Is beauty skin deep?

FOUL PLAY

Is beauty skin deep?

Women are conditioned to strive towards beauty all the time. Only a few manage to break the mould and find happiness, discovers Manish Gaekwad.

Lizzie Velasquez has been branded as ‘World’s Ugliest Woman’. All you have to do is type on Youtube and see the horror for yourself. She did it too. What she saw didn’t kill her - to quote the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche - it made her stronger.

Lizzie suffers from a rare type of neonatal progeriod syndrome, she cannot put on weight, and ages quickly. She’s gangly and not very pretty in the traditional sense of the term. At 25, she mustered the courage to fight back the hate with a TEDx talk (an international nonprofit community) in Austin, Texas, where she spoke to women of all ages about the nature of beauty and our predispositions about it. ‘How do you define yourself?’ Lizzie asked the audience. And many women in the audience returned home that evening, pressed to introspect: Am I ugly?

Certainly not in the eyes of Lizzie, who has turned it to her advantage, touring America as a motivational speaker. She has written a book, Be Beautiful, Be You (2012) in which she tells her readers to love oneself and not look for acknowledgment from others.But women all over the world suffer a far more chronic condition than Lizzie. That of being constantly told that if they are not beautiful, they will be unloved, unsuccessful, unworthy. They become common and ugly. 

Red herrings are everywhere. Look around, on television, in magazines, in films, where women are expected to look drop-dead gorgeous. If they look any less, there are a hundred different methods to achieve that super-goddess-ness. Ordinariness is no longer tolerated, now that feminism is four decades deep in its unglamorous grave.

How does one quell this deep-rooted insecurity? I asked a woman friend, ‘Do you feel you are ugly?’ She said, ‘Yes, physically, we are indoctrinated very early on. Our mothers eat certain fruits and dates to produce a ‘pretty’ child. No one wants an ugly child. When a girl is born in India, she’s already ‘paraya dhan,’ meaning she belongs to another family, where she will be eventually married. She is trained to be pretty all the time, trained in the art of housekeeping and cooking, trained to take good care of her looks and health, trained to look her best even in the most trying conditions, because she has to leave for another house one day, and her new “owners” will not welcome her if she does not look the part. Pretty is non-negotiable, it is a must. Boys can get away if they aren’t good to look at, they will have some talent, money, or will be amusing, but women have to be pretty.’

It doesn’t end there. ‘That isn’t the only kind of ugly,’ she says. ‘For some of us, city-bred women, who are fiercely independent and non-compliant to that kind of indoctrination, as we rebel and outgrow the training, there’s another beast in the room.’ Women are often challenged by their own kind. If it’s not their own lack of self-worth, it’s the competitive presence of another woman who is better looking. She transforms into a role-model, not necessarily in a healthy sense, and therefore makes those around her feel like they need to see a plastic surgeon soon.

How else does one make sense of the need for a fairly attractive - some may even call her pretty - woman like the Bollywood heroine Anushka Sharma to ‘enhance’ her looks. The young actress recently faced a lot of social media flak when she appeared on a chat show with an apparant lip job - which she later clarified was ‘a temporary lip enhancing tool.’ Did she really need it? If the countless tweet opinions and memes are to be considered, the answer is an obvious ‘no’. So why does she have to ‘correct’ her notion of beauty?

In his book, On Ugliness, author Umberto Eco asks a pertinent question: Is repulsiveness, too, in the eye of the beholder? Anushka in her quest to ‘upgrade’ her beauty comes across as ugly now to the same people who used to think of her as pretty. The woman is her own doom. Feminist Naomi Wolf could come to Anushka’s rescue, when she says in her much-lauded book, The Beauty Myth, ‘The more power women have, the more pressure there is on them to be beautiful.’ Is she not speaking of a liberated, independent, financially-secure woman, such as Anushka, who is no longer complacent about how she looks? She re-fashions her face. At what price?

In Eco’s book, he talks of men down the ages, some kind, and some harsh to the ugliness of women. Witches in the fifteenth century are feared for their powers and are assumed to exude a ‘carnal lust’ which makes them scary and ugly. It is the fear of the unknown that exacerbates the situation. Sometimes it is a mere gaze, as in the instance of Tertullian denoting in the third century, where ‘a pretty face became ugly when exposed to an extramarital gaze.’

It is not as if men have not stood up for women to be as they are. There are examples in the art of Picasso, Bacon and Egon Schiele, where women’s faces are often disfigured, contorted, and grotesque and yet there is a surreal beauty emerging out of it. For which Eco aptly conveys, ‘“Ugliness can be redeemed, by a faithful and efficacious artistic portrayal.”

Something that Lizzie has, perhaps, achieved. She admits she’s not the most beautiful person in the room. She chooses to be happy, instead.

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