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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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