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Indian Women And The Pressure To Look Young

Posted: June 21, 2013

With the buzz for anti-ageing products, have Indian women succumbed to the pressure of looking young? Is embracing your age out of fashion?

By Sushumna Kannan

The reach and influence of the anti-aging research-industry is enormous. It extends to preoccupations with immortality and an end to aging altogether. Promises range from “turn back the clock,” “look upto 10 years younger” to “youthful skin in 5 minutes” or “30 seconds” even. Websites that explain their technology accompanied by “it changed my life” testimonials are now on the rise. We are bombarded with products to use from our teen years itself and the side-effects debate seems to have been overpowered. 

A common view is that using anti-aging products is a woman’s preference. For instance, Sarada Balaji, Fulbright scholar and Professor of English at Tirupati says, “Women use anti-aging stuff since they are themselves inclined to look young. Moreover, they are easily influenced when they see other women do it.”

Some interviewees do quickly point to other issues involved. Archana Bhat, PhD in Psychology, Mysore University, uses anti-ageing creams and she does not condemn the use of beautification products. She opines, “Looking and feeling young is a state of psychological well-being and no culture should have a problem with that.” However, she cautions, “Looking young is one expression of feeling young, but the danger is in the unrealistic expectation. A youthful feeling comes not only from good skin but also physical and mental fitness. A balanced, un-obsessed approach is required.” Bhat’s thoughts are particularly interesting because it takes into consideration women’s psychological needs in the here and now, instead of looking down at them from a moralistic viewpoint. This is markedly different from what I’ve witnessed while I was growing up, when women wearing lipsticks would be dubbed as ‘sluts!’

Balaji continues, “I appreciate make up on others but feel reluctant to have it on me. I do not use any anti-aging creams. I am basically too lazy. However, I do use natural ingredients like pure aloe vera gel for my face.

The importance of women’s beauty

Meghana Shivanand, English Lecturer, Mount Carmel College, Bangalore points out the politics of patriarchy in India. She says, “Women are compared to each other in the institution of the family (for e.g. sisters-in-law, daughters-in-law) and so each one wants to look better and younger than others.

The marriage market is yet another place where the importance of women’s beauty is crucial. To be dark or old is the worst sin here! Your ‘value’ would go down. You would have to marry beneath you, unless you had other things to compensate, like money, good education or a sound family background (that is, no divorces or single parents). As a wife if you are not beautiful, you would have to “overdo” things to make the “deal” worthwhile, so the lack of beauty is “forgiven”. Additionally, career-oriented women today are marrying late, increasing the pressure to look young all the more. Furthermore, with the advent of social networking websites, we are prompted to post pictures frequently to project a sense of well-being.

Looking good has come to mean looking young! The pressure has hit almost all spheres of women’s lives…

Shivanand hits the nail on the head when she says, “Looking good has come to mean looking young! The pressure has hit almost all spheres of women’s lives, be it professional or personal.” She feels, “Women should not use these creams because they will become dependent on external sources to boost their confidence and thus lose their sense of inner worth and focus. Instead they should channelize time, energy and money towards things meaningful.” And yet, even she admits with honesty, “The pressure to look good is so strong that I might still go in for facials and other beauty enhancing agents!

While many women accept that embracing and accepting our age is our responsibility, there is no doubt that the male gaze also drives women to despise aging. Dr. Nikhila Haritsa, Professor, Film Studies, EFLU, Hyderabad, says that there is no point in putting the entire onus on women. Instead, “If the yardsticks of assessing women were not men’s or if men’s way of viewing women changes, there may be some hope.

The importance of women: Beyond youth and good looks

Manon Foucraut, Shrishti School of Arts and Design, Bangalore, in her Master’s thesis (2013) argues that there has been a westernization of beauty standards in India. Exploring beautification in ancient/medieval India, she suggests that we may not have had as many physical preoccupations as we do today. The bindi had a spiritual significance; jewellery enhanced health and worked on the principles of Acupuncture. And the ‘self’ therein was itself perceived not as a body; bodies didn’t matter.

Researcher on ethnicity, Bitasta Das, echoes this thought. Discussing the steps taken by the women’s movement to resist the objectification of women, Das recalls an experience, “I was volunteering in the villages of Assam when one illiterate Bodo woman asked me why I speak of equal rights for the sexes when the life running in each is the same.” Das insists that this is how feminism should be. The “life running…” is called ‘prana’ in traditional terminology.

Celebrating one’s self is not bad but the definition of ‘self’ matters a great deal. For instance, Balaji pointed out that although a beautiful woman attracts attention, it is short-lived if it is not matched with the right attitude and intelligence.

Celebrating one’s self is not bad but the definition of ‘self’ matters a great deal.

Dr. Lavanya Seshashayee, PhD in Women’s Studies, emphasizes on work. She says, External beauty does help in feeling good but is far from being the summum bonum of one’s life purpose. Confidence can be developed only through the meaningful work that a woman engages in. Seshashayee is clear that the “fixation with enhancing looks” should go.

This issue of beautification has caused several bitter fights between my mother and me. As a child, I wanted to dress her up but she was never interested. Only other mothers and daughters can understand this, I think. For my mother, actions and the fulfilment of duties and responsibilities matter, nothing else does. I still remind her to unearth a special silk saree to wear on occasions. She forgets half my instructions about what to match with what! Anti-aging products or hair dyes are out of the question for her, but her beauty lies in her enormous strength and detachment.

The time is indeed ripe for Indian women to explore our self-worth and our notions of selfhood to counter the male gaze.

Do you think that embracing our age gracefully is impossible in this world which is obsessed with looks? Do share your thoughts!

*Photo credit: Linda Mea Meoni (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)

About The Author: Sushumna Kannan is currently affiliated to the San Diego State University, San Diego. She finished her PhD in Cultural Studies at Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore in 2011. Her thesis explored issues in feminist epistemology and the Indian Intellectual traditions. She is a freelance writer on culture, feminism, literature, art, music, movies and books. To view more of her writing, visit: http://sushumnakannan.weebly.com/

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  1. At times I wonder that is ‘looking young’ a manifestation of insecurity? “Looking good’ is certainly not synonymous with it at all. Zohra Sehgal doesn’t ‘look young’ but looks not only good but ‘BEST’ 🙂

  2. I agree. It’s always good to try our bit to look young- whether through exercise or anti-ageing creams, but we should do our bit for ourselves, not for the society. An obsession to look young can be detrimental to our self-esteem.
    Soon we’l probably have a Fair, Young and Lovely cream to tackle all the pressures!

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful and informative essay. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said -“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” If the attitudes that drive “The male gaze” bother women, then THEY should do something about it, not wait for someone to wave a magic wand over men. I have no problem with women wanting to look good — but not by aspiring to some vapid standardized ideal displayed on the latest magazine cover or by a Bollywood bombshell. It is by cultivating inner capability and self-confidence while working within reason to preserve what one is endowed with. The mindless obsession with bleaching of skin and rethinking of nose comes at the expense of all the expansion and celebration of womens’ inherent qualities and capacity to be an awesome force for good and fundamental change in this world. I say put away that external mirror that is blind to WHO YOU ARE, until you discover that for yourself first, and then radiate it outward.

    • Thank you for reading. Agree with you and perhaps an alternative notion of selfhood could also come in handy. Like the one my mother uses for instance. For her and for many traditional women of her generation, the body is not the self and actions define us, not looks.

  4. Kalpana Misra -

    Great article. Well researched. Meghana Shivanand’s comment “Women are compared to each other in the institution of the family (for e.g. sisters-in-law, daughters-in-law) and so each one wants to look better and younger than others.” was interesting for me. Yes, patriarchal thought does think we compete with each other about how we look, but as a woman I know that’s not true. Looks aren’t everything – however much men believe that’s all we think about. That’s how they define us, not how we define ourselves.
    Using anti aging creams is just another way of looking after oneself. If it were botox we would have to worry.
    And is youth always synonymous with beauty? Many women look even more stunning as they grow older.

  5. I was going through my 8 year old’s English classwork, and she was asked to make a sentence with the word “beautiful”. She wrote, “My mother is beautiful”. I am 40 something, underwent 2 deliveries, and am about 15 kilos overweight. But, I am “Beautiful” in the eyes of my child. My husband never pressurized me to lose weight or use better products to enhance my beauty, so I don’t bother to spend my energies there. I feel that if that “one” person who matters to you is okay with how you look, then even if the whole world criticizes your external appearance, it does not matter. After all these years of marriage, my husband probably understood that there was more fire packed in my belly. There is no other beauty which is more attractive in a woman than the feeling of being “central” to the family, as it gives her “power”. And nobody judges a powerful person by their looks!!

  6. I grew up in a “funny” family who placed too much value on externals and not so much on the inner qualities. They didn’t mind as long as they weren’t found out. All that mattered to them was how good they looked to other people. They were practically empty shells to me. I have never found them happy. They are always trying to keep up appearances. So they criticised the way I looked even though many considered me to be attractive. I grew up with a lack of self-esteem and always looking for someone to tell me I was beautiful. I secretly got jealous of other girls who I thought were more beautiful than I was. These days, I find so many beautiful (on the outside) girls and it doesn’t bother me as much because what I am looking for is the inner quality of a woman. Sure I admire external beauty too but it is fleeting. Thankfully, I have grown and matured.

  7. Pingback: Women's unending quest for perfect bodies

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