Empowering stories about beauty

Dr Uma Rajan performing in Walking In Beauty.
Dr Uma Rajan performing in Walking In Beauty.PHOTO: SUNG LIN GUN



M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

Esplanade Recital Studio/Last Friday

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival this year is curated around Let's Walk by Amanda Heng, a performance that responds to how ideas about feminine beauty affects women in the workplace.

The festival's Walking In Beauty, curated and directed by Petrina Kow, is a living anthology of women sharing their stories about beauty, life and love.

Kow's voice introduced the speakers though she appeared on stage only at the end for the mandatory post-show discussion. Her line-up included storyteller Arianna Pozzuoli, writer-performer Deborah Emmanuel, TV host Anita Kapoor, actress Frances Lee, educator Oniatta Effendi and Dr Uma Rajan, who is a doctor and trained in Indian classical dance.

Pozzuoli's confession of a zany childhood habit of talking to magazines was a charming idea that would have been more effective with examples of what she told her copies. Oniatta had the audience in horrified hysterics while sharing the "vigil-auntie" struggles of parenting teens curious about sex. Kapoor's relationship with her mother and Lee's self-deprecating struggle with body image touched chords.

The evening seemed at times like being part of a live Ted Talk and, at other times, a feel-good "real beauty" commercial by Dove.

On a related note, viewers at last Friday's performance of Walking In Beauty received a goodie bag sponsored by a medical aesthetics brand which offers products and procedures that claim to remove fat or reduce cellulite (because bodies must conform to a certain shape and size?) and lighten skin tone (because white is beautiful?)

Beauty brands often conflate empowerment with subscription to unhealthy ideas about how women should appear - think the recent fiasco when Dove showed happy black women transforming into joyous white faces, possibly as a result of using the label.

Questioned about this dissonance between show and sponsor during the post-show discussion, Kow said she had been approached by a friend and that the publicity photos of the performers would not have been possible without sponsorship. Kapoor added that it was any woman's personal choice whether or not to groom or go all the way to Botox.

Taking Kow's point, it is a fact that Indian skin-whitening cream Fair & Lovely reinforces stereotypical hatred of dark skin, but for 15 years the brand has also offered scholarships to help under-privileged women (of various skin tones) study and find careers.

Will such contradictions ever be resolved? Dr Rajan's simple and stylishly crafted story offers hope. She spoke of losing her husband at age 37 and facing social stigma as a widow. Yet she refused to wear the traditional white saree or put away her jewellery. Life went on and became beautiful again, thanks to her love of work, the love she remembered and the love she shares with her children and now grandchildren.

It was a powerful story, well told and possibly the most important point to take away from the evening: that "walking in beauty" is about more than worrying about appearance and size and clothing or grooming choices. It is about honesty, compassion and finding beauty in others and in ourselves.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2018, with the headline 'Empowering stories about beauty'. Subscribe