Where there is no clean water or toilets, should there be talk about waxing and tweezing? What is the role of beauty in the lives of those denied the basics? Check out my opinion piece in today’s DNA (July 31, 2010)
PS — The article was also translated and reproduced in Dainik Bhaskar, the largest-selling Hindi newspaper in the country with a circulation of over 2.5 million.
Dreams of beauty in the shanties
At five in the morning, 17-year-old Sonia steps out of her shack, walks down her lane past the garbage and the gutter, and hops on to a bus. Half an hour later, she is in another world — inside a South Delhi middle-class home where she washes the dishes, scrubs and mops the floor. The chores are repeated in three more houses.
‘Dull’ pretty much describes Sonia’s life unless you meet her in her other avatar — that of an aspiring beautician. Here, inside a room in a vocational training centre, Sonia is one of the many young shanty dwellers, learning skills that could unlock the door to her dream world. It is a class on beauty culture run by Deepalaya, an NGO, working with families classified as BPL — below the poverty line.
Beauty and BPL may not seem an obvious fit. But to Sonia and the
young girls picking up tweezing tips for perfect eyebrows, hair treatment, or the secrets of bridal make-up, beauty is the passport to mobility. Sonia dropped out of school after the fourth grade to look after her siblings. Her father is a cook, her mother is a housemaid. Both work seven days a week to feed the family of seven. Earlier, girls like Sonia with no money and little education would have had little to hope for. But today, things are changing rapidly even in shantytown India.
Girls from the shanties are as fired by the dream of looking good as their counterparts in middle-class neighbourhoods or the urban elite who live in gated communities. Where there is no clean water or toilets, should there be talk about waxing and tweezing? What is the role of beauty in the lives of those denied the basics? There is no easy answer.
In her best-selling book, The Beauty Myth, author Naomi Wolf argued that images of beauty – found on television and in advertisements, women’s magazines, and pornography — are detrimental to women, as well as to the men who love them. Wolf was referring to American culture when she asserted that concept of “beauty” as projected in the popular culture is a weapon used to make women feel badly about themselves.
One wonders what Wolf might say were she to visit Sonia’s home and then observe her as she experiments with ‘party make-up’ during her beauty class.
Simranjeet Kaur, Sonia’s instructor, says makeover tricks offer wonderful entry points to people who urgently seek change.
“These girls are surrounded by dirt and filth. When they come here, we first talk about the importance of cleanliness and hygiene. Then we tell them how every woman can be beautiful. The message has a profound impact. You can see the changes within weeks. When they go back home, they have a heightened sense of beauty, and they try to make their home and surroundings more appealing in little ways”.
The girls cannot afford expensive toiletries, points out Kaur. But in the class, they learn about beauty on a budget and how to turn kitchen leftovers like scrapings of potatoes, papayas, tomatoes and cucumber into beauty aids.
Many of the girls who are now enrolled in the beautician’s course faced stiff parental opposition at the start. “Deepalaya staff had to mount a full-fledged campaign to win over the family and community elders. The first girl who came from the shanties where Sonia lives paved the way for the others. Today, there is a queue to join the course.” says Pradeep Kumar, who manages Deepalaya’s vocational training centre.
Like so many other industries, the beauty industry is short of trained staff, a scenario which energises Sonia’s class of aspiring beauticians. Jobs in parlours are easy to come by. With experience and some capital, one can establish one’s own salon or even go freelance, paying home visits.
Sonia’s dream resonates across shanties the world over. The global economy may be in deep crisis but the beauty business is roaring in emerging economies. India’s slums and Brazil’s favellas are choc-a-bloc with tiny cosmetic stores and beauty salons. For those who live here, the triumph of style over substance is not an evil. It offers hope to a better life.