Let's talk about standards of beauty

  • Living
  • Monday, 02 Oct 2017

“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin,” exclaimed Lupita Nyong’o.

The Oscar-winner had delivered a powerful speech on beauty and colour at the Essence Magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood event in 2014.

She elaborated further how every night she would pray to God to lighten her skin, yet she would wake up feeling disappointed as she looked the same in the morning.

When she became a teenager, her self-hate grew worse. It didn’t help that TV perpetuated the idea of beauty as being pale-skinned.

Only when Alek Wek, celebrated runway model who was “as dark as night” broke into the scene, did Lupita believe that people were “embracing a woman who looked so much like me as beautiful”.

“Finally, I realised that beauty was not a thing I could acquire or consume. It was something I just had to be.

“You can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty inflames the heart. There is no shade in that beauty,” she said.

I too remember my own personal struggles of being “unbeautiful”.

Actress Lupita Nyong'o at the Calvin Klein Collection fashion show during New York Fashion Week in September. Photo: AFP

As a child, I often had to bear with disparaging remarks from relatives who spoke their mind bluntly with no regard whatsoever for the hurt their words might inflict on the fragile feelings of a five-year-old.

“She’s nothing like you or her father – where did you pick her up from?” They would tell my mother. “Why is her skin so dark?” “Her nose is so flat!” “She is so skinny!” “She is such an ugly duckling!”

After a point it felt acceptable to be called ugly.

Being exposed to American shows on TV, I thought that one day I would somehow change and be transformed into a blue-eyed blonde when I grew up. And then I wouldn’t be ugly anymore and those horrible relatives would finally shut up.

I had no understanding of race or colour back then. Or that I was genetically engineered to look like how I did because that was how nature designed it to be.

For the longest time, it ate into my confidence and self-esteem, and while it made me try harder in other areas of my life, self-doubt and insecurities often lurked in the background.

In my own way, I made up for it by having unreasonable standards of perfection for myself, and it often set me up for many disappointments when expectations were not met.

It was only when I started working and hid behind the cover of cosmetics that I didn’t feel so “unbeautiful”. It seemed ironic that years down the road, I would helm the newspapers’ beauty section.

I also distinctly remember the words of that one particular aunt who one day announced to my mother that her “ugly duckling had turned into a swan”.

Not that it mattered anymore as by then, I was much older and knew better than to hinge my life and career on my looks (or lack of it).

Unfortunately, we will always be affected, consciously or unconsciously, by what society deems beautiful and the pressure to be conventionally good-looking is even stronger, given today’s preoccupation with social media and selfies.

It takes a lot of courage and strength for someone to be able to switch off the pessimistic voices of these self-declared guardians of aesthetics and their so-called ideals of beauty and be one’s own person.

In a recent episode of How Do I Look Asia, Stephanie, who had survived a battle against tuberculosis, no longer had the energy or the will to pick herself up. When host Jeanie Mai gave her a makeover, it wasn’t just about reworking how she looked physically, but giving her that extra boost to face the world again.

This was my story more than 10 years ago when I suffered a personal blow after recovering from major surgery. I lost so much weight that my clothes hung awkwardly on my thin frame and my gaunt face reflected how ugly I felt, both outside and inside.

I gradually got out of that phase of life, but there will still be days when that inner voice whispers to me that I’m ugly and unworthy.

Like Lupita, I have to remind myself that beauty is about compassion and being true to myself, rather than just skin-deep.

Now, on days when Patsy wakes up feeling ugly, she just slaps on extra red lipstick. Share your thoughts with star2@thestar.com.my

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