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As women, we're forced to conform to toxic stereotypes of beauty – how can we reclaim our self-worth?

It's the subject of Anita Bhagwandas' new book, “Ugly.”

Imagine going to a makeup counter with your friends. While they indulge in the exhilaration of slathering different products onto their skin you are relegated to the sidelines. “Ugly” is the only word that springs to mind when the sales assistant give you a withering look and says, “There are no shades to match your skin tone.” Suddenly that joyful rite of teenage passage becomes a source of punishing anxiety.

Even then, you purchase a too-light colour of beige foundation just to fit in, despite knowing that it's going to make you look zombie-like. Worse still, that hideous white cast is a conspiratorial way of reminding you that you are not the desired customer or the desirable beauty standard.

This is exactly what happened to beauty journalist Anita Bhagwandas. In her new book Ugly, she unpicks the origins of these toxic beauty standards that have caused her to feel “othered” as a woman who is both dark skinned and plus sized.

“My size and my Indian-ness wasn't aspirational or something that was seen as beautiful,” she says. “I carried that sense of otherness with me as a child and then as I grew up and got older.”

Here, Anita speaks to GLAMOUR about the dangers of traditional beauty standards, why “ugly” is such a weaponised word and how Eurocentric stereotypes still impact what we deem as beautiful.

Hi Anita! It's so good to chat with you today. Congratulations on writing your first book. How have you found the process of talking about your relationship with the word ‘ugly’?

Anita: It has been really complex. I started coming at it from more of an investigative direction and then, because of the subject matter, it naturally crossed over into my own life and my own experiences. So there were definitely moments that felt quite challenging and upsetting. And I definitely had to have time away where I just had to sit and go, “Wow, okay, that's a lot.” I do have a therapist and my publishing team and my editor are amazing, so I definitely had a lot of support. But I unpicked a lot of stuff that I struggled with in my childhood.

“Ugly” is such a loaded word, isn't it? And interestingly, it's an insult that's rarely weaponised against men…

Yeah, “ugly” is a loaded word. It means different things to different people depending on their experiences and how their cultures and everything they've engaged with has made them feel. In so many different cultures, when I looked at the etymology of the word ugly, it comes from being feared and a sense of otherness. I think that's quite an interesting thing because, in general, we're scared of things we don't understand. We're scared of difference, we're scared of anything that will make us feel like we're vulnerable or that could be picked on in some way. There are so many ways that you could define ugly, and historically it's been defined for us, but I guess the overarching thing is that it's a word that marks you out as other.

In your experience, do you think women can ever reclaim the word?

I don't know. Maybe. The more powerful thing would be to take away the impetus of the things that we've been conditioned to think are ugly. I think that has more of a widespread effect on our collective self-esteem and ability to just be ourselves.

Can you talk about your own feelings of being ‘othered’?

Growing up as a plus-sized woman of colour with dark skin in Wales, there was just a very strong sense of difference. When it's pointed out by other people it becomes a way that you are othered. Growing up in the nineties was definitely a big thing because everyone had to be a certain size and you had to be beautiful or attractive or even average. I would always go shopping with my friends and just watch them buy clothes because the biggest size Topshop did was a small size 16 so if I tried to fit into something, I'd probably fail. I also felt other because of my race. I knew I was the minority and I knew because of everything I saw around me that having dark skin wasn't an aspirational thing.

What was your main goal in writing Ugly?

I didn't actually fully know what I was going find when I was researching the book. I knew some of the things that I wanted to uncover and they were the things that really drove me to write the book. But a lot of it was a voyage of discovery. The whole point of the book for me was to try and look for the truth. I didn't want it to be a self-help book in that traditional way. I didn't want it to be an academic book. It's like looking for the truth in something and inviting people to come on that journey with me. They can take from it what they want to, whether that is just an interesting historical fact or whether it is like, “Oh my God, I've never thought about that like that before, and now I am going to change my habits.” I just felt like there were lots of things that were unfair and we just gloss over them. I wanted those things to have more airtime and to be put out there publicly.

Why do you think female beauty continues to be such a stigmatised topic?

I think we just haven't had enough autonomy over our own beauty. It's hard for us to have control over it. I talk about Greek painters and sculptors in the book and how they used to cherry pick the best assets of lots of different women, then put them all together to create what they thought was the most beautiful woman. We were being told what was beautiful then and all throughout history that's happened to us. Now cosmetic surgeons pick the most beautiful faces that everyone should have and we'll see it on a celebrity because they had all that work done. I think that's why it continues to be a source of conflict and issue – because over time it just comes out in a new iteration. That is partially why I wrote the book. It's for women to be able to see those patterns and to have a degree of separation so that they can see what's happening.

Without doing so, it just becomes a vicious circle, doesn't it?

Exactly, and the vicious circle has to be broken because it just causes so much misery and we're not living our lives to the full extent that we should be. I can definitely say that of my own experience and I know that's the case for lots of other people, too.

So who, in your opinion, is holding the puppet strings that make so many of us feel ugly?

There are so many complex systems holding those puppet strings, but they are there. We need to look at capitalism in terms of advertising and people making products that aren't small batch brands. It's almost a sense that we are just being pushed to buy and buy and buy and buy. That would be fine if we were doing it from a balanced place, where it's become about the products and not about how we feel. The marketing and advertising side of things has traditionally been run by white males so there is a bias there and a vested interest in promoting certain kinds of beauty. We still live in a patriarchal society and that's a huge factor. The majority of film directors are usually white males so that has a big impact on what we see as beautiful. It impacts our Friday night viewing and we're getting these messages from everywhere. Unless we're able to see where they're playing out, it becomes very hard to distance yourself from it and have autonomy over your own beauty standard for yourself.

In your book, you write about how the lack of inclusivity in the beauty industry felt very personal and how hard you found it to break the culture of silence around representation. What’s the first thing you would do to make the beauty industry more inclusive?

That's a really good question. I would educate everyone on the history of beauty standards because I think that's the biggest issue across the board. No one gets taught at school about the effect colonisation and slavery had on beauty standards, particularly the idealisation of being thin. In terms of diversity, so many brands have gone, “Okay, we're going to put a person of colour in this advert and we might put an older person in this campaign” to appear to be diverse. What has happened is, often a light-skinned black person will be chosen because they have a proximity to whiteness and, if it's a plus size or body positivity campaign, it will be someone who is an hourglass shape. It's like an acceptable, token form of diversity. But I think unless you know why those systems of oppression were created in the first place, and how they play out in very subtle ways, then you can't really ever truly unpick it and you can't ever really truly help. It's my hope that ugly bridges that gap in the middle to give people context as to why they have been made to feel rubbish about their size their entire life and who decided that it was an ugly quality to be fat. When you see one kind of beauty everywhere, you just go, okay, that's the norm. It might be the Kardashians, it might be on Love Island, it then might be on Instagram. There is a look and even though you might not necessarily aspire to that, elements will still touch your reality and still affect everything that you buy.

There seems to be a lot of pressure from society to conform to a narrow Eurocentric stereotype of beauty. Do you think the narrative around traditional beauty ideals is changing?

I think beauty ideals are definitely changing, which is great, but it's definitely not enough. Body positivity has been a huge part of that and it's changed a lot of my narrative about my own appearance, actually. It's really nice to be able to buy clothes in the high street now, and that wasn't always possible even 10 years ago. But I definitely think there are still limitations. There is bias in tech, for example, that favours certain facial characteristics and certain ethnicities. Unfortunately, when beauty standards begin to change, the different systems of oppression that control them work harder and they just become more insidious. That's why we need to be able to police them and take ourselves away from things that might be causing us harm.

You wrote about how the capitalist patriarchal agenda has used beauty standards against women as a means of controlling us. How can we rebel against this and use beauty for self-expression and joy instead?

This is a really tricky one because if you were going to face this argument head on, you would renounce all beauty products and all beauty standards. You'd say, “I'm taking myself out of this.” And I think that can actually be great for a lot of people. What can be really hard, though, is the gap in between. I'm not fixed – I've had 30-something years of being told that I need to look a certain way. You can't completely wipe your brain clear overnight. But beauty and fashion can be amazing forms of self-expression - that's the really important thing to focus on. There are practical ways to do that, which I talk about in the book. One way is to focus on the joy that you get from beauty products. It is a mindset shift. When I wake up in the morning and start to do my skincare routine, I'll be like, “Oh God, my eye bags are really bad today. There's a bit of hyperpigmentation here. That's really annoying.” And then it starts off this cycle where you are dissatisfied with yourself as soon as you get up and it's almost like your brain is just telling you that you're not good enough as you try to mask, conceal and fix. That is a very different mindset to waking up and telling yourself, “I love the smell of this moisturiser. Or I'm going to use that because I love the texture or the colour.” Gradually over time interrupt those thoughts and switch to the sensorial aspect of beauty products rather than the outcome of making yourself look prettier or younger or thinner.

I'm really interested in what you call “informed consent” in the book when it comes to beauty treatments, in particular aesthetic tweakments. Can you talk us through exactly what you mean by that?

In the Beauty Myth, which was such a seminal book in the 90s, one of the things that the author talks about is the idea of beauty work. It's this invisible job that women have on top of our jobs in everyday life. Sometimes we can enjoy those things, but I think it's being an active participant in choosing whether you want to shave your legs, put makeup on or have Botox. We just assume that everyone wants to look younger and tweak everything but there are other ways to be. When aesthetic treatments are talked about, it is just told to people as if there are no risks – they are as easy as buying a pot of cream and everything will be happy ever after. There needs to be more consideration about the lineage of where this has come from. I have a whole chapter about cosmetic surgery and the history of that, which was one of the most shocking things to me. I remember when I was coming up to turning 30. All of a sudden the focus for my friends had gone from having fun and working in a city in our twenties to “I need to have Botox now.” Our natural evolutionary instinct is to survive, not to have Botox. At the end of the day, the people that make Botox benefit from that and the people that sell it to us benefit from that. That's not to say those are necessarily bad things or that you're bad for having it. It's just about slowing everything down and asking yourself, “Do I really want to have that?”

I love how in Ugly you also reject the idea that our value as women lies in the years before we turn 30. Is this something you were keen to examine?

Society is obsessed with youth. I think it was around the Sixties, there was a shift in youth culture becoming very dominant and almost overtaking the traditional values that had gone before. Since then, we have always focused on youth culture. But I think what has changed is the way that marketing and advertising has become obsessed about selling to young people. So actually in many ways, those are the people that are being taken advantage of because they're just constantly being sold things and ideals. I just think there's so much value in knowledge and we get more of that as we get older. As a society, we need to re-cultivate the idea that our value increases as we get older.

If readers could take away just one thing from your book, what would you want that to be?

I think it would be that everything we think about our appearance has been chosen for us. If we felt ugly or even if we felt beautiful, somebody along the line decided and picked that for us and then we are forced to measure up to those beauty standards. But here's the thing: beauty standards don't exist. They're not laws. They didn't come onto the earth with the dinosaurs. They've been chosen; they've been created and curated and they've been propagated and controlled. And we need to be aware of that.

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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