By Sonali Kokra
I’ve often been cautioned by (some) men I’ve dated; (many) men I’ve not dated; (an abnormally large number of) men who I didn’t even know existed until I was caught in the crosshairs of the projectile of their verbal incontinence on social media, and (a handful of) women with gimlet eyes, of being so “high maintenance” that it might end up serving as a turn off for the delicate sensibilities of the men who might want to court me at some unspecified time in the future.
It’s true, too. For many years now, I have insisted on being unabashedly, self-contentedly vain. I won’t even call my adamant immodesty a guilty pleasure because there is absolutely no guilt attached to the exercise in self-love that is grooming.
But that comes at a rather significant cost, I’ll admit. My annual budget for haircuts runs comfortably into five digits and my mother averts her eyes every time I rip the price tag off of my funny-sounding French shampoo, lest she catches sight of it and has an aneurysm. I own an ungodly amount of silver jewellery, bags, and indigo dresses; and clusters of lipsticks in shades that have, more than once, made my harried mother invoke her Gods in panic because “Meri beti ke hoth neele kyun padh gaye hain!?” (Why are my daughter’s lips blue?). I have a pedicure guy, a manicure lady, and an eyebrow-upper lip didi scattered in different parts of the city, and I’d rather spend several hundreds in Uber charges than go through dozens of unsatisfactory manicures, pedicures, and, gasp, threading experiments before finding someone more conveniently located.
So yes, I suppose I am what society calls “high maintenance”. Or as I like to call it, doing whatever the hell I damn well please with my money and my body, on my time.
I find this cultural fascination with policing how much time, effort, and money women should expend on grooming comical for many reasons.
First, and most obviously, because of how carelessly these virulent protesters of my vulgarity assume that it’s a hapless, over-burdened man at the receiving end of my (perfectly arched) eyebrow-raising receipts. It’s not. I promise you, no man was hurt in the making of this film. The gasping-for-breath-while-being-crushed-under-the-mountain-of-my-excesses bloke exists only in their imaginations. The idea of having a man pay for my indulgences is less appealing than a root canal. I’d literally rather have my teeth pulled than spend any portion of someone else’s money on self-beautification. Nine-tenths of the joy of vanity is when you’re not answerable to anyone but yourself.
Second, for the breathtaking audacity of people (mostly men) whose problem is not that you spend that much time, energy, and money on yourself, but that you look it. It’s okay if you spend endless hours putting on expensive make-up that looks like it isn’t even there — they’ll write poems praising your “natural” glow and minimalistic approach to face paint. But hell hath no fury like a man scorched by the sight of a woman who wields a make-up wand like she means business. No offence to the women (and men) who prefer their kajals imperceptible and their lipsticks pale, but I’m never going to be one of them. When I line my eyes, it’s meant to be seen. And if I’m making the time to create the work of art that is the perfect bow-shaped lip, you can bet good money it’s going to be ruby. I have no interest in walking around the world looking like the human equivalent of the bland Garamond font — I’m more the Ransom Note girl of fonts. I was not designed to be fetching or wholesome. There is something deeply gratifying about puncturing the male privilege to define when they will ridicule, rave, or rant about a woman and her looks, while condemning her for being vain, self-absorbed and “high-maintenance” if she has the temerity to be impressed by her handiwork.
In a Guardian essay titled “Who are you calling a diva? It’s just another way of damning women” columnist Barbara Ellen writes, “Too often, the diva tag comes across as just another way of deriding and undermining successful, powerful women… A case of if you can’t get away with labelling them a slut, brand them a diva. So all power to the female diva – as long as people remember that often all it means is that a woman is powerful enough to make demands and determined enough to get them met.”
When I dig into the vaults, underlying my refusal to be shamed about how I choose to present myself to the world is this — it’s been a long, difficult journey to reach a point where, when I look into the mirror, I see an original work of art, not an unhappy collection of imperfections. I grew up in a world that taught me, with increasing urgency as the years progressed, that bodies like mine are not meant to feel cherished or adored. It’s taken me a while to figure out that I love myself, and that I get to choose how I wield my femininity. If it manages to work men and their panties into a sumptuously miserable twist, that’s just a side bonus I’d highly recommend.
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