By Sindhu Rajasekaran
Artwork by @rachnaravi
There is an old saying, that beauty’s sister is vanity, and its daughter lust. Before you wonder why all these vices are gendered, I urge you to question whether these are vices at all. The patriarchy will have us believe that vain and conceit are feminine archetypes as old as time. That to be pure and selfless women, we must strive to rid ourselves of our inherent narcissism. Millennial and Gen Z women are particularly accused of being obsessed with our own image because we indulge in self-love. When we admire our own selves, we’re called arrogant, desperate or promiscuous, and our moralities are parsed apart. Yet, the patriarchy continues to scrutinize our bodies and mark our worth based on our physicality. Hypocrisy much?
At the risk of sounding outrageous, I’m going to defend vanity. Because beauty is a subjective phenomenon, and there’s a grace to every human body. We are all worthy of love and success. Imagine a world where every woman is confident in her body and takes pleasure in herself for herself. How emancipated we’d all be, free to fulfil our desires, both sexual and non. But more importantly, there’s power in admiring ourselves, despite it seeming vain to look into the camera’s lens with narcissistic self-regard. But if that moment of selfish vanity leads to self-confidence, isn’t the entire ritual worth it?
Women’s bodies have never really been their own to possess, but have always been expected to cater to the male gaze and the aesthetic sensibilities of men in power.
Thus, society has consistently judged women’s characters based on how they look, dress and behave, and this misogyny has persisted across generations. We see this constantly played out on social media – where vicious trolls body shame women of all kinds. When plus-size women wear sexy outfits or dark-skinned women wear bright make-up, they are labelled as raucous. Butch women who refuse gendered aesthetics are abused. Or when conventionally beautiful women make political statements, their opinions are dismissed as naïve – because beauty and brains don’t go together.
Our racist, sexist, elitist society has hijacked the idea of beauty and created a false dichotomy between sexy/unsexy, fair/dark, thin/fat, flawless/flawed, worthy/unworthy bodies. It has established unreal standards of beauty that exclude a majority of women. Mass media amplifies these biases and commodifies femininity. No wonder then that self-loathing and insecurities concerning our body-image consume so many of us. In both our personal and professional lives, the sceptre of ideal beauty makes us question our self-worth every now and again. It is for this reason that feminism traditionally rejected the pursuit of beauty. Waxing one’s legs or dieting or getting a tummy tuck were seen as painful aesthetic labor, and unfeminist – because these practices are inevitably linked to oppressive cultural standards. As Naomi Wolf put it plainly in The Beauty Myth: “We do not have to spend money and go hungry and struggle and study to become sensual; we always were. We need not believe we must somehow earn good erotic care; we always deserved it.”
True, women are inherently sexy, sensual and erotic. We need not improve ourselves to make ourselves worthy of attention.
But what if we seek beauty for our own sakes, or what if we want to make use of our erotic capital? What if we like to spend money on ourselves, getting facials and manicures; piercing our body to look sexy; what if we do intermittent fasting; are we feminist fails? Well, I think not. Who’s to decide what a feminist should do with her body or her life?
There are many ways to be a feminist today. Sure, you may reject beauty entirely, be “body neutral” and strive to live outside the universe of seeming vanities. However, it is also entirely possible to put on red lipstick and mascara, do weight loss workouts, deck up or strip, get plastic surgery, buy jewellery and still be a badass feminist resisting the patriarchy.
In the 21st century, young ladies of all sizes, shapes and colors work to dismantle hypocritical beauty standards anymore. If society deems women’s physicality proportional to their character but scorns those who are self-confident in their bodies, today’s women subvert the patriarchal narrative. They flaunt their bodies shamelessly on the gram (and in their everyday lives). Dressed in meticulously put together ensembles, whether it be a bikini or a burka, a sanskari or a silky slip dress, armed with carefully chosen accessories (be it a Dior bag or a handmade wire koodai or a political poster) and their heads filled with ideas, these au courant ladies embrace feminism to the point that everything they do is a fashionable feminist act.
Remember, not all women who wear makeup do so to hide their flawed faces and nurse insecurities. To some, lipstick and blush are a means of self-expression.
Across the gender spectrum, beauty and fashion are fast becoming androgynous. Women are embracing their sexuality and aren’t afraid to experiment with their appearance. They demand equal treatment in the man’s world, without having to give up any of their (vain) pleasures. A woman’s body, after all, is her own to possess. To sport a moustache, have clean-shaven legs, to perform femininity or masculinity, is every individual’s choice. Today’s women are taking control of how they perform their sexuality in public, and that does not have any bearing on their intellectual capacity or sexual availability. In Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure, the authors argue that when women refuse to be victims of the patriarchy and start telling stories of female sexual pleasure and agency, we create a new tradition and community of “powerful, feisty, indomitable women who will not be cowed by oppression or violation.”
Gone are the days when the image of women-as-victim was central to the conversation on gender, sexuality and development. Contemporary Indian women dare to desire without the fear of patriarchal backlash. Just because society arbitrarily sexualizes and belittles the female form, they don’t shrink themselves and cloak themselves in puritanical robes. They challenge oppression by refusing to play by toxic rules. They take pleasure in themselves and in their bodies. Patriarchal power structures cannot stand it when a woman, who does not conform to the conventional idea of beauty, considers herself attractive. I mean, imagine her nerve. But that’s how we dismantle the beauty myth.
Taking the power
It’s time to re-appropriate the simple pleasures of admiring oneself, rejecting the patriarchal standards of beauty and worthiness.
Seek the beauty within you, and in your body. Let go of socially conditioned guilt and insecurities. Take pride in yourself. Reappropriate your own image and be your own cover person. When you’re confident in your skin, you’ll break down every wall, and bring down every oppressor. You’ll occupy all the spaces of power.
Reclaiming agency also means an awareness of the harmful side of the beauty industry. Botox and breast enhancement can have disastrous side-effects cosmetic toxins can damage the environment, diets can go awry, overconsumption of fast fashion is unsustainable. The beauty industry manipulates patriarchal and racist prejudices to sell its ware, and so working to combat this is important. There are critical conversations to be had. However, this doesn’t mean that powder and puff are the devil. Nor does this give us the license to call women who get Botox shots “beauty sick.” But, dismantling the toxicity of powerful multinationals that exploit our anxieties, we must support homegrown beauty and fashion entrepreneurs. They are quietly revolutionizing this space by creating organic products and sustainable clothing for our beautiful brown bodies.
To reject the patriarchy’s beauty standards, and to make ourselves worthy feminist subjects, we need not give up on our vanities entirely. We can fight against oppression of all sorts, and still be sexy, (a)sexual, sensational women. So, show up for yourself, ladies. Keep that lipstick on; pierce your tongue; grow a beard; get that massage. Indulge in yourself a little. Subvert the narrative and take the power.
About the author
Sindhu Rajasekaran is the author of a novel titled Kaleidoscopic Reflections (nominated for the Crossword Book Award) and a collection of short stories, So I Let It Be. She's currently researching and writing a book of non-fiction on Indian feminisms for Aleph Book Company.
You can find her on Instagram at @sindhurajasekar.