Growing up as a girl is tough. We have to fend off leery advances from unknown men in public spaces even though we don’t fully understand what’s going on. We are expected to be paragons of virtue because someone somewhere decided without even consulting us that women are meant to be the pride of the family. On top of that we have to face a battalion of aunties who constantly judge us as if we are part of a beauty pageant. God forbid if you’re not fair and lovely, you are constantly reminded of it, as if it was your damn fault! They could be fat, ugly themselves but that doesn’t stop those aunties from passing snarky comments about your appearance.
Interestingly the boys are spared this agony. They could be gangly, pimply, with a hook nose, yet they were handsome princes according to their moms. We had no such luck.
As you would have guessed by now, I was thin, dark, gawky and not conventionally “good looking” as a child through her teens. I hated the shape of my nose. My brother would often make sketches to illustrate what exactly was wrong with it. I wished I had thinner lips and would often experiment with pursing my lips, hoping it would make me look pretty. Everyone around me seemed prettier. Unfortunately I was not even spectacularly good in academics to make up for my lack of comely charms.
As a gawky adolescent still hungry for approval from strangers, I believed every single barb. Each snarky comment disguised as concern stung like hell. But I made sure I never gave anyone the satisfaction of knowing that they had managed to dent my self-esteem. Sometimes I felt there was a contest going on amongst moms, each trying to convince others that their child was the best thing to have happened to humanity by putting the rest of us down. As usual, we kids were caught in the crossfire. So, when a colleague of my mom would rue about my lack of height, ma would enrol me for swimming or make me hang from a cold iron rod first thing in the morning, hoping I’d stretch like chewing gum. I spent most of my time at the pool chatting with hot didis lamenting about their voluptuous thighs. I refused to hang like a baboon from that rod after the first day.
When some odd person did say something nice about the way I looked, I refused to believe them.
As I grew older, I became confident in my own skin. You could say I have gotten so old it doesn’t matter. Whatever. My pug nose no longer bothers me. I snap at the salon lady when she insists I go for a skin brightening treatment. I am as comfortable in heels as I am in flats and nobody in this world can make me feel bad about myself. I am not claiming harsh words do not affect me but I brush them off like dandruff.
It took me over two decades to accept that I am not all that ugly. It helped that I am married to a man who thinks I am the most beautiful woman on earth (well, almost) and makes me test my ability to step out of my comfort zone. It is now I know how shallow people who judge others based solely on their looks are. That it requires extremely low self-esteem to feel good about yourself by making others feel bad. That when you are not astonishingly beautiful, people seek you out and love you for who you are.
Beauty has very little to do with the way you look. It has more to do with how you make others feel.
And now that I am on social media, I am everything I ever wanted to be — beautiful, talented, oh mee gawd hawt – but I don’t let that self-congratulatory feeling linger for long, just like the unpleasant remarks.
The other day some friends and I somehow got talking about our growing-up years and I was surprised to discover that so many of us had similar stories to share — being made to feel bad for plain looks or a dark complexion or slanting eyes. And some of these callous remarks were from our own moms!
At an age where insecurities are omnipresent and rife, overcoming self-doubt is a daily battle. Teens are constantly trying to benchmark their worth against one another and the last thing they want to put up with is unflattering comparisons. They face pressure from a multitude of sources — self-inflicted, peer, parental and societal. This, compounded by hormonal changes, continuously cuts the ground from under their feet and feeds into their insecurities. So it’s a miracle to have emerged to be confident and content women. Maybe the barbs and taunts helped us become stronger. We defined success, strived harder to be better human beings and didn’t let frivolous remarks mess with our self-esteem.
These days when I see an unsure, gawky girl with her gorgeous mother or a far prettier sibling, carrying the burden of comparison on her shoulder, my heart goes out to her. I want to run up to her and hug her and tell her, stop believing those women who have nothing better to do with their lives than comment about others. Don’t let anyone contaminate you with their insecurities. The outside world is a harsh place, especially for women, created by women. You’ll never be able to rid yourself of people who will try their best to bring you down by ridiculing you for how you look and what you wear. The higher you go, the lower the barbs will get. Should you let that bother you, you are simply handing over the keys to happiness to them.
And please don’t wait for two decades to realise that beauty has very little to do with the way you look. It has more to do with how you make others feel. It’s beyond almond-shaped eyes, an aquiline nose, smooth skin and cascading hair — things that are just a biological by-product that nobody consulted you on. True beauty is about the sparkle in your eyes, the kindness of your smile, the confidence in your stride and your head held high.