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Sabyasachi’s Instagram Post Was Weird, But Make-Up Lovers Face Worse In India

Designer Sabyasachi is not alone in associating make-up with shallow stereotypes about women in India.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

If you’ve grown up in a Bengali household, you’ve at least once come across an uncle, or a distant aunt, a group of neighbours who’ve gathered for a post-Durga Puja lunch, or your parents shaking their heads about women doing ‘chunkaam’ on their faces. It could be a photo of an actress on an entertainment supplement, a news anchor on television or a singer performing at a cultural programme, a woman with a discernible amount of make-up on her face would often lead people to compare her face to whitewashed walls — a rough translation for the word chunkaam.

If you’re a Gujarati girl, you can’t make it out of the door without someone abandoning all their work just to remark at you, “modhu chopdine kya jaay chhe?” (where are you off to, with that plastered face?) In Hindi, it doesn’t really matter if you’re simply wearing lip gloss or have a full face of makeup on, someone will guffaw that you’re looking like a “bhootni” (a female ghost) and it’ll stick.

Truth be told, Sabyasachi’s reading of what being ‘caked’ with make-up meant was hardly surprising if you’ve lived in India, except for the fact that his social media team did not quite anticipate the backlash it received. Because, as stereotypes about make-up continue to thrive somewhat unchecked and unopposed, the chances of being called out, thankfully, are higher in our small social media bubble.

Once this hot-takes cycle dies down, Sabyasachi’s Instagram post would have been satisfactorily criticised and then swiftly forgotten. The stereotype he referred to, however, will continue to stop a teenager from buying that bright red lipstick or your colleague to spend hours thinking how much make-up is ‘too much make-up’ for her first day at a new job. These unspoken sanctions — they are no less than sanctions — are held in place by a network of vigilant family, friends, colleagues, callously written movie characters and confused celebrities.

Ask any woman who has grown up in India, she has probably lost count of the number of times she has had to leave home and then apply a dark lipstick in a cab, auto or a restaurant washroom, once she was at a safe distance away from home. Or worse till, she never got one because all her life she had been told a deep wine, a bright red or a neon pink would only imply she is trying to draw attention, especially of the male kind.

You’ve had that colleague hand you a tissue and benevolently ask you to pat down some of the blush you’ve applied on your cheeks because it seemed too ‘out there’. You’ve probably even had your mum or dad, beaming at you and wonder aloud how you don’t ‘need’ any make-up because you’re just perfect? Or just that blogger you follow, who’ll tell you how to do a muted morning make-up for a work meeting so that it’s not too ‘in your face’.

“You’ve had that colleague hand you a tissue and benevolently ask you to pat down some of the blush you’ve applied on your cheeks because it seemed too ‘out there’.”

You’ve of course sat through Fashion, watching Priyanka Chopra — all dark smokey eyes, bronzed cheekbones and glossy lips — staring at a mirror in disgust, and trying to scrape her make-up away as if it was a symbol of her life being in a huge mess? Just check the lipstick catalogue of your favourite brand, chances are any colour deeper than the shade of milky chai would be named ‘vixen’ or a ‘vamp’ or something similar.

Priyanka Chopra in a scene from Madhur Bhandarkar's 'Fashion'.
Screenshot from Netflix
Priyanka Chopra in a scene from Madhur Bhandarkar's 'Fashion'.

Make-up, never, was about you. It was about literally everybody else, except the person applying it.

The colleagues who wouldn’t take you seriously enough if you wore a pink blush to a meeting, the neighbours who’d wonder what you’re up to just cause you’re wearing a burgundy lipstick or your family who couldn’t fathom why you want your eyes painted blue when they were just fine as they were.

It takes ages for women to learn to be happy with make-up. To wear lipstick because it makes her happy, put that extra dab of highlighter because how badass it makes her feel, or draw an elaborate wing because it’s bloody difficult to get right and feels awesome when it is perfect. Because they are never told that their bodies exist to make them happy, and not make everyone around them uncomfortable.


Numerous celebrities and public figures have condemned make-up in the past. The most renowned example is Alicia Keys, who began the second innings of her public life in 2016 by swearing off makeup entirely, kicking it off by spontaneously shooting the cover for album ‘Here’ with her pores and blemishes in all their glory. But as a woman, she displayed sensitivity to how women’s need to dress and look a certain way stems from a decades-old culture that reduces them to their appearance, in the open “Lenny” letter she penned down to explain her decision to embrace the bare face.

At best, Sabya’s judgement and ire are misplaced, and should be directed towards the system that upholds these beauty standards. A system, strangely enough, he is a part of.

This is hardly the first time Sabyasachi tried to push his own myopic ideas of womanhood down the throats of the millions of women who look up to him. At a conference held at Harvard last year, he implied that women who can’t drape a saree are uncultured and should be ashamed. His response to the widespread backlash that received, was another three-page non-apology explaining how he gets emotional about the reducing incidences of women in sarees in everyday life, which ended on this defiant, arrogant note : “Tomorrow, you can shame me further, make provocative headlines (out of this statement), or choose to blacklist us as consumers. It is absolutely fair and understandable because it is your prerogative. For us, for better or for worse, it will be business as usual.”

What is even more annoying is that Sabyasachi the brand and Sabya the band are crooning about two antithetical ideas of womanhood, and show no consistencies.

Even as his International Women’s Day campaign depicted a curvy, dark-skinned model sporting his lehenga, the women they work with on the remaining 364 days are all tall, thin and quietly toeing fashion magazine standards. Does Sabyasachi, arguably India’s most popular fashion label, empower all women irrespective of their body types by hiring them as models for his photoshoots and videos? There’s no evidence of that yet, anywhere.

He speaks of self-confidence that transcends appearance, but ironically strips you of your dignity and pride if you partake in something as harmless and fun as dressing up.

Sabya has been one of the title sponsors of Good Times’ reality show Band Baaja Bride, where they push brides-to-be into a car wash of “beauty” treatments and literal surgical procedures sometimes, season after season, to perpetuate the idea that looking like supermodels on one’s wedding day ranks above all else. You know, point out a girl’s teeth needs smoothening or her hair is limp, all because her final reward will be getting married in a Sabya lehenga. And irony of ironies, he has his own line of jewellery and collaborated with a brand to lend his name to a collection of make-up.

Sabyasachi models evidently have on layers of “nude” cosmetics with the end goal of looking “natural,” but to him, women expending effort to put on makeup that actually shows, is a cry for help.

Sabyasachi isn’t by any means the first brand to co-opt a cause for a day, a week or a month. Pull up the workforce diversity data of the all the companies who were leaking rainbows from every crevice of their operations to “celebrate” Pride Month that just went by to confirm how brands’ alibis never check out.

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Rubina A. Khan via Getty Images

If he is serious about making the aspirational Sabya Bride seem even a little more within reach - putting his money where his mouth is of the essence. Using more people with bodies and appearances that resemble their average customer as models round the year instead, like the underwear brand Circus does, would seem like a less hollow attempt at introducing the idea of “real beauty” that Sabya claims to feel so strongly about.

What would be equally refreshing, is decrying the concept of makeup through the prism of its history and evolution, educating women about its relevance in today’s times, and reassuring them that they’d be worthy of love and success no matter what they choose. Razor brand Billie pulled off this balancing act with respect to body hair positivity, with utmost nuance - showcasing women who keep their fuzzies intact alongside women who like going bald eagle, with the message, “Hair. Everyone has it. Even women. The world pretends it doesn’t exist. But it’s there. We checked. So, however, wherever, IF ever, you want to shave, we’ll be here.”

Illustrating the versatility and timelessness of saree through his work would be a much more effective way to profess his love for the nine yards, rather than compelling women to bow down to it, especially as a way to prove their loyalty to their roots - which is something no external entity gets to certify anyway.


It’s necessary to call out celebrities and bust their lies, yes. But it’s equally important to call out the benevolent censuring of the people around you, sometimes the people you love. Basically, when they descend upon you with their crowdsourced ideas of what make-up implies, try and push back. It’s not always easy, but what has been easy about our lives ever?

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact