A few months ago, a comment made on a Facebook photo by a friend sparked a conversation between us regarding the advantages of physical attractiveness. Even though the entire discussion centred on immense praise for my apparent beauty, I could not help but feel terribly affronted.
Till the age of 18, I was well aware of the fact that I was not what one would refer to as conventionally pretty. An awkwardly angular face with bushy eyebrows and puffy cheeks is what stared back every time I came across a mirror. This failed to bother me one bit. Developing a strong personality and essential skills which would actually be beneficial in the long run, was all I cared about. Since I never found hoards of admirers following me wherever I went, the little attention that I did receive was quite welcome and it felt good to know that some people bothered to look beyond appearances. I vividly remember disdainfully looking at young girls whose only aim in life was to parade around shopping malls looking like Barbie dolls and flaunting their boyfriends like newly-acquired Gucci accessories. (I was judgemental back then.)
Comments like "You are beautiful! You don't need a career" or "Have you seen yourself? You will get the job" became a part of my social identity.
During my final year of high school, my ideals succumbed to the baser desires of my hormones and I developed a humongous crush on a guy who was your quintessential jock. As an impressionable girl of 17, he was everything that I could have ever asked for. Simply knowing that he liked me back would have sufficed. In short, I was smitten. I tried to woo him with witty conversations but to no avail. He was too busy looking at the exceptionally well-endowed body of a girl standing across the room. Embarrassed and hurt, I never could muster up the courage to converse with him ever again. For the first time in my life, I hated what I looked like.
This continued all the way up to my second year of college and then a sudden transformation took place. I lost weight (and even gained some in all the right places), my hair grew long and I learned to carry myself with a certain degree of poise. The ugly duckling had finally turned into a swan. People began to notice the change and initially, every time someone looked at me with burning appreciation in their eyes, my heart would skip a beat. Everyone likes being admired and I was not immune to this sensation. For a while I had forgotten the girl who once condemned superficiality. I basked in all the attention I received and even spoke about it proudly to my peers.
This was four years ago and now, as I am building a new life for myself, I wonder, is physical attractiveness a virtue or a burden? It did not take me very long to realize that I was quite different from my classmates. I was not intellectual enough as my sentences did not begin with Foucault and end with Shakespeare. I indulged in popular books and films, liked listening to songs in languages other than English and even dared to be open about my feelings on social media. I was affected and intolerable to the erudite lot and soon termed as being "intellectually unappealing". No matter what my grades were, I could never be intelligent. Needless to say, this wounded me.
[My friend] asked, "You really don't know why they think you are dumb?"... And that is when he told me the real reason—it was because I am pretty.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion but why do it without giving me an opportunity? They never found out that for every Nicholas Sparks book I picked up, I also read a book by Charles Dickens or that I knew as much about Godard as I did Bollywood films. People were quite dismissive about me and my confidence began to falter. The girl who secured the highest grade in our class refused to acknowledge me. To her, I was simply an invisible, dumb classmate.
Things got even worse. I began dating a senior from the department. All my life I never really fit in anywhere. Either I was too nerdy or not nerdy enough! For the first time, with him, I felt like I belonged somewhere. As they say, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Barely a year later, he dumped me. Reason? I could not engage him in pseudo-intellectual conversations like his ex-girlfriend did. Then why was he with me in the first place, you ask? Because I was beautiful and apparently way out of his league. Hence being with me would just be a feather in his already feather-heavy cap. We all give our peers the satisfaction of shaping our opinions about ourselves and they shamelessly take advantage of the fact. Shunned and cornered by all, I forgot that I too could have relevant conversations.
It is wrong to treat an unattractive person as an aberration and equally wrong to presume that attractive people cannot be intelligent.
One day I mustered up a substantial amount of courage and asked a friend. The fear of being ridiculed burned brightly at the back of mind. He regarded me with curiosity and asked, "You really don't know why they think you are dumb?" My confounded expression was answer enough and that is when he told me the real reason—it was because I am pretty. There. A reason that sounds innocuous but was important enough to earn the prejudice of many. With each passing day, a painful realisation dawned on me. No matter how well I performed, my appearance was all that mattered. Comments like "You are beautiful! You don't need a career" or "Have you seen yourself? You will get the job" became a part of my social identity. We all want to achieve greatness, but I not only had to prove to the bigoted world but also to myself that my beauty does not define who I am.
Today I am attending one of the best journalism schools in the world and my heartfelt gratitude goes out to all those who never believed in my abilities. They made me strive harder. All those who think that outward beauty is a prerequisite for stupidity, never stop to think just how ridiculous they sound. What we look like does not depend on us but what we become as human beings, does. It is wrong to treat an unattractive person as an aberration and equally wrong to presume that attractive people cannot be intelligent. I have seen both sides of the coin and today I understand that getting my heart broken by the guy of my dreams all those years ago was not my fault at all. The problem was not my intelligence or lack of appeal, but his shallow nature. Similarly, it is absolutely fine if all someone does care about is his/her appearance. We are all unique in our own way and no one has the right to alter that. There are several of us out there who have been subjected to such pejorative comments. There is just one thing I have to say to all of them- never let the opinion of others shape who you want to be. In time, they will learn to value you. And even if they do not, just know that they are not important enough for your self-esteem to depend upon their appreciation. Instead, focus on achieving something so utterly brilliant that their prejudiced mouths will be sealed shut for as long as they might live.