Several months ago, I was at an Apple service centre. It was a Sunday morning, and this place was at a walking distance. I was in pyjamas and a sweatshirt, not really giving my appearance a second thought. The service centre was in an upscale property, where some new-age food stalls (every product containing the words organic/fresh) were open for the winter.
There I saw this woman, taking pictures of the food stalls with a professional camera. She was just impeccably dressed and groomed, it’s imprinted onto my mind. A black turtleneck sweater, and blue jeans. I like solid colours. The most remarkable part however was her hair. It was shoulder length, sort of like a long bob, straight, curling at the edges. Every single strand of hair seemed be of the same length, like someone had measured each strand with a scale. Regardless of how common this might sound to you, in that moment, she looked uncommonly elegant.
Seconds later, I felt grotesque about my own appearance. My receding, uneven hair, my flimsy clothes — everything. Ten minutes later I walked into a salon and got a hair spa for the very first time in my life.
This March, it will be two years since I moved to Gurgaon. And because my office is in DLF Cyber City, this experience wasn’t an isolated event. I look at extraordinarily well groomed and dressed people everyday, and it has compelled me to pay more attention to how I look.
Some of you may disagree, having felt no such thing, which is possible if you have been conditioned to it over the years. For me, the stark contrast exists because I used to work in Mumbai, where at least in the workplace, people didn’t care this much. You can step into the washroom in the morning to see VPs and managers alike with their shirts drenched in sweat from the Mumbai local commute. Even the ones who took cabs to work never made me feel like rushing to the salon or the nearest M&S store.
My first few weeks in Gurgaon made me feel equal parts poor and ugly, since I practically had to be in Cyber Hub every day. It isn’t just women with colour coordinated masks & straightened hair, but men too. Beards are immaculately styled for men of all ages; an average of five people will comment if I walk into work with a clean shave.
As a result, I spend more money on my wardrobe & grooming now. And it’s not a bad thing, neither is basic hygiene or health.
We all are easily impressed by good looking things. From your powerpoint presentation, CV, accessories, clothes, to your Instagram profile, to your dating/matrimony profile, book covers, the ambience of a restaurant, your house; there isn’t a single sphere of life where looks aren’t valued.
I can imagine God telling us in the afterlife, the ‘one’ was sitting next to you in that class, but you didn’t notice because she didn’t shampoo. Or your company wouldn’t have gone bankrupt had you hired this guy; but you hired the handsome guy instead.
Why do we have this weakness? Why does all objective opinion fail in the face of good looks? I think it is because good looking people are liked more. Have you ever seen posts on your LinkedIn of some random person graduating from some college, or joining a new job? Millions of people graduate every year and get new jobs and post pictures of themselves; you will still find these select posts making it to your LinkedIn feed, and they are overwhelmingly people who look attractive. It is a thumb rule in general for any social media platform: attractive pictures dominate it, so much so that people are willing to distort reality (not just filters; but literally changing the shapes of your nose & the size of your waist; there’s a Reddit sub called InstagramReality if you want to see it for yourself). Attractive people struggle to post even more attractive content, and the rest of us struggle to match up, put our self worth under ferocious scrutiny every minute, and alter our lifestyle and spending habits to come one step closer.
We all like to be liked, this was never a mystery. And while looks do matter, the relentless pursuit of perfecting it is ultimately a prison we are locking ourselves in. Because the only person I’m more jealous of more than the perfectly chiseled human, is the human who doesn’t care. You know those people in your life. The ones who are okay with a fifty rupee haircut. The ones who wear the same jacket every winter. The ones who can wear casual clothing to their best friend’s wedding. The ones who dance freely without knowing any dance, which ironically is the joy of dancing. The ones who can eat a slice of pizza while balancing the box on their round bulging tummy because they find it funny. We admire these people, because they care a little bit less about being liked, and like themselves a little bit more.
If you have only one more day (or even a month) to live, what would you do? Would you still take time to get the perfect shot of your cup of tea, or enjoy it while it’s hot? Would you still take time to choose your outfit for the day? Would you still mind looking unkempt sitting next to rows of pseudo-models on the metro? Would you still scroll Instagram and mourn about all the things missing from your life? Maybe the answer is yes for some, which is okay. For me it is a resounding no, because being liked doesn’t feel important if I only had a few hours more. My time and energy would be devoted only to a few close people and a few little joys.
Our sense of mortality is what can set us free from all the things we don’t deeply care about. If I had that, I wouldn’t have noticed that woman with the camera at all, and instead of going to the salon, I’d have enjoyed my book, basking in the winter sun in my pyjamas.