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When I was young, the top of the fridge was a place of grownup mysteries. It functioned as the keeper of bills, receipts, and—most fascinating to me—my mother’s makeup tray, which held talcum powder, a small bottle of Lacto Calamine, and an even smaller silver box. Every morning, my mum would apply a few dabs of Lacto Calamine to her face and smooth it out with her fingers; she did the same for me right after. But I did not get the careful speck of pure, glistening blood-red powder from the silver box that she smeared on the parting of her hair. That powder—known as sindoor, kumkum, or vermilion—was as mysterious and inviting to me
It wasn’t the sindoor itself that captivated me. Once, when my mother was napping, I pinched some between my fingers and found it to be dry and sticky and hard to get off. I promptly lost interest in the substance itself. But oh, the matter-of-fact regularity of it. Every day of the year, if she showered, the speck was there. Even on days when her bad health and worse marriage broke her, she would stagger out of bed after my father went to work, and then there it would be: the little streak that marked her.
A cursory Google search will tell you that sindoor is made out of herbal ingredients, although the cheaper kinds may contain toxic mercury oxide, and that “Hindu women” wear it “to reveal their marital state.” But it won’t express what sindoor meant to me, and to my mother: a tradition, an inevitability, a ritual, an oppressive “privilege” that women weren’t really allowed to reject. Inside that little box on the makeup tray was the essence of femininity.
The daily ritual of Lacto Calamine, Pond’s powder, and sindoor was my introduction to makeup—makeup as obeisance, as conjugal duty, and as habit. Google is correct: Traditionally only married women were allowed to wear sindoor, though it would be more accurate to say that married women weren’t really allowed not to wear it. By the time I was growing up—late nineties and early ‘00s—things were getting slightly better for women in the cities; they were increasingly taking up jobs and wearing things other than the saree after marriage. Some even had non-arranged love marriages that were still deemed respectable. But there was still an expectation that a dutiful wife would wear sindoor—even if, like my mother, she started to experience hair loss from the mercury oxide. After a medical checkup, my mother briefly stopped using sindoor for the sake of her health, but she couldn’t abide the nasty remarks from her in-laws. Eventually she upgraded to more expensive herbal sindoor.
By this point, I was about 15, and had decided I would never wear sindoor or use the dreaded Lacto Calamine. In fact, I didn’t want to wear anything I thought of as “makeup.” Makeup, as in eyeliners, lipstick, and foundation, was to my mind loud and gaudy. I refused to be gaudy. I wore white, cream, and pastels, and instead of makeup I only cleaned and softened my skin (obsessively, in hindsight). I went for the big guns: the smooth, clean bottle of Nivea body lotion, the Dove shampoo-conditioner set, the Palmolive bodywash. Around this time, I was also increasingly seeing myself as desexualized being: one capable of romantic love but very detached from the body. I would never be married, never wear sindoor, never paint my face or hairline the way a woman “should.” I felt superior and righteous. (That I was using mass-produced, imported brands with dodgy body politics to do so was an irony that would not bite me for many years.)
But if I had bothered to look into the tradition a little further, I would have realized it wasn’t that simple. Sindoor was both makeup and not. My teenage skincare regimen was not makeup, but it also was. And more importantly, makeup—and femininity, and beauty—weren’t inextricably connected with marriage, obedience, or oppression. Makeup doesn’t need to focus on a romantic or social other. It can be, above all, about revelling in one’s own attractiveness.
Classical texts in India often mention a concept called Sringar (pronounced shringaar). It has endured in contemporary language as a concept that embodies the spectrum between self-care and elaborate, physical preparation for love. Whatever else it may be, shringaar is not duty, and so I imagine the way my mother (and many others) wear their sindoor does not belong anywhere in this particular tradition. But then, essence and ritualized practice are not the same. Some traditional Indian weddings will have a “solah shringaar” routine (“solah” means “sixteen”), which prescribes everything from the pre-wedding bath and turmeric-sandalwood scrub to the last piece of jewelry that the bride should be wearing.
But even makeup as we practice it—palettes of colors and lines; shaping of brows, eyes and lips—is seldom a simple affair. And if we begin to define it less by what we use and more by the motives and intents, certain themes emerge: not only the (real or imaginary) beloved, but also self-care, taking ownership over one’s appearance, reveling in the physical. In other words, empowerment.
Of course, it would be too easy to say “makeup is self-care, makeup is empowerment” and leave it there. For one thing, using makeup may make me feel good, but it involves consuming from a heavily capitalist industry with frequently horrifying labor practices. For another, embracing makeup uncritically is as oversimplified and selfish as rejecting it uncritically. I suffer from chronic depression, and on some days, buying a mascara under my eyes will make me feel well enough to step out of the house. It almost always helps me feel more confident, happier about my appearance and secure. But the happiness I get from this is as insulated and self-enclosed as the happiness I used to get from wearing light colors and no makeup as a teenager. The sense of being superior to others is less pronounced now, but it is there. And I am not okay with it—especially because most of the changes I instinctively make upon myself involve looking paler, younger, and more feminine. As a young, brown woman, I am forced to ask myself if this is resistance to an illness that tells me I don’t deserve self-care, or if this is a feel-good mimicry of an oppressive aesthetic that I am prepared to put up with for the sake of my mental health.
So I am still wary of makeup, especially when women like my mother are still forced to wear cosmetics like sindoor as markers of marriage. Today it is easier to see wearing sindoor as a feminist choice, because its signification has become more fluid. People are less likely to assume I’m married because of a red dot on my hair parting, and if I do choose to marry, my privileged position ensures that whether I wear sindoor or not will almost certainly be a choice. But much of traditional makeup, including the finger and toe reddener called “alta” (rose bengal)—and its North Indian equivalent, mehendi—come with a history of frequently violent subjugation of women. Even today, they point towards a coding of normative feminine representation that I don’t want to participate in.
But I do wear kajal, or kohl. I am still trying to figure out why kohl feels like less of a problematic choice to me than most other makeup. Part of it involves the fact that I use kohl-sticks from local brands, avoiding some of the capitalist baggage. Kohl is mostly charcoal-based, and uses little that cannot be sourced from a garden and made at home with a bit of oil. It is also an aesthetic preference: The way I use it (very dark, smudged lining) makes me look older and slightly more assertive than I normally do. In a world where erotic capital is firmly oriented towards the appearance of youth and floaty delicacy, the harsh “panda eyes” feel more like a willful complication than a capitulation.
And finally, having one go-to cosmetic is easier on my brain. If wearing makeup is going to be part of my self-care, it has to be sustainable even when I am besieged with mental health troubles, money concerns, and the exhaustion of being (partially) woke. I don’t always have the energy to negotiate the tightrope of balance between affordability, feeling happy with my own appearance, and not accidentally benefitting from the oppression of others that would be necessary for me to evaluate every aspect of a made-up face. It helps to cling to something I can wear as a brown feminist woman without constantly questioning myself.
I hope we can eventually move beyond the shallow duality of “feminists don’t wear makeup!” vs. “makeup is empowerment!”—past the simplified caricatures of my white-clad teen self and the imaginary painted lady I rejected. If we could, I would find a lot easier to understand my kajal, and my mother’s sindoor, as part of one complicated whole: sometimes as tools for making oneself palatable to others, but ultimately as attempts to revel in the self. As shringaar.