Is Appearance Skin Deep?
Strange is the world and stranger are the responses of people. I am 63 and having to live and experience this lockdown thrust on humanity by the created pandemic on 2020. The cause will dawn on me suddenly even though nothing happens suddenly. Things brew unknown to us but we feel it is sudden. Let me address the world known to me. Many people want to make friends in the virtual world. The loneliness of people is known to me even though I am never lonely as my world lives within me. Inspite of telling people (men of different age groups who aspire to be friends on virtual space) my age, they tentatively ask to see my photo. I am not the only recipient of this request but thankfully, I know, it is not personal and has nothing whatsoever to do with me or my looks. Appearance is something I have little association, thanks to my awesome Mummum, my paternal grandmother (I have referred to my grandmother so many times that readers must be familiar with her), the mirror in our home in my childhood was out of bound. It used to be covered with beautiful crochet done by Mummum and I did not even think of uncovering it. She would say what is there to see yourself, if you think yourself beautiful you have to be beautiful inside. All shades and sizes of people lived under the same roof, darkest to the fairest, thin, fat, tall and short, all binaries in the same family. Not only Mummum’s attitude, the constant flow of unconditional asexual love between all physical shapes and sizes in the same family did not let the issue of appearance take root in my mind. I was able to make a straight parting and comb my hair, without having to look at the mirror, when I was ten. This was when we shifted to MPEB office quarter in Rampur, prior to that, Mummum used to tie my hair in the evening, and Etu, my paternal aunt, for my school, two different style of tying hair.
First time human appearance created a sensation in not only my childhood also my sisters’ was when Kakamoni married Kakimoni. Everyone in the family was beautiful but Kakimoni dazzled, she was persona of beauty in our eyes. In 1968 I was eleven and my sisters were younger, Shim, youngest amongst us was seven. Kakimoni was dark complexioned, had long hair, dancing eyes and unbiased love for us. We were mesmerized by her very existence. She stamped in me that black is beautiful. Thankfully I did not see the mirror otherwise I would have had a big complexity of not considering myself beautiful as I am unusually fair for an Indian! Our awe for our Kakimoni, Dr. Papia Dasgupta grew to love with a big helping of respect. She is a National award winner in theatre along with being Head of Department for Geography, at the end of her professional career she became Director, Women’s Studies in the college. After retirement too she continued her interests in various diverse fields.
I am digressing from the theme of the blog. I married early. My in-laws preferred that I cover my head. It was convenient for me as that was all the dressing up I needed. In 1986 I shifted to Bombay with the kids and lived as if I could make myself invisible with oiling my long hair and tying them in a bun. In 1991 I had to cut my hair for the eye operation then too my appearance was not something I was aware of. I would get slightly bugged when know people did not recognize me. The change in appearance was not visible to me but it was a stark change. In 1996 for the first time I became aware of my appearance when I started working in the community in Udwada, rural Gujarat (South). I would feel eyes on me till I started thinking that I have grown horns on my head. I convinced myself that I look alien with sneakers in my feet, short hair covered with chunni, never thought of my complexion as alien! I had a young person working with me. When we became acquainted, I was explaining some ways of life. I was telling him that since I am old, people do not think it odd that we live under the same roof but since he had still to get married he should be careful about his behaviour with the young girls he taught weaving. He is a thorough gentleman so shyly stated that what I thought of myself as ancient was not how people thought of me. People did not make advances, as there was an aura around me that stopped them.
Slowly I became aware how much appearance played a part in people’s life, especially young girls’. Earlier it was just my youngest sister. She is and has always been a beautiful child, girl and woman, but, only recently after crossing 50 years of her life when she saw her earlier photographs, she wonders why she was commented on ‘as not beautiful’! First it was Mummum, who told her that she was dark, even Baba and all my paternal relatives, then her in-laws, the man she married, she carried the pain and so did we for her, of this construction of ‘fair is beautiful’! When she shifted to United States suddenly same people started seeing her as beautiful.
In 2010 I started taking Foundation Women’s Studies Class, compulsory for all Art and Arts(H) Semester VI undergraduate students. There was a component of graded Class Assignment that I had introduced since the initiation, for each of the five units. For one of the units on women’s issues I would ask the students to not see mirror for seven days and then in class I would ask them to share their experience. There was a plethora of experience which I received which would be beyond the limitedness of a blog. After that I would share at how many levels women are differentiated and discriminated because of appearance which includes not just the colour of their skin but also clothes they wear, language they speak, their education, their married status, their ability to conceive, all reflective of caste, class, religion and nation, tools of patriarchy!
I should leave media out but cannot as it is all over our lives, specially the visual media with Television entering homes irrespective of class, caste or religion. I am sharing an old 1997–98 event in Udwada, South Gujarat. I had joined as setting up an audio visual resource centre in Udwada, a joint collaboration of Avehi, Audi Visual Educational Resource Centre in Sion Koliwada, Mumbai and Centre for Rural Development, SNDT Women’s University, Juhu Mumbai funded by British Deputy High Commission. The Community workers trained to use VCR, TV and disseminating matter in video cassette would visit villages and schools. One day there was a mild chaos around me. When asked I learnt that they had committed to show a programme in school but both VCR were taken to villages. They agreed to take me as replacement. Earlier they took me along they requested me to not speak as a result the villagers had different versions of me, a police woman, a lawyer, an inspector!
We reached the school, the hall (a big room) was full of adolescent girls sitting facing the TV in a corner. I went and stood in front of the TV. Told them that as their Didi ( elder sister- here the community worker) is not able to get a VCR you all see me and listen to me as I am beautiful and soft spoken. I got a questioning response in the intelligent eyes of the young girls. All hands were raised when I asked if they have TV. They started counting when I asked how many advertisements for becoming fair. There was stunned silence when I asked how many for advertisement for becoming dark! I assured them that these advertisements create insecurities in most dark complexion girls and they buy the whitening product. There was twinkle of comprehension in each girl’s eyes. I shared with them that I used mustard oil since childhood and no one could be fairer than me. That brought a smile on their lips. I shared how women’s movements had got few of the advertisements removed from the TV as they were degrading to girls and women in the name of appearance. Also we need to get together and question what is being dished out to us through soaps and advertisements. Draupadi who is considered one of the most beautiful women on earth was dark complexion that is why her name was also Krishnaa. Still the Ramanand Sagar’s Mahabharata which comes to us in our homes made her fair. I left them with the wonder at this statement hoping that they will be able to withstand what the system does in the name of culture, media included.
1994 there were two Indian girls voted as Miss Universe and Miss World. The beauty industry had made its mark and got this huge landscape as market. Recently there has been upsurge of challenging fairness concept. Even the government has created some sort of ban on advertisement for fairness creams. And I wonder how many lives will be needed to overcome the white supremacy, be it our skin or acceptance of dominance!