The concept of beauty has been fraught with social, political, and economic agendas and ideologies for a long time. Particularly for women today, adages such as “beauty comes from within,” or “everyone is beautiful in their own way” can never hold true, because beauty comes from the targets of corporations, and everyone is beautiful as long as they contribute to the burgeoning beauty industry. It is hardly remarkable that only 4% of women consider themselves to be beautiful. Being this elusive “beautiful” is especially difficult because we are a part of a society that places value on appearance, and being attractive is seen as imperative to obtain a healthy and fulfilling career and family. And yet, when women start taking an interest in their appearance, and try to meet the conventions of beauty set down for them, they are instantly derided as vain and shallow. In other words, shamed if you do, shamed if you don’t. This double hypocrisy is evident in what is termed as “selfie-culture.” The female form has been a favourite subject of art and photography, with the Renaissance providing many depictions of female beauty by male artists. When, however, women take control of depicting themselves and try to capture their own beauty, they are instantly condemned as self-obsessed.
Beauty has evolved from a political tool of subjugation to an economic one. Women of all colours and creeds are targets for the global beauty industry, which bombard us with advertisement campaigns funded by insecurities, for products that are manufactured along with standards of beauty. A recent Gillette razor advertisement starring Deepika Padukone showed visuals of smooth, hairless limbs superimposed on an unnatural background of palm islands, with a bit of martial arts thrown in to promote the patriarchal benevolence of this attempt being their burden to actually help women. Actors and stars are roped in to constantly reinforce the idea of how far we have to go to meet the standards of beauty, and how necessary it is to apply their particular combination of chemicals on our skin. A bar of soap is said to contain the key to every “female” attribute you lacked : soft skin, flowery scents, fair skin, not a single blemish.
In India, the beauty industry is a vast one, with sectors spanning from skin care, hair care, and beauty salons, to cosmetic packaging and raw materials. The dark side of the beauty industry can be seen in the INR 62 billion sector that is the skin care sector, in which the fastest growing segments are fairness creams and anti-ageing products. Of course, the beauty industry is based upon convincing people that they are not good enough, but the fairness cream sector is more harmful than others because it quantifies beauty on a racial hierarchy, giving rise to intolerance and social ignorance. The desirability of fairness in India is partly a hundred-year long colonial hangover, and partly an effect of casteism. The undercurrent is that those in power, at the top of the social pyramid, have been fair, and hundreds of skin-lighteners, fairness creams with shade cards, and armpit-whitening deodorants are churned out by the industry to fuel the despair of not being able to find opportunities in school, employment or marital partners because of dark skin. Several global corporations capitalise on this inequality, such as Unilever, which produces Fair and Lovely, Ponds White Beauty, and the whitening ranges of Dove.
Skin colour is as genetically determined as hair and eye colour, and depends on the amount of melanin found in the top layers of the skin. This is historically decided by how much the population is exposed to the sun. The consequences of skin-whitening creams which claim to reduce melanin can be dire: melanin protects the skin from sun damage and excessive reduction can lead to skin cancer. The levels of regulation within the beauty industry are scant, with minimal testing as to the effect of the constituent chemicals. As alarming is the cultural devaluation of women’s bodies as they grow older, the worth of an individual is determined by lines, spots, wrinkle and sagging. The worth of an individual is based on an expiry date, which Olay promises to hold up, and is used to extinguish voices, clearly visible in the short “shelf-life” of our actresses.
Keeping women focused on their appearance has been the most effective tool of the patriarchy. It is not just billions of rupees that are drained into the industry, but hours of time. Women are compelled to spend days of their lives at parlours in order to feel confident about themselves. The social unacceptability of body hair makes every dress a decision influenced by years of political undercurrents. As the Gillette razor advertisement highlights, women are objectified so thoroughly, that something as natural as body hair becomes a source of shame and hinders the pursuit of personal goals. And despite hours of pain and effort, just like the unruly feminine that needs to be tamed, the hair always grows back.
The commercialisation of the beauty industry has given rise to the “beauty dilemma” in feminism. Many feminists have to face the conflict between a feminist ideology that rejects sexual objectification and a cultural definition of femininity that is so ingrained that it is hard to separate manufactured ideals from genuine personal preference. The industry attempts to convince women who shun stereotypes to buy and wear makeup and lipstick by portraying the cosmetics as “not there, make-up that looks “natural”, a move that perpetrated a new cycle of shaming. Another way of dealing with the dissonance was in using the tools of the industry voluntarily, to express confidence and self-esteem. Thus red lipstick became a symbol of the emancipated woman, and the idea of wearing as much make-up as one wants without it reflecting on one’s mental capacities was born.
In Yuganta, Rabindranath Tagore wrote of a woman, ‘I am not beautifully perfect as the flowers with which I worship. I have many flaws and blemishes. I am a traveller in the great world-path, my garments are dirty, and my feet are bleeding with thorns. Where should I achieve flower-beauty, the unsullied loveliness of a moment’s life? The gift that I proudly bring you is the heart of a woman. Here have all pains and joys gathered, the hopes and fears and shames of a daughter of the dust; here love springs up struggling towards immortal life. Herein lies an imperfection which yet is noble and grand.’
We live in a world in which entire economies are dependent on the ability to exploit insecurities and ensnare women in hair spray, creams, and cosmetics. It is necessary to make informed choices, and not allow the bombardment of unrealistic images to detract us from our self-image and goals. We must see ourselves as individuals with ambitions and aspirations. A tan may be a sign of having worked in the heat with underprivileged children. Hard hands may be a result of hours of hard work. Stretch marks may be an indicator of dogged exercise. Wrinkles may show years of intelligence. Supposed deviations from conventional beauty standards are not imperfections, they are badges of an illustrious, fulfilling life. This is a truth that must be propagated, even if to do so, we make the very economy collapse.
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