India has an increasingly global perspective on beauty — but the patriarchy still looms large

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Written by Elton Fernandez

Elton Fernandez is a makeup artist based in Mumbai. One of India’s first successful YouTube beauty bloggers, he’s now a brand ambassador for Maybelline New York and has worked with celebrities including musician M.I.A., Aditi Rao Hydari and Alia Bhatt. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.

As a makeup artist, I get to witness first-hand how powerful and liberating cosmetics can be.

Whether I’m working on magazine covers, fashion campaigns, runway shows, editorials or weddings, I see every day how makeup allows people to control how they are perceived before they’ve even said a word.

I want to make a woman fall in love with her inner self and to channel her imagination and a sense of grit she may not always have immediate access to. This matters in our world, where older men in positions of power, have an outdated definition of beauty — one that values being Barbie-pretty or fair-skinned, with light eyes and highlights in your hair.

Today, India has an increasingly global perspective on beauty and what beauty choices stand for. But there’s still a lot of baggage from decades past.

India’s colonial history influences how we perceive ourselves. There’s something quite upsetting in how “white” we all want to look, in the popularity of fairness creams (especially in the south of India where people generally have darker skin) and in the use of light-colored contact lenses or blonde highlights.
Author Elton Fernandez at work.

Author Elton Fernandez at work. Credit: Courtesy Elton Fernandez

Everyone wants what they don’t naturally have. If you’re brown, you might want lighter skin. If you’re white, you might want to look tanned. If you have curly hair, you might want it straightened, and if you have straight hair, you might want it permed. Now I may not always agree with what women want to change about their appearances, but I respect their choices. I just hope they also can also attest to how much they love their natural beauty, including their skin tone, and that the requests aren’t borne out of insecurities.

New technology has made it easier to embrace out natural skin tones. Thanks to better cameras, lighting, lenses and even Instagram filters, we now know more about how to play with light and shade to our advantage.

One of the reasons I started my YouTube channel in 2013 was because, at the time, there were none tailored to Indian women. I remember feeling apprehensive about discussing foundations or concealers until I had a corresponding shade available for my own skin tone.
Now, brands like Huda Beauty and Fenty Beauty have come out with thoughtful and inclusive varieties of darker shades. I’m proud to have helped launch some of Maybelline New York’s new shades in India, and we now cater to an audience from across the spectrum — from the palest alabaster skin to the deepest melanin-rich tones.

Despite these changes, there’s something else holding us back from expanding our horizons: patriarchy.

Elton Fernandez, a Mumbai-based makeup artist.

Elton Fernandez, a Mumbai-based makeup artist. Credit: Anjana Rajan/Inega

There is a direct link between patriarchy and the freedom with which women can shape their own visual identities or control their own narratives. I find that women who are stronger — those who come out, are able to do things and speak their minds — are often from more progressive, privileged or matriarchal parts of India, like Kerala, where my mother was born. In areas where it is more patriarchal, it can be a different story with different aesthetics — there’s a more limited beauty vocabulary.

I’ve seen established male Bollywood actors dump unsolicited feedback onto their female counterparts — mansplaining how their skirts aren’t short enough or their hair not full enough. Women are expected to worry about fine lines and wrinkles, loss of hair, or changes in body weight. Female actors are constantly seen going under the knife, and for what? To just look prettier or younger, when the real health that matters — mental and physical — may well be crumbling on the inside.

There’s no part of the female anatomy that the patriarchy has not distorted with its opinions. Yet, men themselves are often deeply uncomfortable when the tables are turned. I recently shot a story about men wearing makeup, with a young Bollywood actor who initially told me that he was cool with wearing makeup because he felt comfortable in his own skin. But to me, he seemed like a typical cis man who thinks concealer and smudged kohl is the limit of what is acceptable. It was almost as though eyeshadow was making him question his masculinity.

This sadly, is incredibly common in the Indian subcontinent. The root of the problem is a deeply engrained patriarchy that often burrows into our sensibilities from a young age.

Growing up, I was a fairly effeminate boy. I loved sitting and watching my mother brush her hair, put on makeup or dress up. My grandmother and aunts also always loved to get dressed and were well-groomed. I was fortunate enough to have lived this experience, and yet I’d still get told off when I wanted Barbies. I’d be told to get a He-Man instead. When I wanted to hang out with my female cousins or friends, I was told to go play cricket with the boys.

These gender stereotypes are a given in most Indian families. Those “boys wear blue, girls wear pink” ideas are still prevalent, and they filter down into people’s beauty standards. Parents, for instance, will still cut young boys’ hair as soon as people start saying he looks like a girl. It’s unnecessary and an outdated level of control.

More significantly, this has a profound effect on one’s sense of self. There were these photographs of me, taken when I was maybe 6 or 8 years old, where I was wearing my mother’s big retro sunglasses, her scarf over my head and her huge heels, with a big purse hanging off my arm. My family later used it as a tool to poke fun at me in front of others. I used to feel so shy and humiliated — because of the idea that “boys should be boys.” I burned those pictures because I thought they should never see the light of day.

I didn’t truly come to accept my inner self until my late twenties. But having traveled, lived and loved extensively, my mental canvas just grew so wide with possibility. One’s capacity to love and respect others is directly related to one’s capacity to love and respect oneself, through heartbreak, grief and shared experience. And to me, that’s the real definition of beauty — self-love, sharing and self-acceptance.

As told to CNN’s Oscar Holland.



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