The stretch marks on my belly are erase-proof, my sagging breasts defy any attempts at upliftment and the daily-emerging wrinkles on my face make me really, really consider Botox. I don't believe I just mentioned "sagging" and "my breasts" in the same sentence. But you see that's what has happened. I am mother to an 11-month-old baby girl and since having my daughter, my whole concept of ‘beautiful' has done a volte-face. It's not about me anymore, not about what I consider beautiful. What then will I teach her about beauty?
Beauty is fair skin.
My earliest awareness of ‘beautiful' was that I wasn't it. I was six-years-old, maybe younger, and I still remember the incident clearly. It was summer school holidays and we were at my grandmother's.
Bollywood actress Rekha was everybody's favourite then; her movie Umrao Jaan, the talk of town. My aunties decided to play dress-up or rather decided to make my cousin sister and me play dress up. Their decision was unanimous: Since I was darker, I'd play the male while my cousin who was fairer - and prettier - would play Umrao Jaan. Quite ironic since the same Rekha - being toasted as the epitome of Indian beauty - had earlier been rejected by the Hindi film industry for her ‘dark' skin.
"Rang ta koto kalo" (Her complexion is so dark) is something I've been told all my life. As I grew older, the list of Why She Is Not Beautiful included being short (I am five feet), generous puppy fat (which hasn't been shed and since I'm older, is it now bitch-fat?) and lustrous pelt. Sorry, did I say pelt? I meant body hair and really bushy eyebrows. It covered my arms and legs. The hair that is, not the eyebrows.
And then there was my mother. She was (and remains) one of the most beautiful women I've known. She was everything I was not. She was taller, had maintained her figure despite two caesarians and she was very, very fair skinned. Like all little girls, I adored my mother (still do). I wanted to be like her - and despite the many tubes of Fair & Lovely - was constantly reminded I didn't match up. "Maa-er kichchu paaye ni" was another common refrain. It's Bengali for "Hasn't got anything of her mother's".
It didn't help matters that I was very non-girly. Not quite a tom-boy but very nearly there. I was precocious, talked a lot (a LOT) and had a very loud laugh. I used to copy my father; I've always loved his laugh. But a loud laugh in a girl was not considered feminine, not beautiful. "Don't laugh like a rickshaw-wallah" was often the admonishment. Of course I failed miserably.
Beauty is feminine.
The teen years were worse. My father was in the army and we changed cities every two/three years. My teen years - from 12-17 years - were spent in the Lands of the Fair. We lived in Delhi, Kalimpong and Amritsar respectively, where despite the many cultural differences between the three cities, fair skin was considered premium in all.
It was also the age when most girls start acting grown up, you know, getting their eyebrows done, trying a different hair-style, deciding on the clothes they like to wear. My parents were protective, Papa more so than Mamma. Now that I am a mother, I totally empathise with why my parents didn't want their little girl to be sexualized too early. In other words, why their little girl remained with un-waxed limbs, bushy eyebrows and a hairy upper lip till she was 17. It was very good strategy for maintaining little girl-ness but very bad for a teenage girl's self-esteem in terms of the beauty index.
Beauty is brazen?
Much as I was aware that I wasn't beautiful in the way the world (India) saw it, I did not lack in confidence. In fact I took it to other extremes. I did well at school, did better at extra-curricular activities - from dancing, debating to declamations - and was often made the class monitor, became the school Head Girl in grade 10 and the Prefect for Discipline in grade 11 (ha, ha). I wasn't beautiful and you might not want to flirt with me but boy, you didn't mess with me either.The schoolgirl bossiness was replaced by sarcasm in (young) adult years. I was abrasive, aggressive, a go-getter and I behaved as if I didn't give a damn about who/what was beautiful. In fact I actively fought against the prescribed definitions. I didn't wear make-up, didn't wear any jewellery (except ear rings) and refused to wear anything remotely frock-y (read girly). I had learned that the only way to stop people from noticing I was not beautiful was to make them notice something else. Like wearing only torn jeans and knotted shirts for two years. Taking up smoking. Getting a tattoo. Riding a motorcycle. Becoming irreverent towards everyone and everything. Rebelling, revelling.
It worked for a while, the war against beautiful. I was a journalist by then and caustic writing - perhaps sometimes good writing - got me jobs in quite a few places. I was being noticed, beautiful or not. The pen was mightier than the make-up brush.
There was the down side. The outer confidence was a façade for massive self-consciousness. I was still dark, short and plump. I had big breasts but then everyone knew that boys look at breasts without looking at the person. "My face is above my neck" was one of my favourite catch-phrases in my 20s. I loved my breasts for the feminity they finally accorded me; I hated them for creating more self-doubt: Only boob, no beauty?
I fell for the wrong men because somewhere I was grateful for any attention, anyone's attention. I hardly made friends because I was too busy proving a point: There's more to me than the breasts, or the beauty, or whatever you think I don't have. I was at constant war with everything.
Beauty is banal
Till one day I was exactly how I'd visualized myself at 13.
Other than special appearances at Bollywood awards functions, Rekha had been forgotten. Instead a bevy of new beauties were being toasted to. The Indian concept of beautiful was undergoing a seismic shift - or so the magazines insisted - and dark/dusky was suddenly the it thing. Bollywood apparently was reflecting what was happening in society. The latest it girls? The sultry Chitrangada Singh, the hot Malaika Arora, the sumptuous Nandita Basu, the lissome Bipasha Basu and the delectable (and talented) Konkona Sen Sharma. All of them dark complexioned. Rang ta koto kalo.
I weighed barely 37 kilos. I discovered my cheekbones, my waist, a nearly-flat stomach. And a whole lot of male attention. I was still not beautiful but I was considered really good looking. It came at a very dear price.
I had looked for love in the wrong place, again. There was mental and emotional abuse. I was constantly compared to the man's former girlfriend, who was - you guessed it - fair-skinned and beautiful. Even the man's mother told me, "Oh he loved X because she was beautiful you know". I was told I wasn't feminine enough. I believed it. I was told my loud laugh with the wink made me look "like a pirate" and that "I looked ugly". I stopped laughing. And then I was physically abused. It didn't look beautiful.
My heart was broken, my spirit shattered. It didn't matter that I looked good. I didn't give a damn. I lost any hope of being in love, of having anyone love me. Not the body, not the breasts, not the writing, not the face, me.
Beauty is my baby
I would perhaps have been lost forever... but for that someone who found me. He said he found me very beautiful; I rolled my eyes at him. He persisted. He said he wanted to love me, I tried pushing him away. He persisted. He said he wanted to be with me for who I was, I nearly died laughing. He persisted. Thank god for persistent men. I came away with him to Melbourne, Australia and now have a baby with him, my beautiful little girl.
She is considered dark by Australian standards but she is very fair by Indian ones. The nurse who records her growth has declared she will be "taller than her mother". She is adored by all four of her grandparents. Her father lives and breathes for her. Strangers in the supermarket say she has "the most beautiful smile" and her Nanna insists she has "stunning good looks." Even my mother is certain her skin is "softer than yours ever was". One of my friends, a Kiwi with a similar-aged daughter says, "She's so prutty". In short, my daughter, even as a baby, is everything I never was.
What then will I teach her about beauty?
Is it in the skin colour? Is it about how tall you are? Or how fat? Or talented? Is it defined by what magazines sell you? Or what television tells you? Does it depend on who loves you or how many? Is it your actions? How many friends you have? How many Facebook likes or Twitter followers?
Very honestly - and even though this might be anti-climatic - I don't know the exact definition I will give her. However, I am very sure of what I will not tell her. I will never compare her to another. Never tell her she needs to lose/gain weight or be someone she's not. She can laugh as loudly as she wants to. I will never ask her to behave in a certain manner or wear her hair in a certain way. Or, hang on... Having said that last bit, she cannot colour her hair purple or wear mascara till she's at least 20.