It’s been long since Maa felt beautiful. For days without end, she wouldn’t look in the mirror. For all the obvious reasons, she has changed — swiftly & gradually. Years back, she stopped looking like who she knew she was, & nobody around had the time or empathy to instil how even her changing versions deserved love. She would bawl & weep & drain herself because she hated who she found in the mirror — a face and a body she could not stand filling her eyes with.
Taking matters into her hand, she’d begin skipping meals, & no one would bother asking why. When my brother and I grew up enough to be able to question her, she’d just claim she didn’t feel hungry. Because she wasn’t asking for a lot, just a trimmed belly. She’d continue not eating for nights and days — until she couldn’t bear the hunger. And this is when she’d think she had failed herself: by not being able to survive her self-imposed starvation. The woman would become a crumbled heap as she finally needed to put morsels in her mouth.
To compensate for her body’s failures, she resorted to her perfecting her face. She would put multiple masks of ‘multani mitti’ — again hating the fact that its colour matched her skin. With her hefty ingredient lists — borrowed from strangers & her sisters — she’d scrub her skin red, thinking she’d someday miraculously turn white (meaning beautiful). She would pay endless visits to all known dermatologists, feeling guilty for splashing money on them, their arrogant words & long prescriptions without ever seeing any results. She would agree with the women at local parlours when they pointed out how bad her skin had become, how she looked older & more tired than ever, become embarrassed when they pointed out the new spots that her own eyes couldn’t recognize or the lines that had already deepened like cracks. As her desperation grew, so did her helplessness. Eventually, as nothing worked for her, she stopped with everything. She felt defeated & stung.
It’s been years since this photograph was taken. On her happiest & worst days, she would rummage for pictures like this, reliving for a few moments what it felt like to be skinny with thick glossy hair and pink lips, having eyes that shone, being draped in the most gorgeous saree & matching silk or cotton scarves finds that got her entire neighbourhood talking. Snapping back to reality strikes her so hard that she loses words for a while.
This is what our ideas of beauty do to us. Even today, Maa refuses to get her pictures clicked unless forced to. It isn’t just her; it is all women of all ages: we feel hopelessly inadequate & incapable because of how we look.
When I feel ugly, she tells me no woman has to be pretty. But when this hasn’t seeped into her skin after all this time, how do I take this from her? I hope, someday, she would come to believe this herself: that she never ‘needed beauty’ to look & feel beautiful. I hope she learns to look at herself in the mirror & affirm herself with this.
After all, what is beauty but a mere perception of the mind?
(Also find text this here!)