“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” said the famous poet John Keats.
Not only Keats but most of us also appreciate and admire beauty, although it may be in many different forms. For instance, one can find flowers, paintings or cars very beautiful. However, in common parlance, the words beauty and beautiful have become synonymous with women. This article looks at the association between women and beauty and the implications that it has for women.
We are taught from the very beginning that men are ‘handsome’, and women are ‘beautiful’. It is conditioned within us. This is substantiated by the response that I got from one of the girls I had interviewed. When I asked what comes to her mind when she hears the word ‘beautiful’, she said, ‘a beautiful woman’.
At the outset, nothing seems wrong or of much importance, but in this association with beauty and its pursuit, women are most often implicated negatively.
Beauty practices like the use of cosmetics (lipstick, fairness cream, etc.); grooming (waxing, pedicure, manicure, etc.) and various kinds of plastic surgeries facilitate the process of commodification of women and inculcate in them a belief that if they are not beautiful according to the standards set by society, then they are worthless.
“It’s not like I want to apply make-up but I have to,” says Daisy, a college student. This is a crucial statement as Daisy is very clear about the fact that it is ‘necessary’ to look beautiful.
According to her, women do not necessarily want to use beauty products to enhance their looks, but they are compelled to do so because of the pressures created by the society. Even for arranged marriages in many parts of India, the ‘qualities’ that are sought in a woman are that she should be fair, slim and beautiful, as can be seen in various matrimonial advertisements. One of the respondents also narrated a story in which a girl had committed suicide because people constantly compared her to her elder sister, who was fairer in complexion and was thinner and consequently, she was finding it difficult to get a good match.
The much highlighted public scrutiny of Bollywood actor Aishwarya Rai’s body after the birth of her daughter stands as a testimony to the fact that a woman’s appearance is always subjected to judgement from the society.
The most important aspect that hogged the media’s attention was her inability to reduce weight that she had put on after pregnancy!
“If one has a fair complexion, then that person becomes confident,” said one of the respondents. It is evident that beauty is connected to psychological factors like self-worth and confidence. Many women’s confidence take a beating when they are told that they are not beautiful.
They get demoralised and feel that they are not worth anything. “I wanted to become a dancer but I could not. People said I was not pretty enough to become one, and nobody would look at me. So I am studying now to become something else,” says Rekha. Her self-confidence had shattered, and she too had resigned to the ideal conception of beauty and given up her dream of becoming a dancer.
Forms of mass media reflect the society’s aspirations and ideals. Thus it is no surprise that TV shows, films, ads, etc. also portray the distinctions between ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful’ women. One way of creating this distinction is by putting emphasis on skin colour. It is a powerful theme in India where a lighter shade of skin colour represents a higher status. This idea has been strengthened by advertisements which humiliate dark skinned people and lays emphasis on the benefit of having a light coloured skin.
Advertisements are a popular form of visual culture which is created for the masses. The messages propagated in them can have long term consequences.
For instance, an advertisement run by the fairness cream ‘Fair and Lovely’ shows a woman’s ‘miraculous’ transformation from that of a girl with low self-esteem to a famous Cricket commentator once she starts using the particular fairness cream.
The implication is that if one is not fair (read beautiful) then that person cannot become successful. In another version, the parents of a dark-complexioned girl are unable to find a ‘rishta’ (suitable match) for their daughter.
In the end, they settle for a man in his forties or fifties. The parents sigh and console themselves, “Aise rang ki ladki ke liye to aisa hi rishta aayega.” (If you have dark skin, you will have to ‘settle’ for such a match).
The media also plays a crucial role in making women feel vulnerable in many other ways. For example, in one of the episodes of the TV show Sex and the City, a confident and independent woman like Miranda is intimidated by her boyfriend’s previous girlfriend as she was a model.
In spite of being a very successful lawyer, Miranda thinks that she is not good enough for her boyfriend. In Indian television serials, the female protagonist is always shown as a beautiful woman. Also, for a hero to fall in love with a girl, she must possess ‘typical feminine traits’ as shown in movies like Main Hoon Naa.
Not only movies and ads but certain symbols and visual imageries also invoke patriarchal interests. For instance, Barbie dolls have captured the imagination of many girls, and it has become a powerful visual imagery of portraying a woman. The Barbie is way thinner than most women and promotes the normative conception of a woman’s body as slim.
Interestingly, there are various versions of the Barbie that caters to the beauty standards set by different societies. The European Barbie, for example, is blonde and has blue eyes. There are also Barbie dolls available that are made to wear burkhas in certain countries.
Apart from the many negative social and psychological effects, beauty also has other harmful economic and physical side-effects. Many women complained that a lot of their money was wasted on buying a lot of cosmetic products. But according to them, they ‘cannot help it’. Shikha, a college student, who stays in a hostel, argued that she saves money by not buying fruits and other food items to get a haircut and other things done. “It is important to look presentable, especially for women. Otherwise, you are not taken seriously. I don’t mind skipping a meal or two but I cannot compromise with my looks,” she says.
Many women stop eating or resort to dieting in order to achieve ‘model like figures’. They suffer from many diseases like anorexia, anaemia and weakness, etc.
This construction of beauty thus fulfils certain economic goals. The cosmetic industry thrives on its women customers and makes a woman feel inadequate if she does not adhere to the standards set by society.
There are social, economic, political, psychological and physical side-effects of using make-up and other cosmetic items. Not only that but beauty practices also help in creating and maintaining the differences between two sexes and solidifies binaries like ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in society.
The argument that it is a woman’s choice to beautify herself must be re-examined as choice itself is a social construction. It cannot be seen in a vacuum. Thus, the process of beautification of women is part of the discourse that objectifies and oppresses women.