My fragile 30-plus body

Posted: May 6, 2011

I don’t know whether it is because I crossed 30 a couple of years ago, or because there are more ads than ever out there – but all of a sudden, I am noticing a super-abundance of advertisements trying to scare the hell out of me.

Some of them tell me that invisible to my eyes, my skin has already begun deteriorating; that it is darkening (gasp!) and acquiring blemishes and ‘sun-spots’ at an alarming rate. That, if I don’t do something about it rightaway (the something involving walking up to a store pronto to buy their expensive fairness product), I am doomed. As for hair, there is dandruff, hairfall, colour damage, weakening of roots, greying – any number of things to spend one’s life worrying about, and any number of products to help miraculously vanish all of those problems.

How is it that we’ve bought into the myth of the fragile human body that can only be succoured by a cabinet full of petroleum-based concoctions?

When I was growing up, I remember the family cosmetic cupboard usually containing a bottle of coconut hair oil, a container of talcum powder and perhaps some multi-purpose cold cream. Shampoo was occasionally bought in sachets – only for days when one was in a rush. Otherwise, my mother insisted on us using sheekakai that had hibiscus petals and herbs ground into it. The only other things in the cosmetic trove would be my dad’s shaving stuff and mom’s compact and a shade or two of lipstick.

Our bodies were none the worse for it. I don’t recall my mother’s face breaking out hideously after she turned 30. Her hands which had no benefit of hand cream stayed as soft or rough as they had always been. Housework or the lack of it, does more to impact hands than the most expensive cream. My mother’s hair began greying as she approached 30 – like that of her brothers and sisters. Neither the sheekakai that I used in my childhood, nor the fancy shampoos I have tried since then, can prevent my hair from following this genetic destiny.

The solicitousness with which we are constantly asked to approach our bodies is the reverse of what we were taught as kids. When growing up, I was always given to understand that what went into your body was of critical importance – hence the importance of eating fresh food, cooked simply and healthily. Traditional food rules play an important role in enforcing good habits in most Hindu communities. For girls as well as boys, the importance of having a strong body was emphasized – “Stamina” was a word I heard often. The unstated messages always were that adult life involved plenty of work, and the body had to be well-prepared to do it. However, nowhere did I hear that the body was a fragile thing, demanding indulgence and the support of products.

Today, we’re moving to the other end of the spectrum, where we believe that we must first take care of the outsides of our bodies, and anything wrong with the inside can always be corrected with medication!

One of the strangest manifestations of this approach is the injunctions against towel-drying your hair. Ads for every hair product (and content in women’s magazines – since there is often little difference between the two) implore one to treat one’s scalp ‘delicately’ and not dry it vigorously – your hair might fall out! As for me, one of my fondest memories from my childhood remains that of having my hair firmly towelled dry by either of my parents, while in a pleasurably half-sleepy state.

(I am tagging a few friends that I believe might be interested in the topic – Lavanya D, IHM and Uma – and of course, anyone who has thought about these things – do share your views and pass on the tag if you like!)

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  1. The unstated messages always were that adult life involved plenty of work, and the body had to be well-prepared to do it.

    This is what is lacking these days. No one wants to put in physical labor. Physical exercise tones up the body and keeps it fit. Our life style as a friend says requires a head to think and a hand to press buttons on the remote control and I am relieved that the importance of a ‘head’ is still emphasized :-))

  2. Oh yes! I remember the shampoo sachets! They were only to wash away the last of the oil from my hair. Now no end of expensive products can rid my hair of dandruff!
    I think once we hit 40, we will be urged to get ready for our dotage.

  3. I think in the past women were also expected to (and hence accepted too) age after thirty. For example, bright colours like red were generally reserved for younger women. Older women (mothers of two or more children) were expected to devote themselves to things higher than their appearance.

  4. Thanks for your comments.

    @Hip Grandma – that’s another subject in itself, but yes, most of us would love to stay fit without lifting a finger!

    @ lavanya – seriously; these ads are urging us to go place a foot in the grave already (unless of course we use their products)

    @IHM – on the one hand, I am glad that women are no longer expected to give up every other interest just because they are mothers/older; on the other – I just wish the interests encouraged didn’t revolve so much around appearance alone. Other interests like having friendships and hobbies are still viewed suspiciously in many traditional families.

  5. Growing up in the seventies, focusing on ones appearance was really not encouraged.
    You were expected to be far more substantial within yourself, with academics, sports and reasonable competence with domestic tasks. I guess that the advertising and marketing industries were nascent, hence we were safe from their relentless barrage of information on products which now seem to be all that separate youth and beauty from hoary wrinkles and worse.

  6. Even though I agree with a lot of the points you mention, I think the environment is also considerably changing. Eg the amount of UV rays reaching us have increased and hence the need for sunscreens. We are all stressed and are constantly in the fight or flight mode, this leads to early graying of hair and increased hairfall. And all this is being exploited commercially by the companies.
    I agree with your point on eating healthy. But I think with that also, there are so many products in the market today promising different benefits to you. Sometimes, I sit and wonder that how true are all these claims? I think the real idea of staying healthy just gets lost in the race to eat healthier food!

  7. @Dipali – I do think it’s less stressful to not to have to worry about one’s appearance so much. I’m all for being clean and well-groomed, and I have no issues either with people who like to dress up, but it’s sort of becoming an expectation that one must have make-up on when one goes to any half-decent place. I don’t like that pressure, or the pressure to look 20 when I am not.

    @Prerna – I agree with you to some extent, but don’t you think these fears are also over-hyped? And especially for women? Older men are still considered to look ‘dignified’, but god forbid that a woman should look her age! On the claims of health foods, you may find Michael Pollan’s book, ‘In defense of Food’ interesting.

  8. To the point above that in the past women were meant to look “not attractive” after they hit 30, true, however, even then the emphasis was on the outside. Even back in those days, not many women took up excercise for the sake of keeping fit with the claims that the house work kept them lithe and strong. In many families, girls were stopped from running around once they reached their teens in the interest of “decorum”. Anyway, the point of this post is well true – aging gracefully is passe

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