COVID-19 has cancelled our compulsory subscription to conventional beauty. How do we respond?
I shifted houses two weeks before my workplace made it compulsory to work from home. As a Modern Indian Woman (MIW) juggling work and money and mental health (and the patriarchy, obviously), it took me a while to actually purchase any furniture.
In the time the Indian government went from “It’s not a health concern” to “Shut it down! Shut it down!”, I had just enough time to get some storage for my clothes and a bed. I was not in a rush to get much else in any case, and I completely forgot to buy a mirror.
It didn’t even cross my mind when curfew, and then lockdown, came around. So I woke up fresh (not really), on the first day of Proper Quarantine with one small makeup mirror which is 5 inches in diameter at best.
It got me thinking… can I, MIW supreme, survive (at least) 21 days with just me and my body and no mirror to tell me what I actually look like?
And that got me thinking some more (as it does): will we, people of the world, survive in an economy wherein beauty is not classified as essential goods and services?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (but the beholder is very toxic)
At Kool Kanya, we sit down every once in a while and line up the articles we will be writing in the coming weeks. Before quarantine became the word of the year, I was going to write an article about body shaming in the workplace.
Then the location of the workplace changed drastically. Which means the location of the body has changed as well. Whether or not we like to admit it – particularly as MIWs – how we hold and view our bodies in office is radically different from the way we do at home.
Home is where we retreat to our problematic pimples and under-eye bags and unharvested moustaches. Home is also where our minds symbolically unhook the bra strap which holds in all the things we dislike about our body.
In the world outside our homes, we are constantly monitored.
Family, colleagues, peers, media, advertisements, society at large —everyone has notions of beauty, and they fully expect that you will conform to them.
It’s toxic, sure. But it is also everything else that comes with a toxin (or a virus). It has us pulling our hair out, first from our body and then from our heads as we try to appease the world around us with Beauty.
So the question arises once more: what happens to our standards of beauty when something comes along, and it is more overwhelming than the constant push to ‘Get the right contour!’ or ‘Shave with yet another pink razor.’?
We laugh about it first, of course. Haven’t we all seen those posts about women emerging from quarantine with more eyebrows than face?
But do not forget, you can laugh and exit a social media app. You can’t exit society quite so Thoreau-ly.
And societal standards? Even less so!
Still they (the standards of beauty) rise
At age 20, I discovered feminism. It was, as the spiritual among us would say, my enlightenment.
My journey to feminism has all the ingredients of a great drama too! There was loss, there were obstacles, the antagonist was a classic woman against society, there was a treasure at the end of all the discourse.
But you see, I am neither the only feminist, nor am I the only MIW. And feminism for MIWs is very textured and nuanced. A lot of our feminism hangs up in the air in text bubbles, and very little finds its way into practice (more on practice in a bit).
Take one my biggest feminist challenges, body hair.
I’ve been getting waxed since I was 14, but I cannot honestly tell you why I made it such an integral part of my lifestyle. Sure, I like smooth skin. But I also don’t like pain. Did I not dislike pain enough to overcome this conundrum? Why did smooth skin win every single time, when I didn’t even know why I wanted it?
Anyway, feminism gave me a very immediate answer to that problem, and a solution for it too.
Answer: You’re probably doing it because women are generally expected to remove their body hair because of current conventions of beauty. Besides which, you’ve always seen women with smooth skin in your community and in the media.
Solution: Stop participating in conventional standards of beauty for a small period of time. Find out whether you actually want to remove your hair, or whether you are doing it because society wants you to. Make a fresh start!
And speaking of fresh starts…
You wanted a clean slate? Well, you got it!
So let’s talk practice.
As feminists, a lot of the things we advocate for would be a lot easier to make happen from a clean slate position.
In terms of beauty, like in terms of household responsibilities, our relationship with the idea of it will change only in the face of something radical. Without access to the capitalistic structure that causes us to consume both standards and products of beauty, we will be left with nothing but ourselves, our unthreaded eyebrows and our notions.
The ease with which we are (usually) able to purchase is what keeps us from realising what we want to do, and what we think we need to do.
And trust me, I know that class plays a huge role in this. I’ve heard a lot of vitriol directed towards parlour didis, but truth be told they are just filling a consumer demand. They are in no way driving the demand; it is the media, the advertising, the cosmetic market that are driving us into the parlours.
The reality is that we have been conditioned into believing certain ideas of beauty. And honestly, I think this is a good time to think about these things.
As I’ve said before, I’ve done the clean slate thing, so I know the feeling of questioning everything about your relationship with your body. If someone as conditioned as I could un-condition, I am very certain that we can at the very least disengage from these ideas, if not unlearn them completely.
You can’t yell “Go toxic standards of beauty, go!” like you yell “Go corona, go!”
I’d love to say that all this is easy. It isn’t. It is downright morbid that it has taken a pandemic for us to rethink things: working conditions, migrant workers, gender roles, equal labour, beauty…
As a feminist myself, I find it hard to understand why it takes the possibility of the world ending to think about changing it. And as a feminist, I also know that it is an extreme privilege to even be able to muse while this pandemic is raging through the world.
And here’s the real kicker: I am the MIW who stopped removing her body hair cold turkey nearly four years ago, but I’m also the MIW who examines her ever-darkening upper lip in the one small useless mirror in my house. The same mirror I use to apply a full face of makeup sometimes.
It’s true: I am writing a whole article on detaching the self from beauty, but I use products which are literally categorised as beauty products. But there is a layered, nuanced MIW answer to this. I have never felt more beautiful with makeup, or less beautiful without it.
I’ve adored cosmetic products all my life, before hating them (feminism is a bumpy ride, y’all!) and then fully loving makeup. All this upheaval, only to realise the fact that I don’t like makeup because it makes me look beautiful.
I like makeup because it can make me the most colourful person in the room. That’s not a social construct, that’s a male bird instinct; albeit, devoid of the desire to impress a mate.
And it isn’t just personal relationships with beauty which change standards. Sure, we are all drops in an ocean, but that doesn’t change the fact that some wavemakers have boats.
Take the Malaysian government, for example. They’ve asked women to wear makeup at home and to not nag their husbands.
Who knew a government could police beauty inside our homes like that? I did, but that’s because I have had the privilege of resources and guidance when it comes to cultural norms. Not everyone does. And I think that’s why our conversations about beauty are so complicated.
How do we change that?
Closing remarks to open up beauty standards
I think (as a utopian feminist MIW) that we need to practice kindness.
Beauty has been objectified by the global culture we live and breathe, and we need to subjectify it. With kindness.
We have to be kind to each other in relation to our bodies. I can pretend all I like, but the reason I kept removing my hair – even as an adult with autonomy over my body – was probably because I was afraid of being gazed at by the eye of the beholder.
Look, we may never get another opportunity to live a lifestyle wherein beauty is not an essential commodity. I, for one, want to take advantage of it.
I want to live a life where every choice I make about presenting myself to the world is informed.
So while we are stuck at home and agonising over the fact that we are living in less-than-conventionally-beautiful bodies, let’s reconsider.
Let’s rethink the disgust, anger, and discomfort with which we look at ourselves; even if it is just within our small, isolated communities.
We may not have a boat to chart the waters of beauty standards, but boats are kept afloat by the drops of water which come together to form this ocean. Let’s make waves!