Beauty sickness in India starts surprisingly early, as soon as young girls are taught that their primary form of currency in this world involves being pleasing to the eyes of others. Beauty sickness is what happens when women’s emotional energy gets so bound up with what they see in the mirror that it becomes harder for them to see other aspects of their lives.
Beauty sickness in India, a reality
Apart from the usual standards of beauty that Indian women are expected to conform to, there is the added desire for fair skin. Indian society equates fair skin with beauty, which is ironic for a race that is supposed to be brown-skinned. This explains the proliferation of “fairness creams” which are essentially mild bleach creams that promise lighter skin. Fairness cream ads are among the most sexist and superficial in Indian advertising. Naturally fair-skinned Bollywood actresses feature in these ads (like the one below) and give false hope to lakhs of Indian women with dark complexion.
Browse through the matrimonial ads in the classifieds section or matrimonial sites online and you will see the pervasive desire for fair-skinned girls. Families want “fair and lovely” brides for their sons (does that mean dark-skinned women aren’t lovely?). Beauty sickness in India ensures that gori chamdi is the ticket to matrimonial success and prestige.
Effects of Beauty Sickness
Some of the effects are obvious, like eating disorders and skyrocketing rates of plastic surgery. Others are more subtle, like the distracted hours a girl spends obtaining the perfect selfie to post on social media. Beauty sickness contributes to and finds a ready home in the depression and anxiety that plague so many women. At a practical level, it steals women’s time, energy, and money, moving us further away from the people we want to be and the lives we want to live. It keeps women facing the mirror rather than facing the world.
You can’t simply grow out of it, says Renee Engeln, you must break free with deliberate intent and perseverance. Engeln is a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. She’s the author of the bestseller Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women. Engeln is an authority on this malaise; her TEDx talk on this subject has more than 550,000 views on YouTube!
Beauty sickness is fed by a culture that focuses on women’s appearance over anything else they might do or say or be. “It’s reinforced by the images we see and the words we use to describe ourselves and other women. Those who shame women for their appearance feed this illness. Those who praise girls and women only for how they look, do the same,” Engeln writes in her book.
5 Signs You Have Beauty Sickness
We’ve all seen it. If you’re a woman, there’s a good chance you’ve felt this:
1) If you’ve ever thought about staying home instead of attending an important event because you didn’t think you looked good enough, that was beauty sickness.
2) If you’ve found yourself distracted during a meeting because you were comparing your body with that of another woman in the room, that’s beauty sickness.
3) If you’ve ever decided not to go swimming because you couldn’t imagine facing the world in a bathing suit, that’s beauty sickness.
4) If you feel short of time and money, but still spend plenty of both trying to push yourself closer to our culture’s beauty ideal, you can blame beauty sickness.
5) If you want to stop worrying about how you look, but keep getting pulled back to the mirror, then you know what beauty sickness feels like.
Beauty Sickness in Culture
The signs of this ailment are in our thoughts and our behaviours, but this illness also lives in our culture. A beauty-sick culture cares more about a Bollywood actress’s bikini picture than important world events. Says Engeln, “A beauty-sick culture always, always finds a way to comment on a woman’s appearance, no matter how irrelevant it is to the matter at hand. It teaches young girls that learning to apply makeup is a more important skill than learning to do science or math.”
If you’re struggling with beauty sickness in India, don’t imagine it’s your own fault. However, one thing you can do is check this behaviour in yourself.