“Beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.” – K. Hosseini
Stealthily and openly, invisibly and brazenly, beauty snakes through conversations, decisions and opinions. The discussion of beauty is not just the domain of subjects like narcissism or nature’s trickery to perpetuate a species. Beauty is a matter to be discussed sociologically, for beauty is far more than just how we perceive ourselves, it is also how we perceive each other. In a world that paints less with words and more with filters, it becomes important to examine the intrusion of physical appearances into how one thinks, and leads life. No longer just a measure of what one finds visually or aesthetically soothing, beauty has now become a socially approved metric for the value we place on people.
With Indian matrimonial advertisements that yearn for ‘fair’ and ‘slim’ brides and show business boosting looks over talent; right from the start it is ingrained and embedded into us that society fosters a reward mechanism that favours the handsome.
Perhaps beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift but is it really given randomly?
What truly needs to be pondered upon is, how is it that there is a set of bodily and facial attributes that have been magically fixed as attractive and thereby high value? Why is light skin preferred to dark skin in most cultures? Why are perky breasts seen as more attractive as compared to breasts that sag? Why is it easier for one to find a woman with straight blonde hair aesthetically pleasing but not a woman with frizzy black hair?
The fraud in beauty is that we have been made to believe that there is something inherently beautiful about certain attributes, such as having fair skin. We do not find fair skin beautiful because it is embedded into our genetic constitution to find it so, it is not an innate characteristic of our species to find fair skin beautiful. We find it beautiful because society has deemed it to be beautiful. We find it beautiful because society tells us to.
“She had perfect features, with her eye, nose, lips, and ears the right size and in right places. That is all it takes to make people beautiful, normal body parts – yet why does nature mess it up so many times?” – an un-ironic quote from a Chetan Bhagat novel. Society manufactures and dictates the way we feel about beauty while making us believe that those feelings and judgements arise organically from within. Beauty, is a social construct and this construct too rests upon a farce, which revolves around Eurocentricity and gendered expectations.
“Yeh chaand sa roshan chehra, zulfon ka rang sunehra, yeh jheel si neeli aakhein, koi raaz hai inmein gehra, tareef karun kya uski, jisne tumhe banaya?”
This song, from a 1964 film in India, casting Indian actors to be watched largely by people living in India, glorifies white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes and people actually related to this song to the extent that today it is considered to be a classic. How does this make sense?
European standards of beauty are living proof that colonialism once prevailed. When European countries colonised African and Asian nations they did not just see the people they subjugated as ‘different’ from themselves but also as inferior, as subhuman. Colonialists glorified everything European as a superior, more civilised and refined way of leading life. They attached ‘disgust’ to everything native and indigenous. Idealisation of European beauty was a by-product of colonisation.
The skewed power dynamics of the world allowed white people to narrate the norms for beauty. Colourism today, grips cultures across the world. From black women who look at their skin and wonder how much black is too black, to a nation of brown people being marketed skin lightening creams under the brand of ‘Fair & Lovely’. Colourism grips us both by the bane of society and the bane of our selfhood. And while beauty standards affect everyone, they affect people of colour way more. Because it has made us forget what we actually look like. Through the alchemy of Eurocentric standards of beauty, the untamed wavy black hair on the heads of Indian goddesses look mythical to Indians, yet somehow Cameron Diaz’s blonde hair looks more natural and more attainable. The conventional archetypes of beauty do not even coincide with traditional looks.
The normativity extends to gendered expectations too, as society and media continue to be obsessed with narrow waisted women and tall, brawny men. Once again, the sham lies in the fact that these expectations are assumed and not intrinsic to any gender. In a day and age when media is ever present and more dominant than anything else, when one does not see a single woman having body hair on screen, it’s almost as if society wants us to pretend that women do not have body hair. This promotes a form of normativity that borders on delusion! Media latches on a sense of disgust to chest hair, and sells us the lie that it is ‘gross’ and ‘repulsive’ for men to have it. Media strips away what is natural, and in its place synthesises a new ‘normal’. This new ordinary makes the state of nature seem abnormal, if it didn’t it would be easier to picture Chris Evans with chest hair. Ah! Never mind.
These imposed standards are so deeply entrenched in us that even when one is aware of the sham surrounding beauty, they visit one in private moments. Like the inward rejoice of having hair straightened because it feels as if frizz was something to be corrected, and straight just looks more ‘normal’. Or stopping a porn video midway because the woman having a tuft of pubic hair made it ‘uncomfortable’ to watch, or because watching people of colour have sex ‘feels wrong’.
But even when faced with these inner hypocrisies, one must remember that these dilemmas too are imposed and injected into the people by a media that rests upon the commoditization of beauty and reinforces the same toxic ideas. But ah! To hell with norms! It is the era for shaking up normativity and outraging beauty ideals!
Beauty, in all its failing and its glory, is subjective. “Beauty is subjective” is not a lie meant to console people who do not fall within conventional archetypes of beauty. On the contrary, ‘subjective beauty’ is the only truth, for beauty cannot and should not be standardised. Beauty does not conform, why then should its ideals do the same?
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