By Rita Banerji @rita_banerji
The Beautiful and the Ugly Women
During the live telecast of the funeral of legendary Indian actress Suchitra Sen, there was an odd moment when the pyre was to about to be lit, and the mourners leaned forward and craned their necks to see something.
That something was her face. It was a face hidden from the public for forty years. Those hoping to catch a glimpse of it at the funeral were disappointed because to the end that face remained veiled.
Sen had been called ‘reclusive.’ It’s not unusual for public figures who’ve retired, to shy away from the media limelight. Greta Garbo was one such actress from Hollywood. But what Sen really wanted was for no one to know or see what she looked like as she aged.
At the peak of her acting career Sen was celebrated as one of the beautiful women in India. And she wanted to freeze that youthful face—the one you see here—for eternity. It was the only face she wanted the public to remember.
She went to great lengths to conceal her aging face. She avoided meeting people other than close family and refused to allow any photographs of hers to be taken and released to the public. The public on its part was that much more curious! One time, a journalist checked into a hospital where she was undergoing treatment, to sneak into her room to photograph her. When the supposed photo was circulated on the net, many weren’t sure if the woman who looked like an average eighty year old, was actually Sen. Her close ones vehemently refused to identify the picture as hers!
But the questions remain – Why did Sen go to such extraordinary lengths to immortalize her ‘young’ face? Why did she feel the need to hide her aging face so as to negate it to the point of non-existence? Did she really think it that ugly?
I ask around and get the usual responses. Male-dominated societies all over the world feel entitled to dictate what constitutes ‘beautiful’ for a woman, and youth is a vital component of the formula. And as many pointed out, there are other factors: specified skin colors, hair, body-type and facial features. All true! The one difference though is that while in the west, standards of ‘beauty’ are insinuated through advertisements, and women are insidiously brainwashed into desiring to fit those models, in India it is a blatant, in-your-face, self-righteous, full-frontal attack.
Companies that market cosmetic and body care products in India, feel entitled to openly tell women – which of them is beautiful and which of them is ugly! Their families, friends and even strangers feel entitled to do the same. “Mrs. X is beautiful but bad luck her daughter is so ugly.” “What have you done? Your face looks ugly.” Or like a politician observed in poetry to a merry gathering of men how much happier they are that the ‘ugly’ nurses from the south of the country are now replaced with ‘beautiful’ nurses from the north.
But ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’ in India are not just prods to label and humiliate women with. They also reserve the right to tell them what kind of a life they are entitled to. Skin-whitening products tell darker skinned women that they are so ugly they’ll never find a boyfriend, or get married, have friends or find a job.
Indeed their life is doomed, and they are portrayed as these ‘ugly’ women slinking into isolation, depression and oblivion and kissing their entire existence goodbye.
But wait, there is hope! The skin-whitening product, which comes in an overpriced bottle will bestow on them ‘beauty’ so they can find a boyfriend, get married, have friends and find a job. So the message that Indian girls and women get on a daily basis is: This is beauty, and if you are not it, then you are not entitled to even the little goals of an ordinary existence! It is no wonder that Indian women – rich and poor, spend billions of dollars on skin-whitening creams, even as studies show that these products contain high levels of toxic and carcinogenic metals like mercury.
More unfortunately, this valuation of stated ‘beauty’ such that a woman’s existence hinges on it, is in fact one of the ugly realities of daily-life for women in India. I have been astonished how young, unmarried women in India, even when they are poor, spend a huge chunk of their income on skin-whitening creams. When I asked one woman from a slum, she said, she is “dark and flat faced” and her parents keep cursing her for how “ugly” she is, saying they have to pay a bigger dowry to get her married! An increment in dowry is the penalty for her supposed ‘ugliness!’ Why didn’t she save her money, and find a job, and surely in time she’ll find a no-dowry-groom for herself?
She told me that whatever job she applied for – even as a domestic worker, or as a cleaner in a shop or beauty parlor, they want women who are lighter skinned than she is! And that’s for fact. Placement companies for domestic help, will often ask employees if a particular maid would suit them, warning them that she is “dark.”
Sometime ago, attending a conference of women human rights lawyers in India, I was disgusted by the narration of one of the cases. This lawyer’s client had been brutally attacked with acid by a man who had been stalking her. Not only was her face burnt and horrendously disfigured, but she was blinded and had numerous other debilitating health issues as acid eats into flesh and bones. Despite the lawyer pointing this out with detailed medical testimony, the higher court would not budge on the sentence that the lower court had given, which was only two years imprisonment to the attacker.
Finally the lawyer brought in a blown-up photograph of the victim before the attack. She was fair-skinned, with large eyes and a sharp nose, features considered beautiful by Indians. The judge was floored by the photograph and rued that “such a beautiful” face had been “destroyed,” and then changed the sentence to life-imprisonment. The lawyer said, “What if the judge didn’t find her all that beautiful?” My question however was, “What if the judge was a woman? Would it matter to her whether or not she found the victim beautiful?”
Beauty is indeed a tool of social control, objectification and placement of women by male-dominated societies everywhere. But that is not the point that I want to make in this article. The point I want to make is why do women allow society to determine for them what is beautiful? In response to that, I’ve heard Indian women say, “That’s true. Beauty shouldn’t just be external. Even if a woman is dark skinned, she can be a good person inside.” And I think “Oh dear!
They’ve missed the point completely!” Do they realize they are still essentially saying dark-skin is ugly, but it can be ‘compensated’ for with a good ‘inside?’ Why can’t women see what society tells them to look at as ‘ugly’ as beautiful? One woman pondered on that and said, “But how can you force yourself to think of dark as beautiful?” For me this mental entrapment of women is a bigger issue of concern than a patriarchal society setting standards of female beauty.
Feminist lobbies challenging ‘beauty’ prototypes, often pressurize media to portray what is considered ‘ugly’ as beautiful. So we have beauty revolution slogans like ‘big is beautiful’ and ‘black is beautiful.’ But what this does is it simply begs or demands society to provide women with an alternative model to view themselves.
Does it work? No. Because, firstly it is only an alternative model, perhaps even more conspicuously contrasted with the one that the society really buys! And secondly, it dis-empowers women by reinforcing the idea that women need society to provide beauty prototypes for them to measure themselves by.
Beauty is our inner sense of aesthetics turned outwards. It is not something that society should have the right to measure, evaluate and tie a price tag to, because that is what you do to objects. That was what was done to African women sold as slaves in the open market in America. That is what is done to women sold in the sex-trade. It is what is done to women in marketing by retail and fashion companies.
As long as a woman’s sex, sexuality, or beauty is allowed to be defined and value-tagged by society, women will remain commodities for the consumption of others. As long a woman feels forced to view her own aesthetics through the homogenized lens that society views her through, she can never be free.
A woman takes ownership of her self when her sex, sexuality, and beauty become for her a unique expression of self! Every woman should be able to tell the world, “Don’t tell me what’s beautiful, I’ll tell you!”
So, if you are a woman reading this please ask yourself this question: “What one thing about my face or body do I find beautiful that is not considered attractive by people at large?” Look into mirror and keep asking. I promise you, the answer will set you free!
Rita Banerji is an author and gender activist. She’s the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign to end female gendercide in India. Her book ‘Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies’ looks at the relationship between sexuality, gender and power in India.