On Beauty


This is a post in response to one by Nandini Bhattacharya – which in turn was a response to a photograph of mine that I posted this morning, which elicited a lot of compliments.

I couldn’t share Nandini-di’s post, so I’m copy-pastying what she wrote here:

“Rituparna’s post where she looks stunning with a new hair cut set me thinking. I abjure submitting to the beauty of the body publicly from today. While I was never good looking to begin with, plus being too tall and dusky for average Bengali liking, I now see the insidousness behind saying ki sundor lagche, o how beautiful you look. It is a lever, men and women have used to debilitate women. Does any one say ki sundor lagche to a man at first sight? Then why should a woman be pulled at her nose by the beauty ring?. Being healthy is enough. Even not being healthy is enough! I will throw things at people who say sundor lagche, kalo lagche, mishti lagche. Got it????”

I must say I was surprised that my post prompted/generated another thread of conversation elsewhere. I had no idea it could have this effect! Also, a small correction: I didn’t have a new hair cut – what you see is simply my natural hair growth after I shaved it off about 6 weeks back. To come to what Nandini di said, first: I’d like to thank her for calling out a practice that dehumanizes women while apparantly trying to praise them: As she presciently points out: “I now see the insidousness behind saying ki sundor lagche, o how beautiful you look. It is a lever, men and women have used to debilitate women.” I couldn’t agree more with her – that, historically, women have always been reduced to their bodies (& wombs); & that, this pernicious habit continues even into this day & age.

Seen carefully, her post deals with inter-related aspects of the problem – body-shaming, which has to do with acceptable parametres of beauty & the conflation of physical appearance with one’s overall personality and being.

I would like to share my own experience of some of these aspects. But I would also like to problematize the discussion — by differentiating between the mindless praise of physical beauty & the appreciation of beauty as part of the aesthetic experience of life.

Nandini di was disliked, she says, for being tall & dusky, as that didn’t fit the bill of a Bengali girl. I have seen the same logic being applied in my own family for three generations – with my mother, sister and daughter.

My mother was spoken of, in the most derogatory of tones, by her in-laws as “bete-mota” (short and fat). Yes, she had put on weight after four operations within a few years of marriage & was less than the Bengali female average in height. But she also had the other parametres of a Bengali beauty: fair complexion & a beautiful face; & those who loved her, always praised those. (Of course, just being fair was good enough, for many of them, because for the longest time, the formula was: fair = beautiful). Ma’s first born, my sister, suffered – right from childhood through adolescence to youth – for her complexion. It would now be called “dusky” (after its association with super-models since the 90’s), but back in the 70’s & 80s, it was termed “dark”. She was “a kalo meye”. Period. All her qualities somehow came after that. It hugely affected her self-esteem when she was growing up & it would take her years to shake it off. A generation later, I faced another version of this with my daughter. She was born in Amterdam, a South-Asian diasporic child (of Bengali-Bihari descent) in a white European nation. It was intriguing to see how differently people reacted to her complexion: while my Dutch friends drooled on her dusky skin, the ‘tan’ they spent a lot of money to acquire in distant beaches, a lot of my Indian acquaintances would remark on the fact that she didn’t get my complexion. She won everyone with her smile, though! May be, I had all of this at the back of my mind when I chose to have a dusky female protagonist for a novel I began writing in 2015 (shelved for several years now). It was set in the 80s, when she is in college & has a long-distance relationship, which is what the story is about. But her struggles with her complexion are a part of it.

I have never shied away from praising beauty, never not liked being praised for it. I have never shied away from complimenting men, either: from qualities I admire in them to looks and attire But I have certainly – always – disliked anyone being reduced to just that.

I am innately feminine. Most of the stereotypes that women have had to fight against (because they don’t fit this or that description) comes naturally to me: I like clothes and jewellery and cosmetics, I always wanted to marry and have a child, I love domesticity. You name it. Except for cooking, which I have never liked – but I ended up doing a lot of even that for a decade! While I didn’t have to struggle with these stereotypes there were other more subtle ones I contended with: that being feminine was somehow tantamount to not being ambitious, that one couldn’t desire family life and aspire for one’s place in the world with equal intensity. Another even more subtle one was – being an academic meant you had to look/dress/behave “intellectual”. Even socialise intellectually! I’ve been gloriously unfit in these other respects.

What I am trying to get at is that stereotypes operate not just with respect to gender, but in all spheres of life – all of which entail reducing a human being to a set of assumptions. And if we can use “looks” as a synonym for “beauty” (inadequate though it is, no doubt), then we’ll realize how superficial our response to a lot of the things we don’t pay attention to are.

I personally associate beauty with aesthetics. Growing up, I imbibed a certain aesthetic sense from my mother, in whom I saw it operate in everything she did: the way she kept house, dressed, wrote poetry. So, when I first encountered Keats’ famous lines in college – “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” – I didn’t restrict its provenance to only the literary or artistic appreciation of beauty. In the succeeding decades, I have only learnt to recognize and appreciate more beauty all around me – in nature and the elements, in architecture, in the maddening variety of things and objects that make up our daily life, in colour and form, rhythm and sound, in thought and expression, in people and relationships. And yes, the human body. If anything, my admiration for it has increased infinitely more after the birth of my child and seeing her grow.