Category Archives: Vanity Unfair
Beauty and all that it implies.
I’ve been curating conversations around various themes on Instagram via polls, questions & Lives. It’s been an eye-opener for the ideas that have come in from the discussions. I closed 2020 with the theme ‘Saritorially Yours’, wanting to explore the ways we tell our stories using our bodies as canvas. It became a journey into the language of bodies.
The policing of our bodies results in censorship of our dressing too. What colours we’re disallowed, what garments must languish only as sheepish dreams in our wardrobes – these speak our stories in deafening silence. And our dressing – the words of this language – become about what we’re hiding behind. Language is after all, also the art of concealing thought.
No wonder then that reclaiming our agency over our bodies so often goes with dressing in ways that are unexpected & unconventional. No wonder a haircut may be a good way to start healing from a breakup because it symbolises redrawing a boundary of self as different from the past & redefining it. Dressing can be empowering, can be healing.
Your body is a canvas, a blank page. The stories you write on it don’t have to be pretty or smart. They can also be fun, they can also be inspiration. They can also be battle cries, they can also be pain.
The only truly natural thing for any of us to wear is our own skins. Everything above that is a costume. Undergarments, shoes, clothes, accessories, makeup, jewellery, hair styling, gender norms, ‘age-appropriate’ styling. It’s all a performance. Why not make it drama? Enact the story of you on the stage that is your body.
If you’d like to watch the video of the Live discussion I had on this, with Ashwini Narayan, click here.
There is something about living your best self that draws in other people. We call its wonderful parts, inspiration. The pleasure of watching someone achieve their dream, follow their passion, be happy.
But it also pulls in darker sides of humanity. Microaggressions like insincerity, barbs, sarcasm, condescension. Boundary violations like stalking, hero worship, objectification. Dangerous things like righteous rage & what I call themsplaining (which is people telling you who you are from their own limited point of view but as if that is the truth). Some people are in a hurry to impose on you, their scripts of what your life should look like & who you should be. It’s a lot easier than saying, what a joy to behold & what does it teach me about my own joyfulness? People tell you who they are, in the way they respond to your happiest self.
My dressing often brings in aggression. Workplace harassment for wearing a hair ornament. Bullying by a classmate for wearing sarees. Slut-shaming & prudery-shaming together. Don’t ask – hate isn’t logical. Last evening I sported a face painting, some people said was ‘scary’.
I once read an interview with Rudyard Kipling, where he spoke of the abuse he endured as a child. He said, “That experience left me devoid of the capacity to hate.” My contentment in my body & clothes is probably terrifying for some people. It’s hard to be angry at people who are scared of you. In my experience, refusing to respond with anger kills the aggression. Bullies have returned offering timid affection. It’s hard to take seriously because a guilty compliment is a bribe, a desperate plea for approval. All I feel is sad for the smallness that humanity can also be.
I go back to Kipling. And try & keep my head when all about are losing theirs & blaming it on me. This is being my best self. Doing this in big colours makes it an adventure. I am a fierce butterfly.
: Watch your reaction to what impresses you
(This post was written in October 2020)
I got a haircut! As I navigate into the new normal, this was the first thing I wanted.
The pandemic has been full of lessons, many uncomfortable. I’ve liked to think of myself as unworldly, a being of the mind rather than the body. But even as home haircuts & DIY styling became the 2020 look, I found myself reluctant to take scissors to hair. Even through a horrific summer minus AC, household tasks with needle-sharp hair on my neck, plastered to my face, drifting into my nose & eyelashes. I didn’t cut my hair.
I had to admit that this part of me is quite worldly. My hair is my vanity. I like it luxuriant, clean , sleek & free. And in matters of my hair, if I don’t like something, it drains the very quality of my mood, my thinking, my efforts & hope. Even if others tell me it looks ok.
My first purchase after lockdown was an epilator to replace one that stopped in the hemmed in months. I felt guilty, questioning of my own feminism. I didn’t even have the excuse of being a swimmer. I realised that was an excuse. I like my limbs smooth to my touch. I like how they feel when I lie down at night. Guilt comes via other people & there’s no room for that in me.
Vanity has been hijacked first by patriarchy, letting men dictate how our bodies look, then the media to sell us more. But vanity at its core, is a form of self-worth, of valuing the physical self. When I swipe on lipstick, when I run my hand down my other arm, when I toss my hair or tuck in a perfect saree pleat, I feel a burst of energy. It comes from within, even before other eyes can offer validation (or judgement). It feels like acceptance, like rightness, like the mantle of life sits easy on my shoulders.
That’s why vanity is my superpower. It grounds me in me, my best self.
: @rikhilasrani at @rikoshesalon
: Wear a mask. Support local/small businesses.
: THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT: Beegie Adair
: waiting for @aparna.andhare for #GirlTalkXXFactor: Lekhak Life
(This was written 2 months ago)
My hair is now in a shape that allows for two pigtails with a center parting. I discover the hair in the center part is not long enough to reach either pigtail and is too silky to stay pinned down. What sorcery is this?
Just hair? It’s tiny needles poking into the back of the neck when you’re trying to sleep . It’s straw poking into eyeballs when swabbing the floor & can’t put hand to eye. It’s wisps tickling the nose when buying veggies & trying not to sneeze & cause a panic.
I didn’t take scissors to hair through lockdown, weathering a hot summer in an east-facing room without air-conditioning. Because some part of me believed I’d come out of lockdown to get a real haircut. I don’t know anymore.
The lockdown is over but the pandemic seems here to stay. It does not feel safe to touch, to move. And it feels wrong to think about hair styling when people are suffering.
Last year, for the first time possibly ever, I had a hair accident – a cut gone wrong. It was deeply uncomfortable, made even more so by the realisation that it was my first ever feeling such unhappiness with my hair. I’ve been flexible with my stylists, open to all manner of experiments. And this made me realise how that was made easy because things had always turned out well.
I’ve struggled with body image issues over my skin colour, texture, body shape and teeth but never my hair. It has been as Jo March says in Little Women, ‘my one beauty’. My hair has invited in things into my life that I struggled to find and then accept – ease, softness, acceptance. It adapts well, falls easily and is healthy. I’ve taken it so much for granted. I realised this all, last year as it sat in a frump, seemingly apologetic for not being able to be its star self.
I’ve wanted to be kinder to myself on this too. And now I think I’d love it even if my home haircut turns out poorly.
But cutting my hair feels like surrendering hope. Is it hope to assume things will get better or is it selfish denial, leaving it to the outside world? Is it stubbornness to hold onto reminders of what is good or is it the life lesson I’m meant to learn?
I’m clutching my hair.
: DEVIL IN DISGUISE-Elvis Presley
Some time ago, I watched a woman walk into a coffeeshop. She was dressed in a neon yellow jacket, neon yellow sneakers & microshorts and sported a ponytail on either side of the head, held back with – you guessed it, neon yellow ties. She looked like she was in her early 30s. I was consumed by uncharitable thought after judgemental idea – about her overcoordination, skin exposure, colour choice. The vehemence of my feelings shocked me.
Earlier in the year, an old friend attacked my saree styling, called me names, threatened to walk away if I ever ‘dared’ wear one in his presence. He refused to apologise when I called him out for his misbehaviour. The next day, he trolled my blogs.
I used to wear a bright red fascinator to work. I was catcalled at the station, followed home and worst of all, found nasty notes left on my office table. It was upsetting because I was not breaking any rules or harming anybody.
What it is it about apparel that incites such violent responses in other people? When I discovered it in myself, I realised I couldn’t write it off as other people’s issues. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t act on it. I thought it. I too, felt a powerful negative reaction to a stranger’s dressing. Why?
Our bodies are policed by families, by male partners, by female companions, by the fashion industry, by media standards, by gender definitions. I enjoy people’s confusion when I wear a saree (sanskari) with sneakers (tomboy). Or green lipstick (wild) with a kurta (traditional). I tell a story with every look. And my stories force people to reconsider their assumptions.
Each time we see someone presenting differently from what we expect, we experience shock. Alongside come our memories at having been policed for similar behaviour. Maybe we resent the person’s courage. Maybe we hate their naivete. Maybe we miss the security that a prison offers us because all imposed rules are prisons.
I dress to assert my identity and that itself is a protest. I guess that’s true for the girl in the coffeeshop too. The very act of dressing is a political statement.
I LOVED a haircut I had last year. This helped me tide over my uncertainty about a new stylist. When I went back for a trim, somehow things turned out differently. She was so upset, I didn’t get angry. I could see it was an honest mistake. It’s easy to forget styling is an art that you can’t mass produce identical results. Here’s what I learnt:
1. Things not going as per plan may not mean malice (usually not). They may not mean ineptitude (this happens more often than the first but not everytime). I was faced with the choice of poisoning this otherwise great relationship with upset or whatever other option there was. The hair stays the same regardless so why throw away people?
2. I often feel like the universe has been tough on me. But I miss the ways it’s also gentle on me. Hair is a vital part of my self-expression because I have some control over it (unlike skin colour or body type). It lends itself to easy alterations with big differences in results. I’ve been blase about this gift but life has gifted me nice hair. It’s silky, straight, shiny, strong, voluminous. It also grows quickly and is still black. Which means I can afford to indulge my affectation of not using product. Even this haircut gone wrong is starting to settle nicely. I don’t say thank you enough but really thank you for my crowning glory.
3. I’ve been careless in how I think of the connection between beauty & self-worth. With all my battles, I’m not at the forefront of attack for how I look. I forgot how much not feeling attractive eats into your self-esteem. This wasn’t even an attack, just a haircut that turned out different and I still felt incomplete. This was a reminder.
4. I’ve faked-it-till-I-made-it with performance & dressing (which is a kind of performance). This time, I let my dissonance show. People have ONLY been encouraging. That’s the lesson.
5. Today I felt right in my body. Maybe it was a good swim. Maybe it was time. Maybe it was because I let myself feel before speaking or labelling.
Peace within means beauty without.
I’m so glad for the lessons.
I used to think of myself as ‘one of the boys‘, because I didn’t identify with how femininity was practised around me. I wanted to own my intelligence, my independence and strength the way I saw only boys do. I walked, talked and dressed in a close approximation of my male peers – dirty jeans, chunky boots and a loud voice steeling myself to incorporate crude speech. I didn’t get a lot of acceptance because gender roles are too deeply embedded in people’s minds. Other girls still saw me as competition for their boyfriends and the boys treated me like I was a defective female.
Once I started working, I was able to experience my personal power without having to dress it up so much. People took me seriously and held me as accountable. Through my 20s, I was able to embrace my softer side – sitting with my legs crossed, caring for my appearance, smiling over snarling, compliments instead of sarcasm. I had discovered I could be/do these without giving away my power.
Now I meet more women who practise my kind of femininity. Not the coy, simpering, bitchy-to-other-girls, defining oneself by one’s boyfriend/husband kind. But smart, independent women who don’t feel the need to hide it or tear me down. They’re also emotionally aware, not just apeing ‘maleness’. This kind of femininity is more acceptable now.
Occasionally a woman expects me to be her knight in shining armour – this is the old toxic femininity, acting helpless + expecting women to do all the work. It’s not perfect.
But I have more fulfilling conversations with other women now than I did before 30. Careers, health, poetry, architecture, sexuality and yes, men too – we talk like two humans would, not like scripts mouthed by strictly controlled prisoners.
Men, in comparison are rarely this interesting. There are exceptions but they’re a scant few. Conversations wth men often have to be ’emotionally dumbed down’. It’s tiring and not worth it when there are other more evolved humans called women.
I’ve come a long way from ‘one of the boys’. Right now I’m every bit a women’s woman. Or maybe, I’m my own person.