By Meghalee Mitra Aug. 21, 2019
As our bodies began to transform when we turned teens, the girls in my class started to get little makeovers. Many started waxing, some got their noses pierced, and almost everyone started applying kajal and lip balm. I resisted them all, convinced that giving in to make-up would suggest that I wasn’t enough the way I was; that I needed fixing to fit in.
Back in 2004, I was eight years old and auditioned for the role of a princess in a school play. The role I landed was that of a prince. My drama teacher told me that I got it because I looked like a boy and that my personality would suit the role. All it took for her to make that assumption was my cropped hair.
That was only the beginning of my tryst with the world reminding me time and again that there was “something wrong” with my tomboyish ways. But the more everyone told me to stop “being like a boy”, the more I resisted anything that was even remotely girly. My hair continued to remain short, I wore oversized T-shirts and loose pants, refusing to put on a hairband, leave alone a dress. And I was not alone; I had friends who were girls and a lot like me.
But it all began to change as we entered our teens. As our bodies began to transform, the girls in my class started to get little makeovers. Many started waxing, some got their noses pierced, and almost everyone started applying kajal and lip balm. I continued to detest it all. It didn’t help that my mother did not use any make-up either.
That didn’t mean my resistance to “girly” things didn’t have a price – or didn’t take a toll on me. I’d hate social outings and festivals the most because that was the time my friends dolled up. I, with my chapped lips and baggy pants, would stick out like a sore thumb. Pleas by my classmates to “wear some rouge” or taunts by relatives to “at least use some powder” would only make me more irritable.
I still remember a Children’s Day party at school. I was in Class IX. My friends were strutting around in heels and dresses with their red lipstick and soft, smokey eyes, all hyping each other up. I was in my usual chequered shirt and jeans, almost invisible, no compliments coming my way. I’d be lying if I said I did not want the attention or I wasn’t tempted to give in to peer pressure, but for me that meant accepting that there was something in me that needed fixing via make-up. So, every time somebody offered me a kajal pencil, I said no.
Somewhere, there was also the fear that if I picked up an eyeliner or a blush, I would be inviting more scrutiny.
What was a fun tryst for most teenage girls, turned into a sort of fear for me. What if I picked up the wrong shade of foundation or applied excessive eyeshadow? What if I looked funny with the lip gloss? So, the slightest curiosity that I would have about make-up was killed early by an inherent need to avoid any confrontation with the Mean Girls of my life.
I convinced myself that I was a rebel. Yet despite my best efforts at self-acceptance, that feeling of being the odd one out, manifested in insidious ways. Well into my mid-teens, I continued to say no to make-up, but there were other ways I tried to fit in. At the age of 18, I began waxing my face which complained in the form of a million red rashes with every visit to the parlour. I gave in to my “feminine side” after a boy I liked joked on our first date that we should immediately break up if didn’t wax my “hairy arms”. By now, everyone around me was getting romantic attention, and I wasn’t ready to sit this one out.
Well into my mid-teens, I continued to say no to make-up, but there were other ways I tried to fit in.
Months later, after persistent pestering from my bestie, I went to buy kajal, convincing myself that it didn’t really “qualify as make-up”. And there began the journey of my eternal dependance with kohl. I went from wearing it occasionally to not stepping out of the house without it. Eventually I gave up the loose tees and baggy jeans. I occasionally started wearing heels.
But, unlike the movies, it didn’t make me a different person. I didn’t overnight become feminine or stop hanging with my gang of boys.
That’s when I realised that my problem was not with make-up, but with makeover culture. The one that propagates that the way for women to find themselves, to be accepted and not mocked at, is by embracing their more “feminine sides”. And this femininity was often defined narrowly – with body-hugging clothes; long, mostly straight hair; and tons of make-up.
Pop culture has been fixated with makeover culture for decades. “Walt Disney’s Cinderella is a poster-girl of makeover culture. Unveiled in 1950, the film asserted the power of changing our appearance as an escape from drudgery and a route to romance and the happily-ever-after. Now the spirit of Cinderella lives on, in a more digital and dispersed form across the media landscape,” says an essay titled “The Makeover Trap”.
When I was young, we read Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries and watched Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi, the desi version of Ugly Betty. These books and shows introduce us to makeover culture at an impressionable age. In Princess Diaries, Mia Thermopolis needed to be groomed, her braces and chunky glasses removed, her hairstyle changed, in order to assume her duties as a princess. Jassi was a clumsy, unconfident woman, until she got a makeover, which magically fuelled her self-esteem. The notion that a woman becomes a best version of herself only when she is beautified – in a very very myopic way defined by society – has been sown in our psyche.
Growing up, I always related to the clumsy Jassi than the sexy one; I’d rather befriend a Mia with the braces than the one with perfectly sparkly teeth. So when my teenage friends tempted me with an eyeshadow or rouge, I felt I was being unfaithful to the Jaasis and Mias of the world. I wasn’t then resisting make-up but makeover culture. The flawed belief that confidence, success, and happiness comes packed in your vanity kit.
Now in my 20s, I am self-aware and can sidestep such pandering, even though my relationship with make-up remains slightly tetchy. I feel like I have reached a compromise over the years. I have grown my hair and though I don’t remember the last time I wore heels, I have become a master of eyeliner. I know for sure that I don’t need that red lipstick to boost my confidence or find my true self, but I’m also aware that applying one won’t make me a better person or worse.
Meghalee is a small sushi-roll, but with daggers. Her hobbies include trying to wrap the world into words, and bungee-jumping on Patriarchy. When she isn't drowning in anxiety, she also likes to breathe.