When I was growing up, I was not considered ‘pretty’ by the Chakma standard. I was not tall enough, not thin enough, my eyes were not big enough, my skin was not fair enough, my hair was not silky enough etc. By Bangladeshi standard I am probably too ‘exotic’ to be considered as pretty/beautiful anyway. I have been ridiculously insecure about my appearance for as long as I can remember.
In summer 2013, I was going to attend the UNAOC-EF Summer School to represent Bangladesh in the EF Tarrytown campus in New York. I had a brief virtual encounter with the delegate from Sri Lanka on Facebook before heading off to New York. After a bit of chitchat we discovered we had attended a common event in Nepal the previous year. We were both in Dhulikel to attend feminist training programs. In one of the evenings, the two training groups met for a solidarity night that comprised of a cultural program followed by dinner. The Sri Lankan delegate said she remembered me from that evening. I thought this was a bit strange given that there were so many people to remember from that night. I clearly did not remember her. I felt guilty about it, blamed it on my poor memory and apologized to her. When we met in New York later she asked me “Do you know why I remembered you from that night in Nepal?” I said “Was it because I was wearing the same costume as the other Chakma girl in your training group?” She said, “No, I thought you were very pretty.”
I was totally taken by surprise and instead of simply saying “Thank you very much”, I said something idiotic in response which sort of implied “You are joking.” The thing is nobody EVER said they remembered me because he/she thought I was ‘pretty’! People usually remembered me for being funny, helpful, vibrant, weird, smart or crazy. I had no idea how to respond to her.
A few days later in another event, the delegate from Kenya called me by my name from behind as I was walking by. She knew my name even though we had not met before. After exchanging the usual greetings she said, “I wanted to tell you, you are very beautiful”. This time I said, “Thank you very much. So are you.” But in my head I said, “OMG! What the fuck is happening here?”
I was not beautiful in the eyes of my society. My family often joked about my looks. Even though I envied the pretty girls, I accepted this fact and moved on in my life. (Not that I could do anything about it. I just did not have the good genes from my parents.) I focused my energy on being smart. But who am I kidding? We all know that looks matter. In high school and college the pretty girls always got the attention from the guys. In the business world women who look good are given more attention. In order to survive, I had to “groom-up” to change my appearance. I bought nice clothes, expensive makeup and perfumes, straightened my hair and did manicures/pedicures on a regular basis. This stupid armour gave me an inflated sense of self-confidence.
It became apparent how absurd my insecurity was when I met another woman with similar insecurities. When I met her for the first time I thought she was very pretty. She was tall and fair-skinned. She had thick long wavy hair, big eyes and long eyelashes. Her skin was spotless even though she did not use any makeup. She wore elegant clothes. I became very good friends with her and later noticed that she completely freaked out if people told her she was beautiful. She was nuts, I thought!
I later learnt that the reason for her insecurities was due to her terrible childhood. She was constantly told by her family that she was not pretty like her elder sister or her mother. As I heard these stories I imagined her family to be smoking hot. When I finally met her mother and sister I was disappointed. I did not find them attractive at all.
We all know beauty is subjective, relative, referential etc. but looking in certain ways in a society has its benefits. Pretty girls usually get more rewards. But what I realized lately is there is a difference between being pretty and being attractive. Attractiveness is the whole package including our appearance, personality, intelligence and all. This package can be worked on and often it pays off better in the long run (especially when everyone gets old).
However, the pressure of looking in certain ways can often have negative psychological ramifications relating to one’s security in their own appearance. My abovementioned friend and I will probably never overcome our insecurities about our appearances even though some people may find us good looking. We have already been brainwashed. We will continue to feel fat and ugly and feel guilty about every calorie we consume and yet consume it all, as the weight we need to lose to look good seems out of our reach (And food makes us happy, temporarily). We know we are not the only ones.
So here is the lesson of the day: when someone tells you that you are beautiful/pretty, don’t complicate the matter with your personal psycho-issues, just smile and say “Thank you”. Also, questioning someone’s judgment of beauty can actually be offensive. Showing your insecurities to strangers/acquaintances is not attractive. Since you feel like you were not god-gifted with beauty, at least try to earn points for your attractiveness-package by recognizing your insecurity and not talking about it too much.