather than being a judgmental feminist.

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Article written by:

Shivani Gupta is currently pursuing her PhD, in the fields of gender, sexuality and urban studies from South Asian Studies department, at National University of Singapore (NUS). Over the years, she has worked on issues of feminism, gender, sexuality and technology. She loves to walk in urban and non-urban places and analyse women and their spatial behaviour. She loves to read and thinks it’s a necessity for her to grow. Her survival kit comprises of coffee/masala chai, chocolate, feminist novels, lip balm, kajal and movies.

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