By Megha Bajaj October 2007 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 pe
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