Do you think Freida Pinto is beautiful or average-looking?
Would you say Aishwarya Rai’s looks are Indian or Western?
Who IS the “perfect” Indian woman? Who is the most beautiful Indian woman?
In this post I am going to attempt to address the SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED Indian beauty ideal. I’ll look at the questions above and attempt to break down the expectations. Will this mean that if you don’t look like the women below, you’re not beautiful? Absolutely not. There are no heavenly-ordained guidlines for deciding who has perfect features and who does not- this post is addressing social constructs, culture and society, and a little history.
From ancient sculptures on the sides of temples to modern calendar art depicting Hindu goddesses, we find trends that inform us on what characteristics, through the ages, have been considered “most beautiful” in South Asia. Ancient poets wrote of women with flowers strung in their hair, whose feet were small and delicate as the lotus, who enticed their lovers with their generous breasts, small waists, and almond eyes.
So who, in modern times, physically embodies the Indian beauty ideal? South Indian actress Shriya Saran.
Shriya’s looks are “textbook” perfect for understanding the features most valued on Indian women for thousands of years:
ALMOND-SHAPED EYES: Her eyes are large and expressive, a quality valued for centuries in a nation proud of its culture of theatrical dance.
A STRAIGHT, SHARP NOSE: Shriya’s nose is prominent but sharp and straight, making it a noticeable but positive feature on her face.
FULL LIPS: No explanation needed here! Her full lips are a symbol of sexuality and fertility.
HAIRLESS BODY: Obviously a result of diligent hair removal, Shriya’s body is devoid of extraneous hair. Ancient poetry spoke of the appealing beauty of a woman “without down”.
THICK BLACK HAIR: Shriya keeps her hair long, representative of femininity, and her hair is thick and rich, a trait valued in Indian women as a sign of good health.
HOURGLASS FIGURE: Shriya is tall, but not drastically so; she is slim, but not willowy; her breasts and hips are ample (also suggestive of fertility), and her waist is narrow.
Now, let’s talk about Miss World and Bollywood-Hollywood actress Aishwarya Rai, whom the Queen of America Oprah Winfrey recognized as “the most beautiful woman in the world”. I agree, but why didn’t I name her the ideal Indian beauty? Two reasons: first, the light eyes. I love them, but they are, in the context of the social construct under discussion, an anomaly. In ancient India, light eyes were derogatorily called “cat’s eyes”. Second, her nose is crooked. Sorry. Otherwise- heck yes, she’d be the ideal!
While we’re on the subject of the light-skinned Aishwarya… you’ll notice I didn’t list FAIR SKIN up above. That’s because this is a questionable addition to the list. Yes, I’ll grant that many Indians value fair skin above dark skin. However, considering India’s very long cultural and religious history, and factors you’ll be bored by that I might discuss in a later post, it remains unclear as to whether or not this is a phenomenon primarily influenced by the Western beauty ideal (totally different ballgame) that has recently taken India by storm.
Moving on to Freida Pinto. This young Hollywood actress from Mumbai is considered beautiful and sexy in the United States, where she hit the scene in “Slumdog Millionaire”. But in India, she was a struggling model who achieved little notable success, and remains fairly unadmired in comparison to her popularity abroad. What gives?
Many Indians believe Freida’s looks to be average, dime-a-dozen. To understand this attitude, try and look at her in the context of what’s working for Shriya above. Freida’s eyes, by comparison, are small, her nose is slightly beaky and wide, and her lips are asymmetrical. Her jaw is squared, unlike Shriya’s and Aishwarya’s, whose jaws are chiseled and pointed at the chin. Her hair is fine, not thick (and yes, her skin is darker than the others’, I add grudgingly). Freida is also very petite- small in frame and small in the chest. While Freida’s looks allow her to fit in perfectly with the Hollywood crowd (read: Western beauty ideal), she would be lost among her Bollywood contemporaries.
While you may or may not personally agree or adhere to these beauty ideals, it can be important to understand perceptions of beauty within a larger cultural framework.
I hope this was illuminating!