Photographs of me always take me by surprise. In my mind’s eye, and in my mirror I look very different. But then I shrug and turn away, it wasn’t important how I looked. Externals are just superficial, and I had known my special power was my mind. I was the intelligent one, not the pretty one. And I had never really regretted it.
Though I did wonder, when I was young, how it must feel to be pretty. My mother had this soft coral raw silk sari, and when she wore it, she glowed with lustrous radiance. A little kajal, a little lipstick, her curls set neatly against her head, to me she looked effortlessly beautiful. I knew, even at a young age, that I could not carry off peaches and yellows. My skin, you know, the bright colors would only emphasize the darkness. It wasn’t something that hurt me, just a matter of fact, like the texture of my hair, wiry rather than curly, my build, whip slender rather than softly plump, and my voice, endlessly curious rather than innocently happy.
Dressing up is something pretty girls do. They choose the right outfits, and know which silhouettes and colors suit them. They get excited about shopping trips and agonize over options. This shade of pink or that shade of blue? Girls have picked apart their features, compared them to some ideal version and decided where they fit on the scale of beauty. When they look at pictures, they decide if they look good or not. They are able to point out why a picture looks bad, their arms look too fat or the lipstick color is unflattering. As young as fourteen, they assess their eyes as too squinty when they smile, or their hair goes flat and spoils the shape of their face.
It’s as if a camera is constantly watching them, and what it can see is constantly judged. The first compliment a girl gets is about her appearance usually, and it can be within hours of birth. What they wear, how they walk, how they sit, legs together demurely or splayed apart indecently, they check themselves with tiny nervous pats and pulls. Smoothing their hair in place, checking to see if the strap of their bra peeks out by mistake, their clothes not too tight, too loose, too bright, too boring.
Looking too long at myself makes me uncomfortable. I notice how round my face is, how brown. Spending more than ten minutes getting ready makes me antsy and angry, an internal voice starts up admonishing myself on wasting time on inessentials. The moment a friend asks me to choose from more than three options, my mind starts glazing over, I feel intense irritation thudding inside me. What’s the point, that voice insists. As if it matters.
My girls have learned to use makeup as part of their dance performances. They are surrounded by women who know how to highlight and flatter their features, what colors to wear and which jewelry works with which neckline. I wanted them to be at peace with their skins, to know how to enjoy dressing up, to have fun with clothes and makeup. And yet to know that their appearance is just one part of them, and even that could be left simple and it be unimportant how they looked.
I recently bought a bright yellow dress and every time I wear it, I am very aware of myself. It is very bright, and I see the slight widening of people’s eyes when we meet, or maybe it’s just surprise that I am wearing it. Every time a friend shares one of their own picture and then comments on how unattractive it is, I try to look at it and see what she is seeing. But it’s difficult, because I never became comfortable with slicing out appearances and judging them. I don’t know any more if it’s better to be able to do it or not.
I wish though it were possible for me to wear a coral silk saree, and gather with friends who bring their hidden wishes, and we try them out and see if they are really as bad as our minds have made them. They can’t be. I wore bright fluorescent yellow to a capital finance planning meeting where the other fourteen participants were men wearing navy, black or brown. If I survived that, I can survive anything.
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