By Megha Bajaj
For so long we have associated ‘i’ with looks with the surface with the body is ‘i’ just that or much more? Find your answers as the author found hers.
Their eyes meet. She gives Neeta a condescending smile from above. Shiny, pearly white teeth, perfect body, and yes, silky smooth skin too. Involuntarily Neeta touches the tiny pimple on her chin and winces. Luckily the bus, on which she is spread in all her glory, passes Neeta by and she heaves a sigh of relief. She feels depressed. Why did God have to make her such an ordinary looking creature, and bestow bountiful beauty on others? Why did her skin never look like the model in the poster on the bus – pinkish, radiant, almost innocent? While her diatribe against self goes on, I distance myself from the scene and reflect. Neeta is just a name, and she could be anyone, you, me, your father, and your brother. Look around and you will discover that very few people are completely comfortable with their looks. Mr X would prefer to be thinner, Ms Y would have loved brown eyes, and Mr Z is unhappy with the shape of his nose. Most of our self-esteem, based on the way we look, is subject to constant questioning and sudden ups and downs depending on external triggers – be it a comment or self-induced comparison.
For me the association of ‘self’ with ‘looks’ began when I was 12. I was playing with my cousins, lost in a world of video games, when my uncle came in and wrinkled his nose as he looked at me and said, “You are too dark. I am telling you, start doing something for your complexion right now, or you will never get married.” His words fell like acid. I hung my head so my hair would hide my tears, but what I actually wanted was to hide my entire self so no one could see me, no one could comment on me. Cosmetics began to dominate my dressing table, but they made little difference. I would throw a tantrum when I had to attend any family function where my uncle would be present. And would generally be irritable when I had to meet new people, in the fear that they would hurt me.
Aditi Chaudhary, a Mumbai-based psychology student, says that it is most natural for children to experience looks consciousness at the time of puberty. Their body undergoes tremendous change and it’s acceptable to undergo this obsession for a couple of years. However, what is disturbing is that not only is the puberty age going down drastically (earlier it was 14-15, now it’s become 11-12), but also body fixation is not naturally dropping off in an individual’s journey from adolescence to adulthood, but continuing for years.
Obsession with looks can culminate in a psychological disorder called Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a condition that probably originated on the same day that mirrors were invented. While most people fantasise about changing some aspect of their bodies, people suffering from severe BDD believe that they are so unattractive that they avoid social interaction for fear of being ridiculed. BDD has also been dubbed “imagined ugliness” for the majority of sufferers are perfectly normal–looking people who have developed a warped sense of their own image. Plastic surgeons, dermatologists, and beauty parlours are, of course, having a heyday out of people’s insecurity over their looks, but if this disease is not treated with counselling, it can lead to severe depression and even suicidal thoughts. We often don’t realise how serious a problem look-obsession is, but reading the following comments from an eclectic group may awaken you to its magnitude:
“Since childhood I was a little plump. I would often be called ‘piggy’. Today I am a chartered accountant, doing well for myself professionally. And yet every now and then, I have a complete emotional breakdown. Each time I look in the mirror, the word piggy comes into my mind. I avoid having a social life, and often tell lies to get away. When I am with people, in their eyes I see myself as piggy, and nothing else,” says Radhika Chauhan from Mumbai.
“When I look good, I feel happy; when I don’t look good, I feel depressed. When I don’t look good, I have noticed that people don’t treat me well,” says a 15-year-old boy from Maneckji Cooper School, Mumbai.
“When I choose a partner for marriage I want her to look good. She will be interacting with my family and friends so closely and if she doesn’t look good, she herself will get an inferiority complex,” writes Delhi-based Anurag on Bharat Matrimony.
“I really watch my food and exercise regularly. I have a tendency to put on weight and I am afraid if I overeat and put on weight, my husband might get attracted to someone in his office,” said an aunt, ten years into her marriage.
“Once upon a time there was a little black child called Ian who was often teased by his English schoolmates on his colour. One day, they were learning similes in school and several rude boys made sentences like, ‘Dark like Ian’, and ‘Ugly like Ian’. Crying bitterly, Ian ran out of school to a nearby beach to seek refuge in nature. A kind-hearted balloon man, standing on the shore, was disturbed by the little boy’s incessant tears, and asked him what the problem was. When told, the man smiled and said, ‘Look, Ian, I want to show you something wonderful.’ Curious, Ian wiped his tears and looked up. The man set free a yellow balloon, which went high up. Then he let go of a white one which again soared. Ian’s heart fluttered as he saw the man loosen his grip on the black balloon. But lo and behold, the black balloon too rose high above. With a smile, the man said, ‘You see, Ian, it’s not what’s outside, but what’s inside, that makes all the difference.’”
When I heard this story there were tears in my eyes. Family and friends were anyway helping me get over my complexion insecurity, and this story was the last touch of transformation. Everything changed. The way I perceived myself, the way I carried myself. My hair, used as a shield to cover my face, was held back to reveal a proud little face. Shoulders straightened, chin raised up, I entered college as a confident, dynamic teenager.
So often we believe that someone who is good-looking is luckier. Life is easier for them. Their road to greatness is already paved. Actress Madhoo Shah, the well-known Roja girl, shakes her head emphatically and says it’s not so. Sharing her experience of getting into movies, she says, “One director would tell me I was too fat, another, that I was too thin. Some would comment on my nose, others on my eyes. Talent was important, but looks were even more important.” Even today, in spite of being a spiritual seeker and meditating regularly, she goes through looks-related anxiety. When an allergy affected her complexion, she spent days depressed. “There is just too much of a social pressure to look good. I want to break away from it. But somehow I’m unable to, as I, like everyone else, wants to feel accepted. And acceptance comes only with looking good. Luckily, with my family and close friends I can be myself, but with all others I must make sure that I look good at all times.”
Swati Shah, a journalist, says quite a few celebrities face a huge problem about aging. They know that their fame hinges on their looks, and fear that once they age, they will be rejected. Most of them, she says, go through a four-hour beauty regimen each day to prolong their moment in the limelight. A popular actress even confessed that she often agonised if her family and friends loved her, or her looks.
I wore short shorts. Well, at least as short as St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, would allow. I believed I was some sort of a model as I paraded around college. Undoubtedly, there was a lot of male attention. In fact, the most popular guy in college asked me out. I was flattered. Other girls were jealous of me, and this gave me a thrill. I gave my heart to the guy, believing we would marry soon. Once I asked him why he loved me. And he replied, “I like the way your hair curls at the ends and I like your smile.” I was disappointed but didn’t say much then. In just a few months, he found a girl whose hair and smile he liked more than mine, and whoosh, he was gone. I was stunned. And I realised that I had made ‘Megha’ equivalent to ‘looks’ and nothing more.
Confidence had come in because suddenly I had started believing I was good looking, irrespective of my complexion, and not because I had realised I was more than my looks. Mourning lost love, but celebrating this new me, once again transformation transpired in my life. Revealing clothes gave way to a wardrobe filled with comfortable clothes; I now carried myself with an air of understated confidence, and made friends to express, not impress. By the time I finished college and was ready to enter the professional world, I realised my life had turned downside up and I had a circle of true friends who loved me for what I was and not for how I dressed or looked.
For many of us, transcendence of looks consciousness still does not mean freedom from body fixation, and often, the next focus becomes health. While being healthy is certainly desirable getting obsessed over it brings several problems – both physically and psychologically. Anorexia (wilful pursuit of thinness through self-starvation even when body weight is normal) and bulimia (binging on high calorie food to feel better about self and then vomiting it out) are commonly known, but one notices a like obsession with workouts. If stockbroker Mr Praful Desai misses a single day of yoga, he is irritable the whole day, belying the very message of peace of mind that yoga brings. Too much of exercise, just like too little exercise, is harmful for the body. And yet, in the pursuit of perfect health many either do too much or just pine for this illusory state.
August 2005 was the hardest month of my life. My mother, who had until then been my pillar of strength, was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. Even as we knit ourselves closely as a family, and gave her strength and inspiration, my own mind was in a state of chaos. I believed I would get cancer. Every half-an-hour I would do a self–examination for lumps; my mind, crippled by fear, would find several non-existent tumours. I would spend hours in the bathroom crying as I didn’t want to scare anyone else. I obsessed so much over health in terms of exercise and food, that health eluded me. My immune system weakened, and I would succumb to every sneaky infection which, of course, I would assume to be cancer. It was such a paradox – for my family I was a source of comfort, but within I was a nervous wreck.
After an initial shock, mom was calm and composed throughout the treatment. When the doctor told her that the entire breast would be removed, her expression remained unchanged. She said, “Surely there is much more to life than a breast.” During chemotherapy when she lost all her hair, I didn’t once see her sad – in fact, it was almost like a game – she would sit in the mornings with a comb and see how much balder she was as compared to before. We took her to watch the movie Iqbal when she had only ‘ek baal’ left, and the humour of the situation made her laugh for long. My respect for mom grew as I saw her go through this challenge with such grace. I also realised that mom was so much more than her body. She was a mind. Sometimes through intense pain she would smile because, as she explained later, “I put mind over matter”. She was a soul. Even when she didn’t have the strength to get up due to fatigue and nausea, she would lie in bed praying, and her face would be aglow. Seeing her so serene, my fear of cancer began to loosen its grip.
A defining moment was when Shalini Sippy, a vibrant looking family friend and a cancer survivor for over a decade, came home and told us, “The reason I am doing so well is that never did I use the words, ‘I have cancer’. I always said, ‘My body has cancer.’ I consciously chose to never associate ‘I’ just with my body. Because ‘I’ am so much more than my body.” What a revolutionary idea this was to my seeking mind! All my life, I had used the word ‘I’ to reflect my body. ‘I’ am hungry. ‘I’ am tired. ‘I’ am sleeping. All my life I had obsessed over my body – as an adolescent over looks, as an adult over health. But these were nothing but a manifestation of body, which although a temporary part of me, in no way is representative of the whole me.
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, founder of the Isha Yoga Foundation, says, “The very fundamental of spiritual longing is to transcend the limitations of the physical… The physical body is designed and structured to function by itself… And if you keep it well, you may go through your whole life without ever having a spiritual longing because this body is so complete by itself. If gadgets fascinate you there is no better one. However, it takes a certain amount of intelligence and awareness for a person to see that gadgetry is fine, sophistication of mechanism is fine, but still it doesn’t take you anywhere. It just springs out of the earth and gets you back to earth.”
He explains that a dimension beyond the physical somehow got trapped in the physical. And the consciousness of this aspect has been given to man alone of all living beings. A human being is in a constant struggle between the physical and that which is beyond the physical. If one has the necessary awareness to separate the two, then there is no conflict, but if one does not have this awareness, if he is identified with the physical, then there seems to be a conflict between these two fundamental forces.
For the first time ever, I understand that this body is a cover for my soul. This lifetime, it’s this 5’4 frame within which ‘I’ must reside, next lifetime it will be another. Undoubtedly this cover is important – it helps me do my day-to-day activities, it helps me touch and feel life and people around me. I give an hour to my body, taking immense care to keep it healthy. If I am in pain, my focus shifts away from the intangible and I begin to obsess over the physical. To avoid these distractions, it’s best to keep the body in good shape. My spiritual mentor had once told me, “Take care of your body, simply so you can forget you have a body.”
I can enjoy my body, even my looks, as long as I know it’s just a minuscule part of ‘Me’. The real ‘Me’ is divine, it is permanent, it knows no age, no wear and tear, and no imperfection. ‘Me’ is that part of the Higher Consciousness that is eternal. Gold can be made into a necklace or into a ring, but it will remain gold. Whether I am dark or fair, short or tall, what matters is that I am an essence of God.
Eckhart Tolle, the celebrated spiritual guru, writes, “Beyond the beauty of external forms, there is more here: something that cannot be named, something ineffable, some deep, inner, holy essence… Having access to that formless realm is truly liberating. It frees you from bondage to form and identification with form. It is life in its undifferentiated state prior to its fragmentation into multiplicity. We may call it the Unmanifested, the invisible Source of all things, the Being within all beings.”
I have just taken baby steps in my spiritual journey and many of these realisations that I write of, are just bits of understandings in my head – and not experiential truths. However, the knowledge that I am not just a body, is making me feel so peaceful that there is a great yearning to experience what it must be to see myself, at all times, as a soul living within a body, and not a body housing a soul. What liberation that will be… to move from the tangible to the intangible, to transcend from being ephemeral to becoming eternal, to transform from a human into a Being.
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