A lament for those who have to look good in order to feel good… and to look good, have to look like someone else

An eight-year-old gets her eyebrows plucked at a beauty parlour. An eighth standard student asks for Botox to remove a line between her eyebrows. If your eyebrows aren't shooting up by now you must be more shockproof than I. On the other hand, why should such news shock me? Falsity, which permeates modern life, is nowhere more prevalent — indeed, more sought after — than in the realm of physical features. If adults strive to appear to be who they are not, it is only a matter of time before children do the same.

Beauty-conscious little girls (it's always girls, isn't it?) got me thinking back to my own childhood. I did go through a brief teenage phase of examining my face with a hypercritical eye and growing convinced that my eyes were too small and narrow-set, my nose too large, my lips too fat and my hair too curly. Images of women in the magazines my mother read were my standards for judging myself. I was not engulfed by the storm of still and moving visuals that today's youngsters are swept away by. Peer pressure wasn't invented yet. It was easy for me to overcome my fleeting, superficial aspirations to an ideal body and decide to remain true to the original.

Maybe I overdid the “to thine own self be true” business. I equated make-up with dishonesty. On principle, I refused to dye my prematurely greying hair. I shunned cosmetics like the plague — no eyeliner, or bindi even. And no plucking, waxing, smoothening, straightening, thank you very much. “What you see is what you get.” That's the principle I lived and continue to live by. The only mechanic whom I will allow to tinker with the prototype will be a doctor. If disease causes hair loss I'll get it treated, but if it thins on its own I'll go bald serenely. Wrinkles I plan to embrace as a natural part of ageing.

Now you could say I'm a bit extreme. You could easily pick holes in my approach to body self-image. For example, if I wanted to appear as nature made me I should be going au naturel, but that — er — is neither feasible nor socially acceptable. If I don't care what I look like I should stop looking at my face in the mirror. I should not comb my hair or have it cut. I should not choose my clothes with care. But utter disregard for one's looks borders on self-hatred, and that's not something I would recommend. A policy of minimum interference in one's physical appearance is what I would consider good for one's mental health.

Listening to me, an entire army of women is going “Whaaaa?” And while their (lip-glossed) mouths pop open in disbelief at my ridiculous advice, their (designer-nail-capped) fingers point to a mountain of beauty products — products they cannot do without. They are the backbone of the cosmetics industry, those who are wedded to their moisturisers and revitalisers and sunscreen lotions, whose handbags bulge with make-up kits and bathroom shelves are laden with bottles of goo, who fix one eye on the weighing machine and the other one on their wardrobe. They have to look good in order to feel good, and to look good they have to look like someone else. The beauty industry opportunistically taps this rich vein of insecurity. I might yearn to throw petrol bombs at fairness cream manufacturers (not to mention those who create their sick, ugly commercials) but there are millions of women, rural and urban, who are puppets in their hands.

Why be surprised by the barbification of little girls? Their mothers are probably busy getting makeovers to improve their self-esteem. Self-esteem: what a gross misuse of the term! It was an empowering notion for many women of my generation, linked as it was to the notion of identity, but now it has become a mere excuse for carrying out some more chiselling and sandpapering and polishing of human flesh and bone. Let's say a child gets teased by her friends for her large chin. Her “self-esteem” is immediately shattered, and her parents think they can reconstruct it by taking her to a cosmetic surgeon and giving her a chin job. Did nobody teach them that parenting involves teaching the child to roll with the punches, and not acting like an over-anxious referee or cushioning her every fall?

Incidentally, it might amuse you to know that the idea for this column came from a recent trip to the dentist. One of my canines turned Dracular and began a steady descent towards my lower lip. The dentist proclaimed that it had to be yanked out “at the earliest” since the gum was weak and the bone, disintegrating. I went in for a fake tooth. In the past I'd had molars extracted but never saw the need for implants since the gaps were not easily visible. But now, I lacked the courage to go around with a gaping hole in the front of my mouth. Said a voice in my head, “You can afford to look toothless in another 30 years, not yet.” The dentist's assistant gushed, “It's looking really good, ma'am”, not knowing that it was the last thing I wanted to hear! She must have wondered why I looked so glum.

It isn't always easy to choose true over false.

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