The first sign of puberty for boys is cracking of the voice. Anywhere between sixth and tenth standard, you get to witness your peers transition into yodelers. All boys looked forward to this involuntary pitch shift, mid-sentence—it was the onset of manhood.
But the onset of ‘manliness’ was facial hair.
My voice cracked in 8th grade alright, but my facial hair had it’s own plans. I went from 14 to 16 and beyond. There was barely any sign of it. Girls seemed to be overtaking me in this department and I had nothing more than peach fuzz on my upper lip. A friend was kind enough to let me know—“you have a hormonal problem.”
I always had the doubt. I believed him.
I brought up this ‘hormonal problem’ with dad often. And he would laugh it off every time. He would point to his own french beard and say “this didn’t fully form till I was almost thirty!” I never believed that.
I was approaching my twenties and my facial hair simply refused to turn up. While everyone around me was discussing beard styles, I realised that my worst fears were coming true—I was a babyface.
I did eventually get some sort of a vague moustache and beard by my mid-twenties. I even became thankful later, that I didn’t have to shave on the regular. But the path to this inner peace was fraught with tumult.
Teenage years are tough for everyone. And people deal with all sorts of insecurities. As I kept worrying about my ‘hormonal problem’, I was slowly getting obsessed with another question—“Am I good-looking?”
I was a typical middle-class 90’s kid. Bollywood ruled my life. I looked up to Shahrukh Khan; so I thought pursing my lips and furrowing my brows while welling up with tears was the sexiest thing ever. I had the most mainstream ideas about most things in life; naturally, ‘good-looks’ was something I cared about a lot.
Advertising was at its peak in 90s India. Billboards, TV commercials and Bollywood blared lessons in good-looks straight to the entire family. And as we know, family sanction is the ultimate sanction in India, since we are all about loving our loved ones… and ‘keeping up appearances’.
I noticed ‘good-looking people’. I saw that they were treated differently. I wanted to be in their club. As a teenager, I would harass my confidants (a few peers and my parents) incessantly with questions about my looks: “Am I good looking?”, “How does my hair look?”, “On a scale of 1-10, where do I stand?” and such.
I was preoccupied with the most mundane things a teenager could preoccupy himself with. I could sing, I was learning to play the piano, I was good at drawing, I did ok in academics and was interested in theatre; but none of this meant that I was going to dive deep into these subjects and explore them thoroughly and learn to express myself. All that could wait.
I wanted to look good first.
I would find every opportunity to wet my hair and set it perfectly. I lost sleep over questions like, “Should I buy partially rimless glasses or go fully rimless, like accent-wala Hritik from Kaho Na Pyar Hai?” (Horn-rimmed glasses were still seen as stodgy, because Hipster culture hadn’t arrived yet.)
Just to be clear, I wasn’t a trendy/fashionable teenager. Far from it. My obsession with looks didn’t mean that I tried out new things in fashion and styling; I didn't say I was courageous. Besides, I never understood fashion/styling. I still don’t.
My enquiry about my looks were just thoughts that were meandering in my head—“Do I look as good as this guy?”, “This girl is not in my league, she must find me disgusting.”, “Hmm, I’m definitely better looking than this idiot." If I were a teenager today, I would be the guy scrolling through tik-tok and practising expressions in front of a mirror, but never having the courage to post anything.
Wanting to look good is probably a very basic desire everybody has. The problem starts when we try to perfectly align our definition of ‘good’ with that of others. A lot of times, we don’t even know what we prefer ourselves, certainly not when we are teenagers. It is such a confusing time. All I knew was being a ‘good-looker’ meant ‘winning’. And I wanted to win.
As I got into my late teens and twenties, I felt like my questions were getting answered. Extended family and acquaintances, who were seeing me for the first time since I hit puberty, were using adjectives like ‘smart’ and ‘handsome’ to describe me. Either they were just being nice or they hadn’t met enough ‘smart and handsome’ people. In any case, I readily believed them, because I wanted that to be true… badly.
I also noticed that when I cracked lame jokes, some girls laughed. That felt good. And then I got into a relationship. That was it. I felt like I had struck gold. My query about my looks had ended with that: ‘Someone likes me back. I feel validated.’ That’s it. That was all I wanted.
Amidst all this, I had also started acting. Acting and vanity go hand in hand. You have to be an actor par excellence, in order to escape vanity. It was a miracle that I got any roles to perform, forget being an ‘actor par excellence’. So here I was, ever so self-aware about looks, and getting more vain than I was comfortable with. But vanity was not my natural predisposition. And I realised this very soon.
Back when my questions about good-looks were just beginning to form, my grandmother—out of utmost love and care—had made a benign remark to my fifteen year old self: “you must thank your stars, even if you are not very intelligent, you look good.” I know her enough to say that she had not the slightest malice in her heart when she said it. But that sentence probably travelled deep inside my subconscious and lodged itself somewhere. It resurfaced when my disillusionment with good-looks began, when I was turning the corner.
The focus on looks just started seeming stupid to me. There was always going to be someone ‘better looking’. People who focused all their energies on their appearance began to tire me. The advent of social media was the last straw. Watching people perfectly curate their image online while being miserable in real life made me want to run away from it all. So I left social media (but have returned since).
I went to the other end and did a complete one-eighty. I questioned every decision I made about my appearance. I refused to dress up. I refused to buy new clothes. I refused to perfectly manicure my image (online or otherwise). I refused to take selfies. I had nurtured a suppressed doubt for the longest time that my face looked feminine, because I had little facial hair. In sheer rebellion to this insecurity I grew my hair, never bringing a scissor near it for almost four years. It grew long enough to get stuck in my butt crack (you’re welcome).
I became a wild ‘child’… at 25.
I grew out my patchy moustache and beard, to get over all the insecurities. And magically all these insecurities vanished. And then something else happened, I started getting compliments about long hair. My hair started to become my identity and I didn’t like that… so I shaved my head.
After numerous such experiments, I began to get very comfortable in my own skin, in not caring how I came across to others, in just being the way I felt like being.
I continue to be turned off by persistent focus on all things external, but I am much more in the middle than before. Because I am not merely reacting, I genuinely care less about them now. I have made my peace with it.
Vanity and a vehement disregard for it are probably two sides of the same coin.
My real enquiry, it seems to me in hindsight, was about perception. There is no way to imagine a perception that is ‘outside’ of myself. Trying to understand ‘how others perceive me’, is really an exercise in trying to understand how I perceive myself.