What Do You See When You Look In The Mirror?

By Monica Mehta

Monica Mehta is an active member of Saheli in Austin

To my dismay I have noticed that, many of my South Asian peers have been purchasing and reading American “Fashion Mags”. One can’t escape most bookstores or grocery stores without passing the many colorful covers with glamorous faces and images reflecting the American ideal of beauty. Our society’ s definition of beauty seems to be dictated by these airbrushed, extremely thin, and unreal images. American authors like Naomi Wolf, in The Beauty Myth, have criticized such portrayals of women for years.

I’ve always laughed at the nonsense and remained in the haven of my not-so-typical friend circle. I thought my heritage and skin color would shield me from these American beauty ideals. I didn’t think that my friends or I would fall in with the statistics of young American women who suffer from self-image problems and eating disorders. A 1982 book,Thin Thighs in Thirty Days, sold more than 425,000 copies within 7 weeks of it’s release. While this was an American reality, I scoffed at dieting and perceived cosmetic surgery as an obscure Hollywood trend.

Then I woke up. Or, perhaps, I grew up because not only am I finding that more of my South Asian American peers are buying into this ideal of beauty, but that I’m not immune to it, either. Many of them invest much time applying make-up, hair care and other image-enhancing activities. Several of them suffer from self-esteem problems and believe their academic, professional and, particularly, social success depends on how they look. More dangerously, some of them are anorexic.

Although one could potentially identify many, I have noticed 3 primary criticisms of South Asian women regarding their own appearance, namely, facial features, skin color and height to weight ratio. Speaking from an anthropological point-of-view, people who are from countries closer to the equator generally have darker skin and wider noses in order to adapt to a warmer, more humid environment. Many of my South Asian American friends are insecure about their facial features, particularly the size of their nose since American magazines emphasize thin noses. Furthermore, it is no secret that even among South Asians, lighter skin is likened to beauty. In fact, having fair skin has been an Indian ideal of beauty way before fashion magazines (some words that mean “fair” also mean “beautiful” in several Indian languages).

However, I think that exposure to fashion magazines reinforce and perpetuate the ideal of light skin. Lastly, the height-to-weight ratio of the models that are portrayed in these magazines by far exceeds that of most women (the approximate height and weight of a fashion model is 5’8″ and 110 lbs while the most common height and weight of American women is 5’4″ and 140 lbs). This has been a subject of ongoing discussion and criticism for decades in the United States. The desire to be extremely thin as a factor of beauty originated in the 1920s in the U.S. according to Joan Jacobs Brumberg in The Body Project. This “slimming craze” as Brumberg referred to it, has continued into the 21st century and has affected most women in this country regardless of ethnic background or socio-economic group. I have found that insecurities about weight have plagued my South Asian peers, as well. Obviously, we in America are comparing ourselves to the wrong standards.

I searched a few Indian Fashion web-sites to investigate the beauty ideal abroad. First, I checked out “Femina” and found the cover model to be a woman I would never have guessed was of South Asian origin. She had bronze skin, but her eyes were blue and her features were very Western. She looked European to me. Apparently, she is an Indian model and was awarded the distinction “Femina Look of the Year 1996.” Other issues of the magazine produced countless images of other models with similar features, an alarming number with blue eyes (or blue contact lenses). I encountered a picture of the Femina “Miss Beautiful Skin” contest winner and found that she had skin color resembling European women much more than that of typical South Asians. What message is this conveying? That beautiful skin is white? Granted, there is a lot of physical variation within South Asian women (as well as European women) in terms of facial features and skin color. However, I think that the images were much more representative of European women as opposed to South Asian women. I have always noticed a fascination of the West among my family and friends in India, but the adoption of Western standards of beauty can be potentially dangerous for young South Asian women in terms of their self-esteem and health.

What is one to think of all of this? Consider the idea that beauty is a subjective and learned perception. I don’t think that I would find Monet’s, “Water-Lily Pool” of Giverny beautiful if I hadn’t learned to do so. There is no normal biological response to something aesthetically pleasing – the response would vary among individuals depending on their history of learned experiences. I enjoy looking at surreal paintings from Rene Magritte or Salvador Dali while my cousins in India think that they look silly. Friends of mine enjoy looking at modern art such as paintings created by Mark Rothko while I find them boring. These differences of beauty standards when applied to art are not surprising. However, if I tell my friends that I am trying to gain weight because having large hips is my idea of beauty, I would provoke strange looks, expressions of confusion and possibly laughter. How has one standard of beauty for women become almost a universal ideal? To better understand these occurrences and identify whether there was a link between reading fashion magazines and low self-esteem among my peers. I created an informal survey which I distributed among some South Asian women.

The responses confirmed to me that though there is a great amount of dialogue and literature on this subject, most women are still uncomfortable with their appearance. Some of the responses include: “I have always been insecure of myself because I have never been comfortable with the way I look.” “People think I shouldn’t have this problem, but they don’t understand how I feel about the way I think I look.” “I have always been uptight about my weight.”

I was not surprised by such responses. We are constantly exposed to images with unrealistic standards of beauty through the many avenues of the media. In social and even professional settings, we find that people are positively reinforced for looking a certain way. Even within our homes, our families have expectations regarding our appearance especially for women who are prospective brides. Undoubtedly, these expectations of our families are influenced by standards of beauty portrayed through the media as well. My frustration lies in the fact that countless other articles, books, movies etc. have focused on this problem: that American women are compromising their time, resources and health to achieve this ideal created and fostered by the media. Yet the problem continues to grow and it has seeped into our community, as well. One of the responders to my survey eloquently stated, “I also feel that the world’s obsession with good looks wastes a lot of collective human hours that could be utilized otherwise.”

Obviously, there is no simple answer to this problem. Various pieces of advice from authors and counselors recommend that we should make friends with people with high self-esteem, interact with a broad range of women (from various age & ethnic groups) and to avoid too much exposure to the media (especially fashion magazines). These efforts, although they are important, are simply drops in a very large bucket. We must start by engaging in more dialogue within the community regarding such subjects. Only then can we, as a community and as individuals, make efforts to change what we see when we look in the mirror.

1. Brumberg, Joan Jacobs, The Body Project (New York: Vintage Books, 1997). 2. Wolf, Naomi, The Beauty Myth (New York: Double Day, 1991).

Saheli is an all-volunteer non-profit support and advocacy organization for Asian families in Austin, Texas. Saheli’s mission is to help victims and survivors of domestic violence to heal, and empower them to make choices for a life free of abuse. We spread awareness of various forms of oppression against women and children through community outreach and education. We form a bridge between the Asian community and local services to cross the culture gap. Saheli’s vision is to work toward preventing abuse in family relationships, to break the cycle of violence and pursue a cycle of peace.

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