Theme: Womanhood – from Emotion to Transformation
Topic: The Perception of Beauty across Cultures
When I was 3, I used to drag the heavy chair from the dining room of our house with much effort, to place it in front of the sink. The mirror above the sink was too high for me to reach. So I climbed on this chair, switched on the light and stared at myself in the mirror for hours. I thought I was the most beautiful creature in the whole universe and that there was nothing, no one more magnificent than I was…
But as I grew up that sense of my self shattered. With puberty, I grew ugly, a face full of pimples, short and fat. And people all around me pointed out my own ugliness to me; oh you can find those bullies everywhere! For many years unto adulthood, I believed I was ugly, hence unlovable. In the end, our minds equate everything to love. As if life was an attest to the fact, I always ended up hanging out with friends who were prettier than me, taller than me, thinner than me and all the boys’ attention were on them. I too yearned to be beautiful like them. If only I were an inch taller, if only I were an inch thinner, if only my face were not so round, if only I were a shade fairer, if only…
I was one of those girls who wanted to be perceived as beautiful by society, but I believed I was not beautiful by any societal standards. So I focused on academics and excelled. At a very young age, still in my teens, I won a full scholarship to study abroad and left India. Since then I have not just traveled but lived in different continents across the world on various student exchange programs for several years to perceive life through my own eyes. I was quite surprised with what I encountered.
When I was in Singapore, the small, petite women with their Chinese features, demure nature and fair complexion were considered ‘beauty’ in that society. Whereas when I lived in Africa, the big African women with their voluptuous figures & features were considered beautiful. In fact, the fatter a woman is the more beautiful she is, as her fat contributes to her curves! When I ate the African food consisting of yam, cassava, plantain, garri, yucca, basically a lot of starch, I had put on quite a bit of tummy, but the men there told me it was another curve in my body hence beautiful. Women there are celebrated for their rounded assets, no matter what shape or size they come in. While some cultures worship voluptuous curvaceous women, others like straight, thin, athletic figures. By whose standards would you go by?
Paintings of African women by Augustin Kassi
The African sun had scorched my skin quite a bit and I had become very dark there. Upon my return to India, I was attending Diwali in a beautiful saree when one man, of about my dad’s age, came up to me and said, “you look good but if only you had your dad’s fair color, you’d look much more beautiful.” I never forgot that ungracious comment from the man! Educated, civilized, cultured, respectable people in society who you expect to have broad mindsets speak like this! Young and naïve that I was then, I gulped it down and did not have the courage to retaliate. But today I do, hence I am here sharing this story with you.
So back to my story… when I was in Europe and the Americas, everybody loved my wheatish complexion. In fact the darker I got, the more beautiful I felt. Although Latin women are considered very beautiful, I was especially exotic there for my darker skin tone, hence beautiful according to both men and women. Then when I was in South America, I got the shock of my life! As a kid, I used to watch beauty pageants, Miss Universe contests and had the impression that South American women were very beautiful. Venezuela is the country where women are touted to be among the most beautiful worldwide. But what did I find in that country? In fact, I would have never known this had I not been shown… in their culture, a woman’s beauty is so blown up that every second girl, at as young as 15, 16, 17… years of age go under the knife, get silicone implants to augment their assets, liposuction to lose flab, cosmetic surgery to correct features and so on. In fact, there is a tradition that when a girl turns fifteen, called ‘quinceañera’ in Spanish, her parents are supposed to give her a big gift and most times that is a boob job! At the age of 15!! Can you imagine?
Sometimes when I went clothes shopping, I was surprised to see these larger-than-life sized mannequins, with exaggerated assets that were set as the beauty parameters for women in that society. Just google “Mannequins in Venezuela” and see what you get. Here is a screenshot of the first few images that popped up on google search. It seems as if footballs are glued to the chest of every mannequin in this country.
And here are some news extracts about plastic surgery in Venezuela on New York Post, BBC News and The Guardian newspapers.
New York Post: “It’s a culture of ‘I want to be more beautiful than you.’ That’s why even people who live in the slums get implants,” surgeon Daniel Slobodianik said, “…I’m not saying they’re not safe, but I’ve removed more than a few ruptured Chinese implants. I just don’t feel comfortable with them.” Read more. 15 Sep 2014
BBC News: In Venezuela – as in much of Latin America – there is little, if any, stigma to having plastic surgery. What could be seen as vanity in some societies, is admired as good personal presentation in Venezuela. Weekends are for spending at the beach and showing off your physical attributes, be they natural or man-made. The plastic surgery sector has built on this cultural cornerstone to become big business. Read more. 15 Jan 2012
The Guardian: Fuelled by an oil-rich culture of consumerism and instant gratification, cosmetic surgey has become routine for wealthier Venezuelans and commonplace even among poorer women who spend cash they can’t really afford on breast implants, tummy tucks, nose jobs and buttock lifts. Read more. 12 Nov 2013
In a vain country like that without much intellectual importance given to women, from a very young age they fall prey to these cosmetic procedures and the plastic surgery industry makes billions harvesting on their low self-esteem. In fact, the business is so monstrous that even women with low incomes prioritize surgeries over daily expenses. If cheap implants are used there is a good chance of them rupturing easily, bursting on airplanes at low altitudes or during medical procedures like mammograms, besides posing numerous health hazards including cancer, bacterial infections, chronic pains, disfigurement etc. not to mention the necessity to change them every ten years or so, which inevitably entails huge investments on maintaining that look. Women who can’t afford these replacements may be carrying inside them old implants prone to leakage thus endangering their lives. Read here about more perils of such procedures. In such cultures, it must be very difficult for a woman to feel empowered in her natural assets, although girls there are naturally very beautiful with their inherited features and figures. I was a teacher there and once I asked a 13-year-old very pretty girl about her opinion on plastic surgery. “I think it’s really good because it improves our self-esteem”. That was her answer! So then I got it. A woman’s whole self-confidence revolves around how good she looks and how well she is accepted for her beauty. And yet she is never satisfied with the way she looks; if one part of her body is corrected, she starts finding faults with another. What kind of self-esteem was she talking about? Obviously when your entire sense of self comes from the way you look, you are bound to have self-image issues because you will not look the same all your life or you will constantly compare yourself with others, criticizing your own body. Sadly where the world has come to today, people have started loving plastic. Worse still, people’s self-esteem is derived out of plastic!
So then after living in all these countries I wondered, if I were to go by societal standards, what my parameters of beauty would be. When I got really tanned due to the African sun, people in India said I was too dark, not to mention a whole industry trying to sell fairness products to women containing harmful chemicals playing with the melanin content of our skin. When I got fat in Africa, people there said I was curvy hence pretty, whereas in my country that would be fat. When I lived in Latin America, Europe and the USA, I was attractive especially for my skin color. I felt more accepted in other countries than in my own!
You see, culture is always based on certain belief systems held true by a large section of humanity. Every culture is locked into beliefs which may or may not be true outside of that culture. In Indian society, for example, there is a lot of shame around a woman’s body, whereas in Latin societies women don’t feel the need to hide their bodies in fear of provoking men. Even the maid comes in sexy outfits, perfectly groomed in high heels, tank top, make-up and all. So, if there’s something about your body that you don’t think is beautiful, you just need to peek outside of the society you are in and you will begin to perceive a new reality. Really, I am not kidding ya!
Beliefs are powerful and create our reality. We don’t even think twice before acting out on them. It’s automatic. We judge others based on what we believe to be true. And our individual beliefs are mostly perpetuated by the culture we are raised in. But cultures vary from city to city, country to country, continent to continent. And when our culture does not serve us, when our culture cannot love us, it becomes cruel to us. Imagine those 13, 14, 15 year-old girls going under the knife and their parents allowing that. What mayhem! When entire cultures are based on such disempowering beliefs, how life must be for those girls. Such beliefs are so deeply ingrained in society that we cannot perceive anything beyond them. The mind operates through belief systems thereby creating our physical realities. We are all powerful vessels of creation. And beliefs can be functional or dysfunctional. Dysfunctional ones could ruin lives, but functional ones can lift people to higher planes of life, make them shine with a brighter light, burn with a hotter fire, and if those empowering beliefs cannot be fueled, then the person withers, a life blighted by the starvation of the soul.
If you want to shift your external reality, you will have to reprogram your limiting beliefs. Societies can wreak havoc by bringing down the self-esteem of a girl to the extent that she endangers her life to meet its crooked standards of beauty. But there is no global standard of beauty. We adopt our perceptions of beauty based on what we see, what we are made to believe, what we are told, which may not be true everywhere. We are born into cultures that cannot accept us the way we are, so right from a young age we feel the need to modify ourselves to be loved, accepted, approved, and validated. How many people feel comfortable in their own skin? When our culture cannot accept us the way we are, it poses psychological problems. Weight gain for example, is a way to stay safe, to protect oneself from hurt. The subconscious mind, where strange logic exists, believes the excess flab is a form of protection from incoming pain and boundary violation. This is why most weight loss efforts or other methods to impact change in our physical bodies don’t work or even backfire; because they come from a place of self-hate, not self-love. There is one thing that sabotages our efforts and that is our own internal resistance. For instance, there was this girl I knew who was quite chubby. She once told her dad that she needed to lose weight and he replied saying, “yes you are better off shedding that excess weight”. And that’s it, her weight loss efforts were sabotaged because deep inside she felt unacceptable by her own father, unlovable for the way she was. So this is how resistance is created. It is very subtle but it inhibits our progress. The fastest way to remove resistance is radical self-acceptance. Find the one part of your body that you think is the most unattractive or ugly. Now give your unconditional love to that part of you. I mean, truly love.
How did I overcome my internal resistance? I went back to the mirror. There was some truth that I knew at age 3, that I had forgotten over time. I needed to recapture that essence. I stared at myself for hours until I fell in love with my own reflection again. And then something strange happened. My outside reality began to shift as well. Suddenly the excess weight came off, I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin and the attention started pouring in. So much that most of it was unwanted anyways. The mirror exercise is great to shift our own perceptions about ourselves. Just stand in front of a mirror and say to yourself, “I am enough”. And that is enough really to shift your reality instantly. If you have the courage to release the dysfunctional beliefs from your consciousness that you’ve been holding about yourself, you will begin to experience miracles. As you purge, cleanse your system off all these limiting thought patterns, your external reality will transmute. You will become beautiful, you will walk with more confidence and people will notice.
So, how to create a new belief? Well, you need to find evidence in its favor. As you begin to look for proof of what you believe or want to believe about you, it will start showing up in your reality. The coincidences will increase and things will begin to shift in your external reality. People will show up who mirror the same beliefs as you do and you will find more acceptance for who you are. This is true for any aspect of your life that you wish to change; create a new belief around it that is in your favor. When more and more people begin to cultivate such empowering beliefs about themselves, our collective societies will reflect that as well. Because, our external realities are just a reflection of our internal vibrations.
You see, when I thought I was short, I went to Singapore where small girls are considered beautiful. I thought I was fat then I went to Africa where fat is celebrated. I thought I was dark, but in Africa they called me “oyinbo“, which means white girl! Then in the Europe and Americas, people worshipped my dark complexion. Once, an American man called me a midget. You know, Americans are very tall so he was making fun of me. I responded to him, saying: small is beautiful. And then he fell in love with me! That is the power of self-knowledge; knowing you are beautiful and acting from that space. Years ago, when I had a complex around my height I could not have said such a thing and meant it. It can only come from a place of inherent knowing and believing in your own beauty.
There are over 7 billion people in this world, with no two bodies or faces or features alike. While some are short, others are tall, some are fat, others are thin, some are curvy, others are straight… people come in all shapes and sizes creating variety! And variety is the spice of life. But then instead of accepting our uniqueness, we try to mold ourselves to fit in, to be approved by others, when we were born to stand out, when no two snowflakes are alike.
What did that three-year-old girl know anything about beauty or its crooked standards in the world we live in? What I perceived back then must have been the spark of divinity within me that was so beautiful it took my own breath away!
Beauty does not lie in the eye of the beholder. It lies in you. You have to place it there to see it reflected by the beholder. Truth is beauty, beauty is truth! It is the real you that everyone falls in love with anyways. Do you believe this? Then it is true!
Imagine you are born into a culture with no belief systems. You can choose to believe whatever you want about yourself. You have a blank slate with you and you can write anything on it. Now the most important question is, what are you going to write? Whatever you write, make sure it is something damn good because that is the story you are going to live out during your time here on earth, and the history of the world will be impacted because of it.
Namaste: the divine in me honors the divine in you!
Newspaper coverage of the TEDxNainiWomen event at UCER Allahabad in Hindustan Times, Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala, Hindustan, United Bharat on 2 December 2018, Prayagraj, India and Bengal Scouts Bulletin, February 2019. And here are some links to online coverage; read in Dainik Jagran, Hindustan, Amar Ujala.
Here are the event posters:
Some stills from the TEDx event at UCER, Allahabad on 1 Deccember 2018 and my speech on the topic: The Perception of Beauty across Cultures.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at ted.com/tedx.
Follow the event on facebook.
For more events and speaking gigs, subscribe to my channel, magicNine TV: youtube.com/magicNine.
1 December 2019, Saturday, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India, by United College of Engineering & Research (UCER).