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Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, it was once casually said. No longer, for there is nothing casual in the desperation for almost cloned perfection. A 21-year-old woman passed away from complications after a ‘fat- free’ surgery or liposuction to remove ‘excess fat.’ Television actress Chethana Raj was just 56kg but at an impressionable age caved in after being more than hinted that she needed to lose weight.

The doctor — his qualifications are suspect -- did not advise the young woman either against the unnecessary procedure or the risks involved. Nor did the clinic have a licence to perform surgeries. Raj would perhaps have been saved if she was in the hands of qualified doctors. Instead, she checked into one of countless nondescript clinics mushrooming across India that are run by borderline quacks who are eager to take a pie of India’s beauty boom. A botched procedure in Chennai had also cost a young man his life after an anaesthetist wore the gown for a hair transplant procedure.

The entertainment industry breaks more hearts than it makes stars and the pressure to not remain anonymous convinces women like Raj to take drastic steps. Bollywood has long normalised the onus on the woman to either keep drinking from the fountain of youth or go under — whether a knife or otherwise. The ageing actors meanwhile continue to play the lead role first romancing the mother, then the daughter. Bollywood is also where cultural bias and stereotypes have flourished, from the overweight comic relief to the size zero that Kareena Kapoor flaunted in a movie.

But it is not just Chethana Raj who was watching, beauty and skincare are no longer a rich or a celebrity prerogative. Image is flawless and it is as much a girl on the street as the contestant of a pageant that has taken to it like a duck to water. Inner beauty is just jargon spoken by beauty queens, you are either perfect or cancelled.

Skin whitening creams

Outside of the movies the one thing Bollywood actors have advertised more than harmful gutka is skin whitening creams in a country where being dusky is a sin. Worth at least $4 billion this industry has encouraged the infamous matrimonial advertisements where a match is only for the fair suitor. But exposure to not just television but also social media has given birth to a middle and lower middle class that aspires, only the definition of realism itself is in a flux.

OPN Beauty creams
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In search of ‘do or die’ beauty, body positivity is ironically dismissed as woke by a generation that hides behind it for much else. Diversity is almost a non-starter with campaigns like Gucci featuring Ellie Goldstein, a model with Down syndrome — almost a revelation in a society that prefers homogeneous looks. Stars like Serena Williams openly talk about the plus size but we need local role models — and not just when it is time for a film promotion — to create awareness so that more Chethanas’ don’t feel helpless.

OTT platforms are breaking the bias by telling stories that no longer have a ‘conventional’ lead but social media unfortunately neutralises most everything. Reels, filters — the mechanisms to look perfect are a click away. Even those who know that one size doesn’t fit all, would rather not know. Instead, vulnerable young women will remember that Kim Kardashian lost over 7 kgs in just 3 weeks to fit into a dress.

Lack of confidence

For many young women and teenagers, the lack of self-worth is so dominating that a line is easy to cross. Why did a 21-year-old not have confidence in her natural self? When the mirror cracks, self-harm, eating disorders and depression become more than the side story, the search for perfection in a world that has never been more imperfect is intense.

It is this calling that takes some like Raj to shady clinics for not all can afford to pay the rates of established centres where if you are lucky then liposuction will cost a minimum of Rs50,000 as will a nose job, rhinoplasty. Social media has allowed young and the younger a starring role in their own drama, no one wants to upload a story that is ordinary. Neither do most want to get off this toxic train.

Unlike insinuations against the pharma industry, the commercialisation of beauty is real. Along with clinics, ‘influencers’ are also selling everything from dreams, illusions to misery.

In India the beauty industry is valued at $26.8 billion and expected to grow exponentially. In the last two years, demand has driven e-commerce where the choices are vast and the prices competitive, the IPO of cosmetic and wellness company Nyka made its founder Falguni Nayar one of India’s richest. Nayar estimates that the country will be the fifth largest market in the future.

But as Raj’s death showed once the glamour is peeled, underneath lies a layer of ugliness where traditional concepts of beauty still shackle many while a modern social media world pushes and pulls with airbrushed promises. The bubble will burst unless we remember we have a choice. Chethana Raj didn’t think she had any.