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It all began with a thermocol cutout of Ryan Gosling (with a detachable penis) and a bachelorette party. Had it not been for that night, I wouldn’t have been standing today in front of a woman wearing a white coat, an unnervingly wide smile and too much mascara, discussing dark spots versus freckles.

I’d gone to a fancy shop and asked  this woman to suggest a good moisturiser. The reason I’d asked her was that at the bachelorette party, I met a young woman with positively glowing skin who told me this particular brand’s moisturisers are “amazeballs”. (Kids these days, I tell you.) Ignoring the fact that it is physically impossible for me to have her skin, when my moisturiser ran out today, I waddled over to the nearest outlet of the “amazeballs” brand. This conversation followed.

Woman in white coat: “You should use this for your pigmentation.”

Me: “For my what?”

Woman in white coat: “The dark spots, on your cheek. This will clear them.”

Me: “Yeah, those spots have been there forever. They’re not going anywhere. I just want a good moisturiser.”

Woman in white coat: “This depigmentation formula will clear them.”

Me: “No, it won’t. Trust me on this.”

Woman in white coat: “It will also clear your tan.”

Me: “You mean it’s a fairness cream?”

Woman in white coat: “It’s much more than that.”

Me: “But I don’t want a fairness cream. I just want a good moisturiser.”

Woman in white coat: “Just try it with this purple herbal spot treatment gel.”

I left the shop, without either the cream or the gel, and pointedly walked into the competing brand’s outlet, right next door. The only reason I bought the overpriced cream in this second shop was that when I asked for a moisturiser, the saleswoman looked at me, was quite obviously unimpressed, but she didn’t mention my dark spots. She asked if I had dry skin. I replied in the affirmative. She gave me a bottle, for which I paid. I also stopped at another shop and bought two eye pencils that I don’t need (one has glittery golden bits. Hola mid life crisis?). When I got home, I realised the cream I’d been sold contains “line reducing concentrate”. If it’s not the freckles, then it’s my lines – there’s always something to be fixed.

The thing is, I know very well that, as with most of us average-looking folk, everything about my appearance could do with some improvement. If I was slimmer, had better hair, no freckles, a sharper nose, longer legs, a bust that didn’t bulge out as much, etc. etc., I’d be gorgeous. But, as my grandmother used to say, “With a little plastic surgery, an extra 14 inches in height and a moustache, I could be Clark Gable. But what would be the point? They’ve already made Gone With The Wind.” Wise woman, that one.

I know the popular belief is that being pretty gives women an advantage and I’m sure that’s true, but let’s be fair: the amount of crap good looking women have to encounter, from leering men to bitchy women, I’m not sure whether beauty is worth all that. But then, since I’m one of those people who is beautiful only in her friends’ and (some) family’s eyes, what would I know?

As things stand, I’m not ugly, but neither would the sight of me inspire anyone to compose a sonnet. If the beauty industry’s comments to me are any indication, however, I’m Shrek’s first cousin. I go for a hair cut and the stylist informs me my hair is falling, my scalp needs a mask, my hair follicles need a coating, that I should use 12 products over the next two hours etc. I can’t just buy a moisturiser. I must get something that’s anti-ageing and/or fairness-inducing, as though it isn’t enough for my skin to be just healthy and well-moisturised. It’s amazing that the salespeople in this industry are so committed to making women feel insecure and unattractive, when the fact is that if they complimented us on our looks, they’d probably double their sales.

It doesn’t matter what the product is, the pitch is that it will fix us flawed, unpretty women. The worst of the lot are those damned commercials that tell you that using this product will mean you won’t need make-up to look as good as their models. Because the fact is, unless you’ve been blessed with crazy good skin/hair genes, you’re not going to look like those models without a few lashings of foundation and compact, no matter what you use.

Yeah, but it helps that they got their hair styled and were professionally photographed.

Yeah, but it helps that they got their hair styled and were professionally photographed.

 

That’s the other thing: the pressure placed on women to look gorgeous without actually putting any effort into looking that way. If you put on make-up that’s noticeable, then you’re fake. If you don’t put on make-up, you don’t look like what’s conventionally considered pretty. (“She’d look so much better if she just applied a little kajal/ lipstick/ blush/ whatever.”) It’s hard work to emerge from this beauty project without shredding one’s self-esteem.

This is why I have an enormous amount of admiration for women like this one. She’s one of TRP’s finds on Instagram and as disdainfully as I may look at that collage, I can’t imagine myself being able to put my physical self on display like that for all to see and evaluate. Here’s this woman finding beauty in herself, which is pretty darn amazing because when I see photos of myself, everything that’s wrong with my appearance is immediately and painfully evident. Perhaps it’s all an act, perhaps she’s an absolute bimbo. It doesn’t matter. Considering how so much of the culture around us is obsessed with finding faults in women and their physicality, how we are taught to look at ourselves critically rather than indulgently, I’m impressed with anyone who can do such revealing selfies in the first place.

The real tragedy for women though is that it doesn’t matter how they look, with everyone from family members to advertising campaigns constantly pointing out flaws and opportunities for improvement in her appearance, no one ever believes they’re beautiful enough. I’m not sure why this is, but for all the fairness creams, anti-acne washes and deodorants being directed at men, they don’t face the same expectation of looking like the ideals of male beauty. It wasn’t ever expected of men, which is deeply unfair. I mean, this is a drawing from the 18th century, of a man in Malabar.

"A Malabar performing tricks with Serpents", from the Wellcome Library.

“A Malabar performing tricks with Serpents”, from the Wellcome Library.

 

Why on earth didn’t we expect every man in Malabar to have a body like that or at least make a concerted effort to approximate that physique over the last 200 years? Why were they able to dismiss these unrealistic expectations and instead brainwash (some) women into thinking Mamootty is sexy?

I hate the fact that I didn’t relegate a random person looking at me and seeing only dark spots or laughter lines into the mental dustbin. Instead, I bought eye pencils and wrote this damned post. I hate that even now, when I’m decades away from my adolescence, there’s still an ugly duckling inside me that’s hoping to turn into swan.

That said, ugly duckling only enters the building occasionally. Most of the time, it’s a snarling woman, as the woman in the white coat discovered when I launched into a tirade about how I was fine with the colour of my skin and dammit all, if I’m fine with it then why the hell isn’t she? Ugly duckling might be cuter, but at the end of the day, I think I’m quite glad the duckling grew up to be not a swan, but a woman, dark spots and all.

Still, it wouldn’t be bad to, you know, turn heads now and then; even if it is in daydreams (she said, after using the newly-bought glittery eye pencil to outline her eyes).  

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