By Ronak Borana Jul. 05, 2018
Over the years, if there’s one thing I have learnt about ugliness, it’s that it’s as much a public spectacle as it is a crushing private liability. All my life, dark, acne-caked skin has dictated a host of things: my mood, love life, self-esteem. Thanks to patriarchy, I can’t even think of diluting my masculinity with makeup.
Last night while I was knee-deep in finishing an assignment, my exhausted laptop gave up on me and rebelled by instantly shutting down. Faced suddenly with a shiny, reflective black screen, I found someone staring back at me. A dark-skinned, pimple-encrusted, and let’s just say it… ugly face.
“Ugly” is not a politically correct word in today’s times when absolutely no one swears by the adage “Beauty is skin deep.” Everywhere I look, I’m being sold this idea of inner beauty. I am told I don’t need to meet unrealistic beauty standards to love myself. That the definition of “beautiful” isn’t as rigid as it used to be. That I am perfect, the way I am.
Well-intentioned well-wishers keep insisting that this whole notion can somehow be cured only if I excise the crass “ugly” from my dictionary and replace it with a more diplomatic “unconventional-looking” to describe myself. To them, I have a question: Even if I comply, how do I erase the feeling that washes over me when I stand in front of a mirror?
I’ve been the snubbed owner of my face for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I was the only dark-skinned boy in a family of wheaties. I realised the burden of otherness, when I was merely eight. Just before every outing with cousins, I was pulled aside for an exclusive ritual: My entire face would generously be daubed with a combination of talcum powder and fairness creams. Only after I was thus whitewashed, would I be declared fit to step out. The faces of my cousins – on the other hand – remained untouched.
In an age where our attention spans are exponentially declining, who really has the time or willingness to scratch beneath the surface of my ugly skin and look beneath it? The irony is that perhaps this is the most body positive we have ever been as a society.
If that wasn’t enough for me to conclude that something was inexplicably wrong with the colour of my skin, the selective miracles of puberty guaranteed that I would be the ugly duckling of my family. While my cousins and friends began to metamorphose from cute teenagers to handsome young boys, I wasn’t that lucky. My acne-caked skin started to tear, burdened by the weight of the junk food that was my sole refuge. My self-esteem, on the other hand, took a dive as my face started becoming the punchline of innumerable middle-school jokes.
Instead of steeling myself against the insults or preparing a rebuff, I used them as proof that my dark skin was the root of all my misery.
Over the years, if there’s one thing I have learnt about ugliness, it’s that it’s as much a public spectacle as it is a crushing private liability. All my life, the colour of my skin has dictated a host of things: my mood, love life, self-esteem, and social relationships. I can never dream of posting selfies for validation. There is only a certain threshold of ugliness that photoshop and filters can correct. Thanks to patriarchy, I can’t even think of diluting my masculinity with makeup.
Everywhere I look, I see a perfection I can’t achieve. Toned bodies and skin as perfect as porcelain. Like it or not, this undying reverence for beauty will always act as a subconscious reminder that we are, and will always remain, a world that judges a book by its cover and a person by their skin. It’s the reason why my phone gallery has only three pictures of me that I reuse on every medium and occasion.
In an age where our attention spans are exponentially declining, who really has the time or willingness to scratch beneath the surface of my ugly skin and look beneath it? The irony is that perhaps this is the most body positive we have ever been as a society. Influencers and celebrities are not just openly accepting imperfections, but amassing thousands of followers by doing so. Maybe the tide is changing, but even when it is, how do I possibly undo the propaganda of beauty that my brain has been fed so religiously for years? No mirage of positivity can change a mind that is brainwashed.
In an excellent and thoughtful essay in The Atlantic, titled “When Beauty Is a Troll”, Megan Garber writes that despite the climate of body positivity that we live in, the subtext remains: Beauty standards are beauty standards, you only have to reconcile yourself with them. She takes the example of Fat Monica on F.R.I.E.N.D.S.: “F.R.I.E.N.D.S. ended its run 14 years ago; Fat Monica, however, remains. Not just as an inspiration for other sitcomic characters, and not just as an occasional appearance on a Netflix screen or a basic-cable station near you, but also as a specter. As a joke. As a warning. ‘I called you fat?’ Chandler says, when he is reminded that, in college, he made an off-handed remark about Ross’s ‘fat sister’… ‘I’m so, so sorry,’ he tells the no-longer-Fat Monica. And he means it. He is thoroughly chastened. He called her fat, after all; and he can’t imagine — nor can his TV show imagine, on his behalf — a more terrible insult.”
My ugliness works the same way. It’s not like I haven’t thought of giving in to the temptation of disassociating with it entirely — being indifferent to it and sharing a cold formality with it. Except, it’s almost impossible to erase something that is pasted on every single mirror I peep into. When it is so deeply ingrained in your existence, it’s hard to sever ugliness from every aspect of your life.
Did that girl say no to a date because of how I looked? Do my colleagues make fun of my face behind my back? Would I have more friends if I looked better? At restaurants, parties, or on campus, I just can’t stop thinking about how much people around me are judging my appearance, even when they are not.
But how do I heed to this call if I, myself, am unable to love myself? If I look at my skin as the Other? If I refuse to wear it without perennial resentment, even in this age of body positivity?
If the first thing that comes to my mind when I look in the mirror, is ugly.