I read this quote today, on the explore page on Instagram, which went something like this: “In a society which profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act”, and it brought back all the times I have struggled to be accepted and to accept myself.
The story of my fight to accept my body and not care about what I am expected to look like starts with my red lipstick.
Growing up, I knew there were many things that were ‘wrong’ with my body and with me as a ‘girl’.
I was born into a Pakhtoon family in Pakistan, a country which is obsessed with fair complexion and which has distorted, and now prizes, the meaning of femininity to be synonymous with being weak, helpless and delicate.
Now, the Pakhtoon are generally tall, fair, have colored eyes and light hair. Me, I am not fair to the liking of Pakhtoons, I do not have colored eyes and my hair is ebony black. Maybe the only way I conform to the Pakhtoon mold is that I am tall, 5ft 8, but we have a problem here. Only the men are supposed to be tall. And now couple that with me choosing to buy books instead of dolls and wanting a bookshelf as a child instead of a doll house. I still remember, on my tenth birthday, my grandfather gave me this superb doll house complete with a fitted electric system so you could switch the lights- and chandeliers- on and off, it had cars for my dolls, a lawn and teeny tiny wicker chairs and even fir trees and rose bushes. As far as doll houses went, this was prime property. It was, undoubtedly, a very generous gift. He had made it all himself and everyone was excited about how I would react.
At 10, I knew I was expected to like the gift, I was expected to squeal with joy as any 10-year-old girl would. My problem: I had no idea how to play with doll houses and dolls. I didn’t like the dollhouse and I did not know how to react.
Two days before that, he had asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I had asked for two ruled notebooks in which I could write my poems.
Always made to stand at the end of our assembly lines in school, and not understanding this was because I was tall, I was an awkward child. I had to hear from aunts and uncles and all other relatives about how I should concentrate on my looks, how I should sit and talk lady-like, how I should not correct elders when they are talking about current affairs and get their science wrong.
But this is how I was! How could I not have been myself at an age when people have not yet learned diplomacy and lies?
Don’t get me wrong, I have wonderful parents. They were much too progressive for our tribe, for Peshawar, the city we lived in, and for the 1990s in Peshawar. Which meant that as much as they tried to bring me up as an opinionated, confident, intelligent woman, they could only protect me so much from our relatives, and society at large, from judging me and reprimanding me, in some ways, for how ‘different’ I was, what with all that height, those dark, unruly curls, for my not-fair-enough skin and for my inquisitive mind.
All of this added up to me growing up without many friends, because I could not relate to other girls my age. I was made to feel as if everyone else was beautiful, desirable and therefore loveable and that I was not feminine enough to be desirable and therefore, loveable.
At 29 now, I am glad that is what happened and that I had parents who encouraged me to be who I was. The compliments I received from them were usually along the lines of “you are such a smart girl” and my parents loved showing that off. This is not because I was not beautiful. I have learnt, now and after a painful and long struggle with who I am, that I am just as pretty. This was because appearance was never a priority in my house.
But, and this is tricky to explain, my parents still had to be mindful of what people would say about their daughter.
So, though I had always known I was ‘unconventional’ looking, my struggle with accepting my body and realizing that it was not my job to look beautiful for everyone started when I was in the ninth grade and it started with a tube of red lipstick.
This was the time when I was rebelling against my own self and when I wanted to be like all the other girls my age. I had told everyone to call me by a different name, I wanted to make my height disappear and I had even had my hair re-bonded- which is fine to do but I had straightened my hair because I hated my natural hair with a vengeance. At the time, I was writing a short story and for research, I went to an eye doctor and asked him if it is medically possible for someone’s eyes to change color, say from brown to blue, if their eyes were hurt in an accident. I stormed out of his office when he said that was not possible and I wrote that story like that anyways. Scientific facts be damned.
One day, I was getting ready to go out with some girls from school to try out a new café that had just opened and I put on some red lipstick before going out.
Now, you need to know something about red lipstick and how it is looked at in Peshawar. First of all, it is deemed a vulgar color to wear. It is only acceptable for a modest woman to wear red lipstick maybe on her wedding day and a few months afterwards when she is still considered a bride.
The second thing about red lipstick in Peshawar is that it is the color for women of fair complexion to wear, something which only enhances the beauty of fair women.
My mother must have panicked when she saw me leave the house with red lipstick on and she decided to follow me to the café. I am not blaming her here, she was just looking out for me. But what followed was an ugly fight with her when I got home by the end of which I felt I was not allowed to wear lipstick because I was not trustworthy and two, because it did not suit me because I was not feminine enough.
The matter was discussed in many family gatherings and various aunts stepped in to hold counselling sessions with me, hoping to make me see that I should not wear dark makeup or red lipstick. Look at this cousin of yours, look at that cousin.
But that was precisely my point! I was not like this and that cousin!
I did not wear lipstick again for nearly 12 years. I just did not feel worthy of lipstick, to feel good about myself or pamper myself. It was not just lipstick I let go of. Over the years and with the constant reminders, I lost all interest in fashion, all things ‘girly’, which had a catastrophic effect on my social life.
Bear with me, I am not being dramatic.
Peshawar is very segregated by gender and there is hardly any mixing. There is nothing much to do for leisure except shop and eat out. I could not relate to other girls my age in school so I could make friends, and I was not close to those in my family as I was constantly criticized, lectured and made fun of for my looks and interests.
When I refused to get engaged at the usual 15 years of age and married at 19, I further secluded myself and also lost the authority to be taken seriously for anything. Women who do not have husbands have not achieved anything and even today, having earned a degree from one of the best journalism schools in the world and having established a good career as a journalist, I often find myself struggling to attach authority to what I am saying when I am with extended family.
I buried myself in books- which to be fair I would have done anyways and I still do. I am glad I had more time for reading, but it still meant that I grew up with no company other than the make-believe characters created by the various authors I loved to read.
So traumatized I was by the constant singling out for my being different, well till I was 25 I thought I was so bad looking that it surely must make people laugh at me. It was not until a counsellor at university asked me if I had ever wanted to laugh at someone I found ugly that I started socializing and making friends.
My road to betterment started when I moved to Islamabad after I broke an engagement in order to get some perspective and get my life sorted. The people in this relatively bigger city did not care how I looked. I even got compliments, which I swept under the rug as them trying to be courteous.
A year later, I moved to London in order to pursue a degree in journalism. A few of the people I shared an apartment with suggested I go to a Halloween party with them. I had not gone out in years and always preferred curling up with a good read but they kept insisting till I gave in and for the first time in 12 years, I dressed up. I was surprised at how good it felt and how comfortable I was. I let go of this façade I had built around me, stopped controlling my every move and decided to enjoy the night.
I am not someone who measures her self-worth by how much attention she gets, but that night, I was not offended when I was hit on. I did not pay heed to any of the attention though, not that night.
That night, I danced to my heart’s content, laughed with my friends and what I enjoyed most that night, was the feel of lipstick on my lips. How many times must I have checked myself out in the mirror that night!
But I did not dare wear lipstick again for at least a year and a half later, when I had been away from my tribe for some time, when I had had the distance and time needed to reflect on who I was and what I wanted. When the effect of being called ugly started wearing off.
The red lipstick became a regular feature during a December break at university, when I was alone in my apartment for a month and had nothing to do but travel around and experiment. And when classes resumed, I had gotten comfortable with my red lipstick and loved it so much, I would never leave the house without it, which continued till I finished my degree and came back home where, of course, the same problems were waiting for me.
I was criticized again for the same reasons. I am not delicate and dainty, I am not as fair and this is not a color for modest women to wear.
But there is a difference: I had been away for some time and I had gained some perspective. I am beautiful the way I am: I am a tall woman, have lovely smooth skin and wild, wild hair with a wild spirit and dreams to match.
I know now that not everyone’s opinion matters, I can now afford to distance myself from negativity and I live in Islamabad now, a city which cherishes me for my mind.
There is nothing that will separate me from my red lipsticks, not reminders that I work at night in an all-male office, nor that my complexion looks dark when I wear red. Why is that a bad thing? I feel beautiful when I wear red.
Do not get me wrong. It is not easy shrugging off decades worth of criticism. Just yesterday, I had to go back to my home town for an engagement, the first I have attended in years. And I was dreading going for days before. At the event, I had to text a friend and tell her how I felt, that all the feelings from before were coming back. But I am old enough to feel comfortable in my own skin and to be able to carve out the kind of life I want for myself. With red lipstick on, I know I can conquer all my dreams.