7 women in Singapore discuss their complex relationship with beauty
Under the skin
Writer and poet Deborah Emmanuel wasn't totally into the idea of capturing her most favourite feature for our photoshoot. "The struggle with it is that for me, this whole thing is about rejecting the idea of beauty being physical, but then to say that it's about a body part, is kind of counter-intuitive," she explained. We were in director Petrina Kow's apartment, an hour before rehearsals began for Walking In Beauty. Part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2018, Kow's piece also involved other women in the arts: Host Anita Kapoor, teacher and poet Arianna Pozzuoli, actor Frances Lee, teacher and theatre practitioner Oniatta Effendi and doctor and dancer, Dr. Uma Rajan.
After clarifying that the shoot was an alternative lens of capturing these women, each picked what they connected with best: Kapoor chose the eyes for intuition, Pozzuoli's voice reflected her sense of humour while Oniatta's breasts were proud of their life-giving force that fed five children. Eventually, Emmanuel chose the mouth — one that has framed both the gentle and raging beast of words that have journeyed through.
Building on M1 Fringe artistic director Sean Tobin's theme of gender, beauty and identity, Walking In Beauty narrates the complex relationships and journeys that define beauty. We already know that beauty isn't just skin deep, and that it's ultimately in the eye of the beholder. But what if that said beholder is you?
You've probably seen this Singaporean poet, writer, and musician unlock a pretend cage in her spoken word performance — the latches, the chained hearts and fingers in her poem, I Love You. Deborah Emmanuel has authored two books and performed in projects with bands like Wobology, The Ditha Project and Mantravine. Her recent collaborator is producer Kiat, whom she'll debut an album with later this year.
What attracted you to be part of Walking In Beauty?
The idea of a beauty standard is something I've grappled with for a long time. I see it as an oppressor, and yet at the same time I have this complicated relationship with it. I've been oppressed, but I'm not that oppressed because to a lot of people, I'm still physically attractive, so how does that give me any license to discuss these things? My relationship with the idea of beauty is really complex, and finding out how to articulate the complexity drives me to want to do something about it.
What narratives will you be contributing?
For a lot of people, beauty is a specific image they've been penetrated with again and again by the media, and I really want to reject that. But at the same time I know that my subconscious has been violated already, and I know that what I think is attractive has definitely been influenced by these other factors and the system that champions certain kind of imagery. I'm not so oppressed by it anymore.
When I cut all my hair off, it changed my idea of what it meant to be physically attractive or how important it was. I felt more invisible physically, but that allowed me to focus on developing my internal world. The reason why I cut it all off was because I understood how afraid I was to do it. I thought if I cut it off, I would cease to exist. And then I had to do it to prove to myself that I still would exist.
What does baldness feel like? Do you feel more naked?
Yes. I totally felt exposed. It's just your face!
Do you remember a time when you first realised how you look like affected you? What was that like?
I was maybe 15 when I started receiving attention from one boy in particular. I guess he changed the way that I saw myself because he constantly told me how physically attractive he thought I was... I mean, people threw the word "pretty" around a lot when I was a child, but that didn't mean anything to me. I still don't understand what that's supposed to mean. All I know is my own face, and my face is like a covering for my internal world. I understand my internal world but I don't understand what people project onto my face. When the boyfriend happened, he was my first serious one. He definitely aided in me feeling like I was desirable for the first time.
Were you comfortable with that?
No. Even now, it's kind of weird. But now I understand that I am not what my appearance is. When someone says I'm beautiful, well, your perspective is valid, but I know that whatever you see is not the truth of what I am, because I know that I am inside.
As a writer, do you think you have a responsibility to show your true self? Are there veils you can hide behind?
That's why I love poetry so much, because you can allude and obscure, and avoid being explicit about sensitive material. The truth is in the emotion and the intention behind the writing. You can veil it however you want, but you have to be honest about why you're saying things.
A Senior Lecturer in Theatre at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Oniatta Effendi has presented shows such as Krayon and SOS Matematik in Suria, and was also nominated for Best Actress at Straits Times' Life! Theatre Awards 2012 for her role in The Gunpowder Trail. Using drama as a positive educator, she works with youth-at-risk and ex-convicts. Apart from that, she's revived the use of batik with her own clothing line, BAJU by Oniatta. For Walking in Beauty, she'll be presenting the chronicles of 'Vigil Auntie'.
You're a mother of five. How different or similar are you raising your daughters from the way your own mother raised you?
My mum was a strict mother who ensured that I never left her eye. I think I'm extremely terrifying as a mother at times, especially so for the ones entering teenagehood. It's frightening for me. We talk about raising them as beautiful young girls, but the world is so scary out there. With social media right now, they're exposed to so many things. As a mother, you want them to grow and learn it their way. That's where I'm navigating right now, to ensure that she has her life as a teenager, but at the same time, I need to be present. Otherwise, I'll just be lost with the next Instagram story that goes after 24 hours. Even then, how do you control what they post? What messages do you want to send out?
What's a memorable thing you've picked up from your mother?
She said, "Two things you have to jaga (take care of): Your tetek (breasts) and your kaki (feet)". Your feet and breasts always have to be comfortable. If you don't wear proper stuff, it hurts and you don't feel confident in yourself.
You went to an all-girls school for 10 years. How do you think that's framed how you've grown up?
Those were the best years of my life. There was no need to conform to what we needed to be or look like. I was very fortunate to be in an environment that was extremely empowering. There's that challenge — the bitching and gossiping — but we deal with it as we go along.
How do you navigate modesty and all the other racial and religious trimmings that came along with your perception of beauty?
The complexity of being a Muslim woman is something that we can go on about. My ex-husband once looked at me and said, "I kesian (pity) with you. You're very beautiful, but all that hair is going to be dragged in hellfire and burned". That frightened me. I think Islam is a beautiful religion. A woman's beauty should not be defined by a piece of cloth that covers her. I think your heart, your intentions and the things that we do, the goodness that we are — a good Muslim is a good person. You care for the family, for the community, your kids, your aged parents, your husband. It's not difficult. But sometimes, we are so complex, complicated and we make things difficult and inaccessible. And then you park this societal thing that "One day, you'll get the light and you'll be very cantik (beautiful)". I can't seem to subscribe to that just yet. It's an intricate relationship that you have with God.
"A woman's beauty should not be defined by a piece of cloth that covers her." — Oniatta EffendiAs a Malay woman in Singapore, have you ever felt singled out as a minority?
I don't particularly like labels such as "progressive" or "liberal", we are just who we are. What does "progressive" mean? That the rest are regressive? No. We're extremely tolerant of variation of things. We are happy the way we are. But growing up Malay and going into vulnerable places where the Malay community is overrepresented hurts me. Working in a boys' home — out of 15 boys, 12 are Malay. I can't help but feel a little sad. Because clearly something is not right somewhere. I think it's systemic, and I think there are a lot we can do to make things better.
If you find Petrina Kow's voice familiar, it's probably through a commercial, radio show or audio guide that the voice and presentation coach has contributed to. The curator and director of Walking in Beauty brings together a spectrum of stories from six perspectives as they navigate the intimate yet complex relationship a woman has with beauty.
How did you choose these six women for Walking in Beauty?
I wanted a variety of women and stories, so sometimes it was the case of searching for the right story, then maybe trying to shortlist the people who could tell that story. In a way, it was like excavating as I had to interview a lot of women and find out what their angle is and figure out if that would fit a narrative or whether it would add anything to the conversation. I did think specifically of age, ethnicity and a place in their life.
Can a voice be beautiful?
Absolutely. When we think about the voice, it's beyond a tool to just converse. It's a representation of your inner world. It is the way we connect to other people as well. I think when people fully embrace who they are and when their thoughts and mind are in line is when it's truly beautiful. That's what I call vocal presence — you can tell when we watch people speak that there are people who are big and flashy but that kind of leaves you with nothing, but then there are those people who speak (and it doesn't have to be flashy) but comes from all of them and as audiences, we can feel whether there's fakery or not.
One of your recent works include acting in Lao Jiu: The Musical, which is set in the '90s. What was your perception of beauty in that decade?
I had no concept of what looked good or what didn't. There was no makeup, no Internet, no 'I need to wear makeup', no 'I need to pluck my eyebrows'. My first knowledge of beauty was when my mother dragged me to a facial at 16 and I was like, "Why does another woman need to wash my face? I can wash my own face" and it was very bizarre.
It's so easy for girls to get lost in the materialistic world of beauty, where there's a constant pressure to look and feel beautiful and to be the 'perfect woman'. What's one advice you have for them?
Put down your phone. Look at yourself in the mirror and reckon with yourself. Whether or not you look at yourself in the mirror or look at images of other people, the most important thing is what conversations you're having in your head about yourself. Often times with women, it is a very negative conversation. They never quite look for the good so if every day you can look in the mirror and look for one thing good like "I really like the way my hair is today", that's really it.
As a mother of a boy and a girl, are you conscious of relaying your own personal biases and standards when it comes to both outward and inward appearances?
Absolutely. I just had this argument with my daughter the other day because she's in this phase where she doesn't want to expose her legs. It's a happy problem I know, but this girl would not wear anything shorter than jeans. I'm also very conscious of why she feels that way but I also have to respect that. I kind of let them lead the way. My son is very functional. If he can live in his Uniqlo innerwear and batik shorts all day, he will be very happy. My daughter has an idea of what she likes to wear and what she feels good in. I'm conscious about subtle things — little comments you make, even when you praise them — it is a message and a layering. We have very frank discussions about dressing and I take that as a consolation.
If you could rewind back to a time when you had self-doubts about your appearance, what would you tell yourself?
"Get over yourself, seriously".
DR. UMA RAJAN
A doctor by profession and a graduate of Indian Classical Dance, Dr. Uma Rajan has gone through more than seven decades of life, with a wealth of stories in her areas of medicine and the performing arts. If ageing gracefully had a definitive voice, it would sound like Dr. Uma.
What is one makeup tip that has withstood the test of time for you?
The lining of the eye. The kohl, as we call it. In Indian culture, when a baby is born, every night they will take a clean knife, take some castor oil and put it over the flame to get a black soot. They will wash their hands clean and take a bit of that soot to line it to the eye. The next day, you would see the child's lovely eye lines.
In what ways have the traditions in Indian culture dictated the standard of beauty within your community?
There's a stress on the face and the body, which is why a lot of work in the kitchen meant a lot of grinding, squatting and sitting up. Every bit of it has contributed to the physical beauty and they were very particular in terms of diet. The food they had was based on this. Once a week, you must have green spinach, it's good for the skin. You must have the banana stem because it clears the kidneys. Everything from what you eat to what you drink was confined to finding beauty and maintaining it. We believe that inner beauty can shine in the face of people. As far as Indian culture is concerned, it has given women indirect tips on being beautiful, but they all stress on the mind.
Where has dancing given you the most growth in?
I think I've always said that my medical and dancing career were two eyes of my life. Dance meant a great deal to me because that particular form of dance physically developed me — my asthma disappeared and I started finding a new world. It is a very important part of my life journey. It also taught me how to walk, and informed my stance and posture.
Some believe that the solution to ageing beautifully is through luxurious skincare products and treatments. What's your take on it?
The most important thing is positive thinking. I think it's so important, because it's so easy to have negative thoughts in today's world. Positive thinking comes from your home and work environments, and the community around you. If you try your best to keep your mind occupied, that's the most important. It's like the devil's workshop. Sometimes to keep your mind occupied, you'll need to keep your hands occupied — that's why I think my hands are so important. I always say to minimise weaknesses and maximise the strengths you have. You might only have one strength and ten weaknesses. I look at the one strength.
As dancers, what are the additional pressures you've dealt with and how have you made them work?
There was always competition and a little bit of jealousy, which came out in a different way. I've always believed in healthy competition and I've always liked to see other people dance, because my master would tell me that we must see the good and bad. I tried to avoid the complexity of competition with jealousy. I had to see how I could avoid others feeling jealous of me or competing for the sake of being better than others. I found that very difficult to cope with.
The Canadian author, teacher and poet has penned a poetry collection, Something For Everyone. A drama teacher at the Canadian International School, Arianna Pozzuoli has also took part in events venues across North America, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, the Philippines and Australia.
After living in Singapore for more than five years, what differences have you noticed between the Western and Asian ideals on appearance?
It's in the way someone delivers a compliment. There was a boutique in a mall at Bukit Batok where a woman just came right up and she didn't say "That looks really good on you". She just said, "You're very pretty". I don't recall anyone doing that at home in Canada. People usually tell me "You look great in that dress", but the woman came right up to me and went straight to my face. I didn't know how to respond because it has never happened before, and of course I had to make fun at myself because it felt a little awkward.
You recently wrote a one-woman play about your mother's life story. What did you learn most from your mother?
My mum taught me so much. I'm very influenced by her. When kids say, "Oh gosh, I sound like my mum and I don't want to", I know that I sound like my mum. She taught me The School of Life, which I think is the most important school you should attend as a teacher. She also taught me how to be fiercely independent and to be able to laugh and make fun of yourself.
Poetry is something you hold dear to your heart. How does such an outlet give you the voice?
Can I tell you a secret? I love poetry, but film is my number one passion. Poetry has played such a big part in my life. I loved writing as a kid and it kind of went away and came back. It has allowed me a platform to express stories that I didn't think I'd be able to express on stage and it's definitely a creative outlet for me. There are two American poets who I think are absolutely phenomenal: Andrea Gibson and Denise Jolly. They have talked about experiences in their poetry that stand out because they're so raw and real, and they take risks.
You work with a lot of youths. Have you noticed how pop culture has played a role in their perceptions of beauty?
In Tina Fey's book, Bossypants, there's a whole section on how we're expected to look like — have J-Lo's butt and so and so's lips and so and so's legs and all of that. I think that there are definitely good things because people are speaking up more. I know this because my students always talk about those negative stuff. But I think that there are good things in pop culture, but we need to be sitting around a table talking about it. If you just leave it on the Internet, it just stays there, you never talk about it and it's not going to go anywhere or do anything.
The TV host and former beauty editor has hosted travel shows such as Exotic Escapades and Luxe Asia, while her face and voice have lent themselves to a campaign for Lancôme that wants you to love your age. The Mumbai-born and Singapore-raised personality even goes private in her public life — her Instagram page is laced with intimate perspectives.
You were a beauty editor at Elle magazine from 1999 to 2002. Back then, what was the voice that you intended to put out, and how did you dictate what looked good?
I saw it as my role to empower women, so I never dictated anything. I never said "You must" or "You should", and I immediately had a strong reaction to any press release that said "This will make your life better", or "You're not good enough, and this is going to make it better". Because this is bullshit. I had no idea how I was even going to be this beauty editor because I didn't believe in most of the things. Early on, I started writing in a way that was more empowering — whether it was a red lipstick or a whitening lotion. I didn't follow the same story ideal that everybody else was following.
Because I had a lot of this perfectionism when I was young, I think inside, there was always a rebel. To stand in your own skin, hair and beauty is the most important thing a woman or man can do for themselves. Your solid base is that you always accept yourself. As a beauty editor, I always accepted myself, I didn't care what products came in. I met The Body Shop's Anita Roddick in my first year when I was struggling. She said to me, "It's just fun. Have fun with it. When it's no longer fun, stop doing it." She was a great influence on me because she had fun, but she also managed to always have a message for everyone: That beauty was for everyone, and if you didn't want it, that was cool too.
I understand that back then, there were even less brands and products that catered to women who were of a darker skin tone. Has this ever angered or frustrated you?
I guess I've never really felt like a victim. I don't think we need to. If there's no shade for me, I'll make a shade. If some idiotic brand came up with a product that's for this segment of the market, what the hell does it have to do with me? Why is that going to lower my self-esteem? I used to have the shittiest haircuts, because people just didn't know how to cut my hair. When I found the person who could cut my hair, I felt a certain sense of relief — oh my god, finally — but I'm still going to be me. If there isn't a makeup thing for me, I don't give a shit. But if I don't like myself as a result, I care — and I'm not going to let that happen.
"If there's no shade for me, I'll make a shade." — Anita KapoorYou did three seasons of Bare Beauty, a show about ancient beauty secrets for the modern woman. What were your main takeaways from hosting such a show?
I needed to move away from the commercial world of beauty to the non-commercial world. There was a lot of faith and respect given to culture. It made me even more determined not to seek out medication. It helped me to slow down a bit, because old answers actually take longer to work sometimes. It reacquainted me with Singapore.
It's been 16 years since you wrote about beauty. Do you think the commercial landscape has evolved in terms of the inclusivity and diversity of products?
I'm not sure the beauty world has changed as much as people have changed. People are more able to stand on their own two feet and say, "This is me, this is who I am". We need people writing about themselves in a more positive light. Sometimes we've got to get past the pain to the pleasure of who we are. Pain is catharsis, but I also want to read the stories about a woman who's come into her own, loves her brown skin and adores being who she is. I don't think the landscape from the commercial side of things have changed that much.
If you're a theatre buff, you'd have recognised actor and LASALLE graduate Frances Lee in productions such as Pangdemonium's Fat Pig, Tribes and Rent, Checkpoint Theatre's The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco and Normal, and Dick Lee's Beauty World. She's also been nominated for the M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards.
I saw you in your first play out of school in Fat Pig in 2014, where you played an overweight girl, Helen, who dated a guy whose friends didn't approve of. Looking back at it now, what did you learn about yourself from doing such a role?
It was a very complicated process for me because at that point, I was starting to lose weight. I had to wear a fat suit for the show. It was a process of doing a character I had known so well, that I had grown up with, that I had loved very much. With regards to what I learned, I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to be able to live in a character like that on stage and bring the beauty of Helen out.
How have you grown so far in the four years of your professional acting career? Do you approach things the same way?
I always have this thing where I don't ever want the audience to look at this character and see Frances. What is the point of why I'm doing this show? I need to tell a story and this character is the one that's telling the story. Am I telling the story right? What's the best way to tell the story? How can I truly bring this character out through this story at the same time? That's always what I'm trying to achieve through acting.
How did you get involved in Walking In Beauty? This is the first time you'll be performing as yourself, and not behind a character.
After I had lost a bunch of weight, this guy that I was working with at that point made an off-handed comment, "Oh you won't be able to come for the photoshoot, is it? It's okay, I'll just get some giant to replace you". That kind of set me off a bit. I've come so far and I've spent so much time running away from being overweight, and I still can't get away from it.
After that, I needed to do some reflection because it meant nothing to him, but everything to me. I'm happy with where I am so why would I allow somebody else to not let me be happy or to tell me otherwise? I just wanted to embrace the fact that no matter where you are, no matter how far you go or no matter how much weight you lose or put on, there's always somebody who's going to not see and understand it. It's not their fault and it's not your fault either. It's not anybody's responsibility to make you feel good about yourself. Nor is it my responsibility to just not be so sensitive when it comes to these things. I'm allowed to be offended and I'm allowed to be upset. I put a post on Facebook about this journey that I've been on and how hard but important it is. Petrina saw it and told me that she's doing this show. I said, "Sign me up!"
Are you nervous about putting your real self out there?
I'm nervous, as usual, because when you're yourself, there are so many parts of that that people don't see. So, you have to pick a part. People always only get to see one side of you so it's about which side is important to this story that Petrina is trying to tell through us.
Walking In Beauty is running from 25 to 27 January, 8pm at Esplanade Recital Studio. Book tickets.
Walking In Beauty is part of the M1 Fringe Festival 2018.