Saturday, February 16, 2008

Awed and Bedazzled

When I became a teenager in the 80s the standards of beauty were not nearly as unattainable as they are now. There was the stuffed, padded and white-washed Bollywood star beautiful that no one seriously considered a benchmark – they were them and we were us and the twain was not meant to meet. The sari clad models on the cover of the Indian glossies (which were the only kind that were easily available at time) looked quite real.

Even so confidence in physical appearance was not easy to come by or keep for an adolescent girl. Beauty potions both home made and over the counter were extremely popular. When girls came of age, they were stacked up against cousins, friends and neighbors mainly based on their looks. There was always this one girl in everyone’s acquaintance who was considered the paragon of beauty – every one else merely a distant also-ran.

This girl was placed on a pedestal and made to believe she was destined for greatness by way of marriage to a very successful (and handsome) man. The other girls in her vicinity looked up to her in awe and admiration even as they nursed a feeble hope of landing a reasonable catch in the marriage market. Apsara-in-waiting depending on her family was also pushed to excel in academics and extra-curricular activities.

The gawkers were not match for this formidable beauty plus brains combination but they did struggle (mostly in vain) to catch up. Surprisingly enough it was not because they seriously lacked in either area. What they did not have was a healthy self-esteem. While, everyone and their grandmother was promoting and marketing the Apsara brand, there was no chorus line signing the praises of the hapless gawker . The lack of attention and appreciation fed her insecurities and she never shone as bright as she could otherwise have. She came to accept that she was plain and somewhat obtuse just as everyone else around her did. I was a gawker once.

I might have remained a gawker for life but for a few lucky things that happened to me. My mother had been a gawker in her time and had somehow managed to become the most charming and sophisticated woman I know. She said to me once “At sixteen everyone is beautiful – that is the way youth is supposed to be. Many will remain charming in their twenties as well, some to their thirties. We all owe it to nature’s bounty. To remain youthful and attractive at forty and older takes nurture, strength of character, discipline and confidence. It has nothing to do with physical appearance. Very few last that long and that’s what counts”

She taught me a woman’s beauty had the least to with her body and the most to do with her mind. That an attractive mind paired with a healthy body scores over mere physical beauty. I learned what it took to stand out in a crowd, as opposed to being just another pretty face. She would say “If you run with the herd, you will look like one of the herd. No one will remember you. Can you tell one beauty pageant contestant from the other after they have all paraded away ? They are all strikingly beautiful girls and yet very little sets them apart. To stand apart from the crowd, you have to have a mind that is able to think deeply and unconventionally. Your mind is what is reflected in your external appearance. Always think and be different. Never try to fit in. Create you own style”

My father particularly disliked a certain popular Bollywood actress and as luck would have it, she had the starring role in most movies back in the day. You could not go past a magazine cover or hoarding without seeing her blown-up images. He would say testily “Beauty is all about advertisement. If they keep telling you someone is beautiful and splash her pictures all over the place, in time she becomes the standard of beauty by which everyone else is measured. You could just as easily take any random woman, make her up like a doll, put up posters of her wherever possible and she will become the new standard of beauty. It has everything to do with a good marketing campaign and nothing to do with reality” He had seen this actress at an airport on a business trip and thought she looked “extremely ordinary”

Thanks to my parents, I learned to focus on the things that do count in the long run – physical fitness, a curious mind that is always eager to learn and developing a distinctive personal style that has nothing to do with fashion trends. The Apsara in our family still has a pretty face but that is about all she has left. The real world does not have the ever present cheerleaders that she was used to in her teens. Without the constant adulation her self worth has faded away. She was a bright girl with many talents but her drive to accomplish was only as strong as the applause she received in return – she never pursued a dream of her own. She continues to play Apsara on a stage long after the audience has left; I have been able to come out of the wings enjoy dinner, conversation and a life with them.

Teenaged girls today have to contend with far greater pressures than the garden variety Apsara of yesteryears. The standards of beauty and physical perfection are far more impossible to attain. We live in times when Tyra Banks looks like a Barbie come to life – conveying the message that being Barbie perfect is humanly possible; even so, the bar in inhumanly high for most girls. Everyone is on candid camera all the time. Both perfection and imperfection is amplified in proportion to the number of pictures they have of themselves online. My daughter at six is already conscious of her appearance and has a stated preference for “cute” clothes over functional ones. She giggles with her friends about having boobies like the big girls and is quite smitten by Hannah Montana.

I tell her what my mother told me at thirteen about thinking and being different. I tell her what I have learnt from my own experience being a gawker. My efforts have paid off in small ways – my child likes to eat healthy, will gladly wear generic clothes that I have embellished with a little embroidery and is an ever eager learner. She enjoys what makes her different from her peers. I know that I will have to reinforce the message about contentment and confidence being the real keys to beauty many times over specially during her teens. I would know I have done a good job when she is over fifty and walks into a room, heads turn to look at her instead of the much younger and “prettier” women - my mother is able to do that at close to sixty . That is a long way to have come for a gawker.

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