When the feisty Priya Malik recites one of her intense poems, you shut up and listen. But how was it for her having to listen to prejudiced comments about her looks and being subjected to comparisons using so-called beauty ideals as the standard? She says, “I’ve lived in a joint family, and I think it all starts at home – you start getting compared to others, your height is measured, your hair, skin colour, facial features are compared. I was always told my nose is too big, my eyes are too small, and that, though my skin colour is fair, my features are not sharp. What happens next is you start internalising all you hear, so, when you look at yourself in the mirror, especially when you’re growing up, you start believing those things. And it took me a long time to accept myself as who I am!”
Speaking further about how the stereotyping affected her self-esteem, Malik says, “In the ’90s, when I was growing up, the media was very white-washed, so you only saw a particular kind of beauty being promoted in mainstream literature and films. So, I began to compare myself with what I saw and with other teenage girls around me. It was also a time when the beauty pageant industry grew, and I remember this funny incident – my mom had told me that a girl’s height stops increasing once she starts menstruating, so, when I got my first period in school, I was crying out loud to my friends and my teacher saying I could never become Miss Universe now because you have to be 5′7′ for that and I was 5′2′.”
From finding all this strange to venturing outside without applying make-up to reaching a point where she’s comfortable even shooting without it, Malik is now in a revolutionary love affair with herself. She says, “Instead of combating the stereotyping externally, I had internalised it to such a degree that even until my late twenties, I didn’t find myself beautiful. I was not self-accepting, and, in order to compensate for those insecurities, I would find external ways to validate myself, be it via social media or in other ways. Now, I think there is an absolute beauty in my imperfections, and I think the more flawed I am, the more beautiful I am. I also feel that my skin, hair, nails have become so much better since I entered this relationship of self-acceptance with myself.”
How to #StopTheBeautyTest:
“On social media, I follow a policy called ‘delete or defeat’. Earlier, I used to end stereotyping by defeating people with clever comebacks, but now I believe in deleting, muting and blocking as I think what angers you controls you. I no longer let negative energy or negative comments affect my energy because I don’t want that to control my narrative, my beauty, and my relationship with myself. And my advice to the younger generation: Comparison is the thief of happiness. Remember that, be it on social media or in real life, everything that you see might have a filter on it, what you see might not be real. It’s also important that when you see yourself in the mirror, you should know that this is real, this is what we all look like – puffy eyes, untamed hair, swollen face. Uniqueness is beautiful, difference is beautiful, and the beauty of beauty – it’s not the same for everybody.”
Beauty stereotyping followed travel content creator Sharanya Iyer, who's popularly known by her Instagram handle @trulynomadly, all the way from childhood into corporate life. She says, “Growing up, I was told to stay out of the sun lest I tan (more), told to eat more because I was too scrawny, and casually short-shamed by schoolmates. Even when I entered corporate life and spent seven years working hard to climb the ladder with my talent and dedication, I was often thought of as an intern because of how ‘small’ I looked.”
Believing, since a young age, that she didn’t meet beauty ideals, Iyer’s confidence and self-esteem took a hit in big ways. She did what she thought would make her feel attractive and loved, be it using heaps of chandan and haldi to turn a few shades fairer, eating a whole lot of cheese to try and put on weight, or shaving her facial hair, albeit shabbily. It was only in her mid-teens that her life took a turn for the better. “I started reading authors like Jane Austen who were known for their work in furthering the narrative around women’s empowerment and feminism,” Iyer says. “I realised that the work needs to start with me, before I can preach it to anyone else. That I need to de-condition my own mind and slowly erase all the beauty stereotypes that I had internalised.”
Cut to today. She gives herself an 8/10 when asked how comfortable she is in her skin. She says, “As a professional scuba diver and all-around, outdoor-crazy traveller, I love the stories my tan lines tell. I love how my skin reflects light and shines in the sun. I love how strong and fit I am to hike, swim, jump off cliffs, and rappel down mountainsides. I don’t ever take low-angle shots to look taller or wear high heels much anymore. This has all taken years of work, but I’m getting there. I still deal with adult acne, which comes in the way of my job when I’m on camera making travel videos, but, again, that’s got a lot to do with me ‘allowing’ it to be a hindrance.”
How to #StopTheBeautyTest: “Once you’ve made that choice to not just accept yourself, but wake up every day and love yourself, the next steps line up,” Iyer tells us. “I now call out people around me who casually comment on something that doesn’t fit their beauty ideal. I question them and don’t just let it pass. The key is to stand up and not allow for this to be normalised in your immediate circles. You might feel like a small cog in the wheel, but change begins at home, and that’s got to happen. We’re all complicit, we’re all victims of deep conditioning, but there is enough out there today to learn from and grow with. All you’ve got to do is start!”
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