By Dr. Devika Brendon
I recently interviewed four public figures, familiar with receiving attention from the Sri Lankan community, both local and international, for their beauty. I was interested to know - What it felt like to inhabit this publicly praised face and enviable body? Did they enjoy being lovely to look at, and did they succeed in achieving the happiness they wanted, as well as all the prizes and trophies and career opportunities that have accompanied their progress through life?
Physical beauty makes those who possess it feel ‘like a million dollars’, but it is an asset that does not hold its value - giving the owner diminishing returns as it fades over time, but prompting their character to grow.
All four commented on the benefits of international experience and perspective their success has brought them. But it’s what you do with the recognition and the privileges that beauty brings you that shows the person you are.
Natasha said, “I love that most perceive me as a role model. It gives me a sense of purpose to use my platform to do good and educate the present and future generations to see beauty in a different light.”
The drawbacks, according to Shirlene, include: “Being misunderstood. In this country of ours, being a beauty queen has a little stigma added to it.” Beauty is seen as a short cut to success and recognition.
Shivani addressed the unwanted attention which beauty evokes from the opposite sex, to the point of constant harassment. “Advances from the opposite sex... have no limitations, along with the fear of walking into a place unaccompanied.” It has also impacted her professional life: “As an entrepreneur, I co-founded a company called WEB Syndicate, Sri Lanka’s first web development company, in 1996... an era where we never saw women in the IT industry, which was dominated by men. So ...wherever I went for Board meetings or to meet clients, it was challenging, since it was tough to handle the many stares from men. As good as it is receiving attention to get your point through, or beating your competition, it’s a NO when attention is given for the wrong attributes. The worst of all is that your talent and knowledge get overshadowed when physical beauty overpowers them”.
The same society that praises you can also be very vicious in its judgment, as Shirlene says: “We are all judged for the wrong reasons. We live in a back stabbing, throw away society.”
Angela points out that, “Envy, jealousy, the venom of people’s malice, are all a part of the hurt one has to bear. In Sri Lanka, where there is intense belief in sorcery, there is the additional fear of ‘evil eye’.
All concur that it is important to develop inner character, so that, as Shirlene says, “I don’t depend on my looks to see me through: it is the love, helping others, compassion and empathy that I have for everyone that will live in me till I die. So even if my looks fade or any calamity befalls me, I hope I will be loved and remembered for those virtues more than for my looks.”
It’s important to realise that beauty is constructed, as Angela notes, “Over the years, beauty has moved from natural to manmade: botoxed, carved, shaped, tinted, tanned, bleached, sutured, lifted, tucked, and reshaped, re-molded and recast. The artificial addition of false hair, lenses, nails, bosoms, and buttocks, all take physical beauty to another level, but an impermanent one. With ageing, the effects of all those would be almost grotesque... I do urge everyone to accept the process of ageing as gracefully as one can, as whatever we do, we cannot defy the natural changes that nature bestows upon us with time.”
Being beautiful in our youth, we can become distracted and desensitised to the fragility of human life. Perhaps even more so in the disrupted and uncertain times we live in, we need to be aware that health and well-being are more important than surface appearances. Our ethics, our moral character and our integrity and high personal standards of behaviour are what create the beauty in our lives, and those we are connected with.
Shivani says, “Accepting your losses, and moving away from the tragedy of losing your looks as a result of illness or accident is painful, but the key is to keep your mental equilibrium in check... Setting an example for the next generation is important. Therefore, panicking and putting too much emphasis on the physical attributes alone will only bring unhappiness when you lose it all”.
Natasha succinctly states,”If we base our validity on superficial things, it would have a catastrophic effect on us.”
Focusing instead on core character values is what has shaped their lives.
Angela points out the crude pressure that comes with competitiveness and a focus on externals. “In the present day, there is a whole new race to keep up to expectations that life, society, community and the generation throw in our paths: one is almost buried under an avalanche of pretense and hypocrisy, largely projected onto us with the easy access to social media and misused more often than not. The core of it all, sadly, is to show off!”
Natasha highlights that the publicity that beauty and success brings with it also makes beautiful women a target of unwanted negativity, “Having been subjected to sexism, sexual harassment, cyber bullying and constantly having to prove my worth - showing that I’m way more than what meets the eye. I speak for every woman who experiences misogyny.
The superficial judgments we make of ourselves and others stem from the limitations of our conditioning and the way we perpetuate stereotyping of people. As if there was one box that fits all?! Those who don’t conform [find that] these societies end up deciding they would be their Judge, Jury and executioner, and ridicule them in social circuits or on social media.”
Beauty pageants in the contemporary world are criticised for playing to the male gaze and drawing attention only to women’s appearance. But elegance, gracefulness and glamour encompass social behaviour and self presentation as well.
Shivani said the role of a beauty queen must be performed with finesse: “Since stardom and fame propel you to become a public figure, it’s important to have pageants of this nature for women to propel change in the status quo. You are heard because of the status you hold as a well known personality in the country and in society... To be a role model for other women, and to celebrate accomplished women who embody ‘beauty with brains’ in the modern world.”
There’s plenty of competitiveness and injustice behind the scenes in the beauty sphere, and the enforcing of ideals of beauty which are body shaming, size and colour shaming, but these industry challenges call participants to have the courage to look beyond their own good fortune, to what is being endorsed - and often to challenge it.
Recent events have shown us that women who are crowned as queens of beauty in modern Sri Lanka are expected by the public to also behave with dignity and social sensitivity, as role models of etiquette, elegance and finesse. The title is one that should be carried with honour, and those called queens are inevitably held to higher standards.