Redefining beauty—four women on their journey to self-love
Lesson number 1: You are the only one who matters!
For years we’ve had this fixed notion of beauty, a false virtue of thought, that has been passed on from generation to generation recklessly. Fair skin, a blemish-free complexion, an hourglass figure and luscious, long hair are the makings of this unrealistic standard that was drummed up by society, and adhered to for far too long. The result? Women who embarked on a toxic chase for perfection, convinced they weren’t conventionally beautiful.
That was yesterday. Luckily, things are changing and women are setting their own beauty standards today. Instead of accepting the fate that society has handed them, women from different walks of life are coming forward and challenging these preconceived notions. These women are no longer apologising for the way they look, or finding ways to conceal their flaws; instead they’re discovering love where once there was only resentment.
We spoke to four of these women about their previously warped sense of self, a struggle to overcome it and how the journey has helped them redefine their perception of beauty.
Unaiza Merchant, 26, aspiring writer and filmmaker
When two or three occasional zits turned into severe acne, 25-year-old Unaiza Merchant tried cleaning up her diet and investing in organic skincare. However, she would soon discover that dealing with her acne would be a lot more complicated than she had imagined. “I became extremely critical of my face, cried rather often, and began to isolate myself from the rest of the world. I also developed some pretty awful restrictive eating habits,” she says.
Physical discomfort aside, the emotional turmoil someone with acne goes through is incredibly difficult to deal with—from people offering unsolicited advice to passing unnecessary judgment, the overall impact can be quite damaging. “A friend I hadn’t seen in a while brought my skin up in a drinking session,” Merchant recalls. “Having ten people tune in to how you face is ‘messed up’ can be pretty awful. Even if at that moment I wanted to tell him off, I felt so overwhelmed with hurt that I couldn’t. It’s moments like these that can really hurt you and make the journey harder.”
Like most Indians, Merchant grew up idolising European features and only began to understand the deep seeded influence the West had on the rest of the world when she started reading articles by POC (Person of Colour) bloggers. “I knew the beauty industry lacked representation in gender and skin tones, but I didn't consider that it excludes people with 'imperfect' skin until I had severe acne.”
Her lowest point was when the anxiety she had overcome in 2017 began to make its way back into her life and, in that moment, she realised that she couldn’t let a skin condition disrupt her well-being. “I decided to see a dermatologist and get treatment, which helped tremendously as I was reassured by a professional that things would be fine.”
Instead of wallowing in her misery, Merchant decided to take a leaf out of mother’s book and began manifesting her future. “Sometimes no matter how hard you try, there are always going to be tough days. But I also began to make a lot more space for positivity in my life.” A secret vision board on Pinterest and cute reminders to herself in a journal uplifted her mood on bad days and made her focus on the things she loved about herself.
According to Merchant, the #skinpositivity and #acnepositivity movement on Instagram helped her tremendously with her journey. “There were all these lovely people out there, documenting how their skin looked and reassuring their followers that even if we aren’t Instagram-perfect, we don’t need to hide. We can still feel confident and sexy and beautiful. I loved that.”
She also used the platform to share her own struggle with the condition so that she could inspire others and, most importantly, shut down questions about her skin with one bare-faced selfie in March this year. “The best part about the post was people writing to me personally and sharing their experiences, both men and women! I was happy that I could take the skin positivity movement further, even if it was in my own little way.”
Today, physical appearance isn’t much of a concern for her. Looking back, she says there was a point where she would get excited about her clear skin and how she would be about to flawlessly apply foundation, but not anymore. “I’ve been clear for two months now and I haven’t gone anywhere near makeup. Forget foundation, I really can’t remember when I last used eyeliner.”
The tumultuous journey for Merchant was an eye-opening; it turned the spotlight on how unforgiving people when it came to beauty in the country. Talking about how her perception has changed over the years, she says, “I realised that we need reminding that beauty is truly a social construct. It can be whatever a society deems it to be. And it is truly a shame that in a country with one of the most genetically diverse gene pools in the world, we only have one version of it.”
Her advice to young girls who are navigating their own insecurities in a world that gives external beauty too much importance is this: “There’s no sacred, absolute rule book when it comes to beauty. Forget what everyone else has dictated to you. You think you’re confident, fun and gorgeous? Then that’s it—you are!”
Riya Agrawal, 20, student
For 20-year-old Riya Agrawal, her condition wasn’t a shock; vitiligo is a genetic skin disorder and members of her family had been diagnosed with it. “I was around three or four years old when I started noticing the vitiligo patches under and above my eyes that spread all over my body as I grew up. It didn’t bother me at all as I had seen people in my family have it,” she says.
A condition that causes the skin to lose its pigment, according to studies, that occurrence of vitiligo is reported to be three per cent to four per cent in India. Agrawal’s parents however, always encouraged her to take it in her stride. It was only when she started going to school that it began to come up in conversations and invited stares. “Even if I tried not to make it a big deal, people around me did by staring, making fun of me, talking about me, or simply asking me irrelevant questions.”
While Agrawal continued to block out the negativity, it started taking a toll when people’s behaviour towards her changed because of vitiligo. “The part that hurt the most was when I was being treated differently for a skin condition I never asked for.” Her lowest point was when she started college and people didn’t treat her right because of it. “People who were mature made fun of me for it. They would ask me things like ‘did you get burnt’, or they would say that my skin looks like an Oreo biscuit, black and white.” This pushed her to change her college because she didn’t want to be around people who made fun of her based on her appearance.
At that point, she chose to put a stop to everything and not let anything undermine her confidence. “I decided to truly embrace my vitiligo and pat myself on the back for being who I am.”
After sharing her story on the Instagram platform, Humans Of Bombay, Agrawal felt like she was able to connect with strangers who had had the same experience. While she always received love and support from family and friends, her narrative touched more people than she had expected. “I have come to learn that it’s always about how you react to a situation that matters. Earlier, I would feel bad when people would provide unrequited advice for my vitiligo. There were times when I would even respond rudely. But I understood that that was not the right way to handle them. I can’t change everyone’s perception, but I did my bit and that has made me a better person,” she says.
Despite being surrounded by images of conventionally beautiful women, she believes this cookie-cutter approach is flawed.“Beauty shouldn’t be restricted to a definition. After all these years with different situations and incidents I feel that beauty is about embracing yourself,” she says. “I would say to all the girls who get affected by society, just stop letting them define how you look. You don’t have to fit in and you’re better off custom-made.”
Anupriya Karande, 22, interior designer
Interior designer, Anupriya Karande was in the fifth grade when she was diagnosed with alopecia, a condition that causes one to lose their hair. “I was quite young when I started developing bald patches on my scalp. I would take medication and treatment for the same but the results were temporary. I was 13 when I lost almost 85 per cent of all my hair, including my eyebrows, and eyelashes.”
Thinking that it was a scalp infection, Karande made the pilgrimage to the Holy Temple of Tirupati and shaved off her hair in the hope that the infection would go away and her hair would grow back thicker and healthier. In solidarity, her parents did the same so Karande wouldn’t feel too self-conscious. However, she says, “I did feel a little different back then and I started wearing a scarf to cover up.” And then things got worse. “Despite the fact that my family and friends were supportive and understanding towards my condition, I was just a fat, bald girl to the rest of the world. I started isolating myself and would only confide in my close ones,” she continues.
Being a thirteen-year-old girl who felt and looked different was an uphill battle for Karande. As a child she’d love to play dress up but when she lost her hair, even looking at herself in the mirror was difficult. The alopecia had caused more damage than she could imagine. “It was difficult to accept myself the way I was. I was depressed, which impacted by academic performance. I would find it difficult to concentrate because everything started bothering me.” People who weren’t aware of her condition assumed it was cancer because she’d wear a scarf to school. “When I think about it now, I actually find it funny. I was not aware of this rumour until a few years ago when a classmate asked if my cancer had been cured.”
There were times when she would feel uncomfortable and break down on the streets as she didn’t know how else to channel her feelings. At her lowest, she’d ask herself what had she done to deserve this. “As time went by, I was tired of feeling this way about myself, not only because it was unhealthy for my mental and physical well-being, but also because it stopped me from exploring new opportunities in life,” she says.
So, she put on a wig and decided to take on the world with her head held high! Taking a gap year before university, she took to reading self-help books and started working on herself. Karande began investing time in doing things she loved and that made her happy. “I am still a work in progress, but self-care and support from friends and family made life a little better.”
After eight years of wearing a wig, Karande has found the confidence to even let go off that crutch. An unplanned outing to the beach, while her wig was being repaired, made her appreciate life without it. “I felt so liberated while I was walking on the shore with my best friends. I even clicked pictures on the beach and shared my story about alopecia on Instagram. I had never felt so positive about myself. Wig or no wig, it didn’t matter. What matters is what you think and how you feel about yourself. I am taking my time, but I am slowly learning how to live without it.”
Her journey has changed her as a person. The alopecia has helped her gain perspective and see through artificial beauty. “The superficial standards that have been set should have no place in our lives. We should believe in ourselves and that we’re good as we are. I embrace my uniqueness and I have learnt not to take things so personally. This is me accepting myself the way I am, bald and beautiful.”
Sofia Hemrage, 20, neuroscientist
Growing up with eczema wasn’t easy for 20-year-old Sofia Hemrage. The Indian-origin neuroscientist who grew up in Portugal, first experienced the skin condition when she was in kindergarten. “My mum had sent me to school in pyjamas because normal clothes would scratch and hurt my skin,” she recalls. “To be honest, at the moment I thought that was quite exciting and didn’t really realise what was actually going on.”
Things took a turn for the worse when she was four; one of her wounds got infected and led to a blood bacterial infection. Still, Hemrage remained unfazed in the face of eczema as much as her mother and grandmother were. Looking back, she remembers how insistent her parents were on making sure she was given the right medication and care, so that it didn’t impact her daily life. “They also adapted their routine around my needs and for that, I am really grateful.”
“My mother once told me that some kids at school said my skin looked like it had faeces on it. I don’t really recall this happening, as I didn’t really give much importance to it, but I know my mother got quite upset,” she says. In retrospect, Hemrage feels like it’s better laugh at a tough situation than crying about it.
After moving to London to pursue her BSc in Neuroscience, she realised that there was a difference between the two countries, so far as awareness of eczema went. People in London were both more sensitive and sensitised to it, and things became a bit easier for her.
That doesn’t mean that she hasn’t had to make sacrifices. “Looking back I realise that there are always ups and downs, but there are a few specific things that I consider as low points. As a child I did not fully understand my condition, and would be quite confused as to why I could not eat certain foods such as lollipops or chocolate cake,” she says. She even had to sleep with mittens on her hands to avoid scratching herself while sleeping.
Conscious of her scars, when Hemrage was a teenager, she would often wear full-sleeved shirts and trousers to cover them up. “Today, I do not care about my eczema. The people in my life know what it is. I just do and wear what feels right to me. I no longer feel ashamed about my skin and the way it looks.”
Believing that her beauty is not defined or limited by her eczema anymore, according to Hemrage, it is easier to deal with the condition once you accept it. And believe that “you are so much more than that,” she asserts triumphantly.
Photographs: Sophie Mayanne