“You are so smart,” “Avleen, you are so intelligent!” or “Damn, you look so confident!”
These are the various ways people — my parents, friends and teachers — have always praised me. I grew up in a family where intelligence was always more valued, and appreciated rather than physical beauty. Whenever I wore a new outfit, or did a new hairstyle, my Mum would look at me, hold my face in her hands and say, “You look so smart.”
Same dialogue, same encouragement.
And I inherited this positive outlook about brains before beauty and femininity.
I had no notion of beauty which my parents passed down to me. Slim figure and petite waist, large hips and breasts, longer lashes and fair skin, manicured nails and eyebrows on fleek were something I was unaware of. These were the images media fed to my developing brain. But because my parents never commented on these things, I never formed an opinion about them. But I thought that these were Bollywood’s paraphernalia, not mattering in real life with real people.
I knew real beauty, the true beauty that actually exists, is achievable and defined by humility, intelligence, empathy and loyalty. And I was right. But also, I was a child. I was working with this absurdly abstract notion of beauty and putting my own spin to it, rather than regarding it as flawless skin and enchanting voice, I knew the more general knowledge I had of the world, I was beautiful. As long as I knew how majority of the things worked around me, the electricity in our homes to the lightning in the sky, the solar lamps in the streets to the nutrients in my food, I knew I was beautiful.
I was 12 and I had no previous notion of beauty that was linked to physical aspect of my body.
Till grade eight, I never bothered to even look twice in the mirror while putting sunscreen or worry about my oily skin, or my under-developed figure. And then it dawned upon me that beauty is also physical. It is not just the sweetness in a person’s heart, it is also the sweetness on a person’s face. In grade eight, my friends were talking about boy friends and I was still obsessing over Roger Federer and fighting my friends in the Messi v/s Ronaldo debate. And all of a sudden, I stopped feeling beautiful. I became aware of my features that the society labelled as “flaws.” I noticed the stretch marks on my back I got from abrupt weight loss due to typhoid in grade six, I noticed the tiny black spots on my face and pestered Mum to remove them somehow, I noticed the belly fat, the thick nose, my hairy body…I noticed the things that I have had from ages but never observed them so carefully because I never knew they were called “flaws.” My body suddenly had these features that I hated, some that I was born with, and others I could not prevent, that now shaped my perspective on my life.
Come teenage years, beauty became oddly subjective, not just in the sense that my beauty was biased on what I thought was enchanting, or cool. But this new beauty was also subjected by the opinion of others, my peers and the people in media who had no idea I existed.
I was still confident, I was still the smart girl in the class, the nerd and the “insufferable know it all.” I never shied away from voicing out my opinion, but I never felt pretty. Beautiful became a strong word, and I no longer felt comfortable using it for myself. People called my clever, I believed them. People called me smart as Einstein, and I believed them. People called me lovely, or even cute, I thought they were being sarcastic, and mocking me.
Mum still called me her confident daughter, and the smart one all the time. She never called me pretty. And I hated her for that. I thought that if Mum could at least assure me that I looked pretty, and adorable, I could feel better about myself. Only if…
But I was wrong. Mum spent years calling me smart and brainy to ingrain this idea in my mind that being called beautiful is not the best thing in the world, that beauty is an ever changing variable, that it could be modified, it could be surgically induced, it could be altered using scientific means, not smartness. Mum made sure I always prioritized my intelligence over my physical looks.
I know getting your perfect looks is hard, but defining beauty in your own terms is vital. We live in a place where while some notions of beauty are as static as ever, some are constantly changing. Confidence is the new sexy. Flaunting your flaws and firing back at the hypocritical and stereotypical society is beautiful. Breaking the norms is sexy. Showing your talents and respecting others is beautiful. While physical beauty is still sought after big time, people are understanding that being who you are and not changing yourself for others is more important than trying to fit in the society’s “36–24–36” notion.
I, like almost all the people of the world, deal with body image issues daily. I know it is a fight I have to fight daily, and even though there are days when I succumb to the norms set by the others, beauty for my should be only subjected by me. If beauty for me is confidence and being the ““insufferable know it all,” then that is it. And if beauty for you means broad shoulders and abs, curves and natural hair, then that be it.
Beauty is subjective, but it should not be subjected by others.