I gazed into the mirror, at my reflection, and let the vision from the eye that was open fall upon the kohl lined one that was shut. The blue grey shades of the eye shadow shimmered lightly on the canvas of my eyelid, bordered by the thick black line of the eyeliner. Nice. Someday, I will learn the art of creating the smoky eye effect but for today, this will do.’
With both eyes now open, I let my gaze wander over the rest of my face. Features had been accentuated, blemishes hidden. The array of make-up products I had used had done their job. All I needed to do was fill in the luscious matte shade of burgundy on my lips.
‘Diva’ – an apt title for the lipstick I had chosen. As I looked into the mirror for one last time, I certainly felt like one. Though I must admit, I did not always embody this essence of being a diva. Discovering this essence has been a journey.
The art of make-up was one I had begun to dabble in only recently, until then I had been defiant to the idea of it. The wisdom of the forties had illumined to me the fact that the rebellious attitude towards make-up and fashion that I had harbored earlier was a defense mechanism I had come up with to protect myself. Let me tell you the story of how that happened.
You see, I am dark skinned and very short and there was a time in the crazy teenage years when I stopped seeing myself as the bubbly loving spirit that I was and instead wondered if someone with a flawed complexion and as scrawny as me could be considered attractive.
It seemed unfair that while my growth spurt lasted a mere inch, everyone else towered around me. And in a country where fair skin is considered an epitome of beauty, it hurt to be dark. My family and friends loved me unconditionally and cherished my presence.
Not once made me feel less worthy yet the conventional idea of beauty laid out by society had wiggled its way into my mind. While MJ crooned “It don’t matter if you are black or white”, to a young naïve teenager trying to fit in, it certainly did.
On one of those days, in a desperate attempt to change at least a tad bit of my appearance, I walked into a salon, also known as a ‘beauty parlor’ in my country. I had never been to one before. Now I would say the name is a misnomer. There is so much more to beauty than looks. But at that point in time, to me, it resonated that it is the external fixing that is done to a person’s appearance that miraculously enhances beauty.
The ‘beauty parlor’ was a home run salon owned by a matronly heavyset woman who had a couple of giggly and chirpy girls to help her. It is a norm in my country, where every grown-up person in your life is referred to as aunty or uncle and many a young girl as baby. Aunty was perched in a cushioned chair with her feet resting on a little black stool reading a magazine while one of the helper girls was massaging her head. Her raspy voice boomed as she peered above her wide rimmed spectacles at me.
“Yes, baby. What can I do for you?”
I looked around the dinghy, rectangular room with a makeshift changing area in the corner, a huge mirror and three rotating chairs in front of it. There was a massage table against the wall at the far end of the room. A waxy aroma that wafted across its span. A little cauldron shaped pot rested on a ledge by the table. J K Rowling had not invented Hogwarts yet – or else the scenario would be akin to a young Harry Potter walking into Dumbledore’s office wishing to learn a spell that magically transformed one’s appearance.
“Fa-facial..” I replied meekly.
“Ok baby… Come. First time doing facial?”
“Yes,” I replied and proceeded to do as she said. I changed into a jaded cotton gown she provided and lay down on the table, shutting my eyes tight. As she scurried around for the next few moments getting products ready to apply on my face, I waited agitated and uneasy.
Auntyji wore her glasses and scrutinized my face closely. “Tsk tsk… so many blackheads… you need the gold facial. Expensive but you need it.”
I shut my eyes, clenched my fists and held on. If I wanted to feel beautiful, I would have to endure these experiences. While her stooges watched, she deftly massaged my skin with what seemed to be layers of masks, rubbing them in, letting them dry and peeling them out. Next, I was asked to hover my face steady, over a pot of steaming water with a cloth covering my head so as not to let the steam escape. It felt like my face was on fire. As the droplets condensed and dripped down my face, I soothed myself. ‘Didn’t things always seem bad before they get better. The sting from the steam would open up my pores and rejuvenate my skin and I would glow just like those models in TV ads.’
As the steaming ordeal ended, aunty asked me to lay back down and brought a couple of sharp needle-like instruments. Terrified, I asked her what she was about to do next.
“Not to worry. I must take out the blackheads no?”
As she pinched and tugged away at the blackheads on my nose, I felt excruciating pain. Tears welled up in my eyes. I’m not sure if I had felt such animosity towards anyone before but in that moment, I did and as she brought the tweezer to my nose once more, I gathered every ounce of fierceness in my body and raised my hand to slap her. I just wanted the pain to stop. She was quick to react and with her large, jiggly arms, she firmly caught my hand and pinned me down. The stooges giggled.
“Arre! Baby, this much also you cannot bear? You want to be pretty or not? Then these blackheads I have to take out. It does not look nice, no?”
I lay there, stark naked in my vulnerability, desperate to wedge my way into the land of the glamorous, my mind spinning, It does not look nice? To whom? To another who was looking at me? I had to go through all this pain so that when someone else saw me, it would be a pleasing sight for them? So unfair! Were there not enough puppies, daffodils and roses for the world to feast their eyes on if they wanted to see something nice?
“Baby, you have to come back next month to remove the blackheads, ok? Otherwise no use, it will come back.”
‘Huh? Whaaaat? I would have to go through this again? And again?’
I looked at myself for a few minutes every morning and night and though the image was not perfect, there were certainly less painful things I could do with my time, like reading a book. It was true that I had wanted to fit into a mold that society had carved yet even after the facial, even after the coaxing and cajoling of the skin, I didn’t feel any different. Maybe my skin glowed, and there were fewer blackheads but otherwise I was the same person as I was before this experience.
That’s when the rebel was born. There was a quiet defiance, a current of seething anger in my heart for rules that defined beauty in society. I decided that I would stay away from everything that changed my appearance externally, that the beauty industry was an ostensible one. Looking good did not always translate to feeling good. I had experienced that though I could not fathom what I must do to find my inner glow.
Years passed. Fortunately for me, my husband cherished a sense of humor more than a sense of style and I did not care to change. I was most comfortable in slacks and to his chagrin – his t-shirts and he just let me be. When the kids came along, for the longest time, I wore their presence as my accessory.
Their spirit was an extension of mine and I basked in it. I felt radiant. I was wrong to think that motherhood is what makes one beautiful. I did not own our children and a time comes, as it did for me, for them to leave your space and find their own. Being a mother is just a role I played.
As I began to fill in the void the kids left with questions – Who am I, why am I here, what does taking care of oneself truly mean? There were other burning questions too about faith, culture, values etc. The search led me to meditation and though none of the answers appeared magically, there was a subtle change in the way I responded to life. It took months, and nothing changed externally but I was happy, for no particular reason. My heart felt warm and fuzzy, most of the time.
One night, as I brushed my teeth, I looked in the mirror. I was still short, still dark and to add to it the aging effect of mid-life hormones were conspicuous – streaks of grey, thinning hair and the battle of the mid-riff bulge. Yet, I was ecstatic. That warm fuzzy feeling had eclipsed all insecurities. I had brushed away layers of inadequacy just as valiantly as I had brushed away the plaque. I was in my forties now and I loved, lived and wrote from the heart. Nothing else mattered. Maybe, this is what it felt to be a diva. To be fearlessly you.
And that, in short, is my journey to finding true beauty.
Though this awakening hasn’t broadened my sense of style. I still lounge around in my sweatpants and hubby’s Superman t-shirt, but I am no longer averse to the idea of dolling up on occasions. Today I was getting dressed to do an author event. The excitement of doing something that I loved combined with a dash of make- up made me feel yummy.
As I turned around to step out of the room, my faithful little puppy wagged his furry tail at me. Ah, he approved. He knew under the mask of the skin toner, primer, foundation, highlighter and blush was the warm and funny spirit he loved.
I now know it too. I have finally learned to embrace myself just as I am. I am a quirky woman who graciously bore the pain of childbirth but is terrified of a pair of tweezers.
I am a diva!