Beauty is Only Skin Deep by Shankari Chandran

Beauty is Only Skin Deep by Shankari Chandran

My name is Shankari Nadanachandran, and I am a lawyer, a writer, and a mother of four. I am 47 years old. My body has grown older as it’s supposed to.


I am heavier and slower, and my skin is more worn. My hair is thinning and greying faster. My hips are chunkier than I’d like, and my breasts are even smaller than they used to be. After four pregnancies the flesh around my stomach hangs over my waist.


Once a week, my youngest child Siddharth, aged 11, likes to sleep with me. He hooks his hand into the waist of my pyjama trousers and in his sleep, he plays with my generous tummy fat, until it soothes him to sleep.


My toes are extremely long, and they look just like my Appamma’s feet. She’s been dead for 21 years but elderly women who once knew her will look at my feet at the temple and they will stop me to inspect my feet further, and then remark loudly how these are the feet of Kamaleswari Kathiraveilpillai. When people talk about her, they say “she was a very strong and generous lady with unusually long toes.”


When I gave birth to my first child, a daughter called Ellora, during childbirth my body tore open, and it needed to be sewed back together. I lay on a hospital bed, with my legs in stirrups, and a young male doctor happily stitched my flesh together, whilst chatting and flirting with a young midwife. As I lay there, I thought – what is my relationship with my body?


By that point, my body and I had travelled together for some 30 years, and on that hospital bed, with a baby girl in a crib next to me, a girl who would inherit the impossible expectations of the world about female beauty, I wondered what my body was to me, and I did not care what it meant to others. I had an insight that my self, was not even remotely my body or my face.


In the 18 years since I had my first child, my body has changed shape with three more pregnancies. I’ve had a pregnancy and miscarried, I’ve struggled to conceive and struggled to breastfeed. Both these experiences made me feel like a failure as a woman. I have felt both very connected to my physical self and very disconnected from my physical self. What beauty I had in my youth has faded fast, but my body has served me – it has enabled me to serve my family and my community, to give love and create relationships. I value my body more deeply and am more grateful to it now than I ever was before.


Somewhere along the way, I made two decisions:


The first decision is that in conversations about female physical beauty, I try very hard to change the conversation. Because beauty is only skin deep, and language and words are very powerful. I am a lawyer and a writer, and in both my careers, words are everything.


I try extremely hard to choose my words carefully and to use my words carefully. I try very hard not to tell my daughter that she is pretty. But of course, she is my daughter, and as you know, even the crow finds its chicks golden.


I find everything about that child, my child, from how she looks to how she laughs to the things she says to everything she does and everything she is inside, beautiful. I find her utterly beguiling because she’s mine. But still, I try very hard not to talk about the “quality” of her face and her body.


I am the same with my three sons – I try to use the language of strength and health rather than the language of beauty in relation to anyone’s face and body. I talk about my own mind, my character, my emotions, my actions and my behaviours, because I want my sons to value my mind, my character, my emotions, my actions and my behaviours – because it is in my home that they will learn to value women correctly so that when they go outside of my home and create their own, with a partner (female or male), that they will value other people correctly.


You are all women. so, you know, the pressure on women to be physically beautiful is immense and very specific to our gender – the concept of female beauty was, to my mind, designed by men, and it has been internalised and perpetuated by men and women. We have all become complicit in its importance and prioritisation.


It is intended to reduce us to our faces and our bodies, to the skin we came in. To the relative, temporary, and subjective beauty of our younger and changing selves.


It is intended to reduce us and disconnect us from our true self, so that power can be asserted over us and our own power and value, that comes from within, that comes from underneath and beyond our skin, can be diminished by others.


Female beauty is a commodity – it is defined and evaluated, controlled, and traded by a market. the concept of female beauty is forced on us by society and amped up by social media, by Instagram likes and curated Facebook profiles, by filters and photoshop tricks that reduce the so-called “flaws” producing an artificial notion of beauty that is as skin deep as it is crushing for those that do not measure up. So, in conversations about female physical beauty, I try very hard to change the conversation.


The second decision I made is that I would try to redefine beauty for myself. You’ll remember I said earlier that words are everything. My gift to myself is that almost every day, I sit down at a computer, and I write words.


This journey of writing initially began as a seeking of beauty – a making up of beautiful stories about real beauty. About the value of culture and religion, the importance of family and community, about relationships and love, about home and homeland.


In the last ten years I’ve written and published three novels. They are stories about Tamil women set partly in our ancestral home of Sri Lanka and partly in our new home of Australia. My protagonists are powerful women who claim their lives and destiny, who survive adversity, war and migration; women who defend their children and assert their independence and agency.


I started writing ten years ago in order to seek the real beauty of Tamil women and to attempt to capture that beauty with words and stories.


What happened instead, was something far more transformational. Writing is my prayer and my meditation. I have terrible concentration; I cannot meditate well and I do not pray often. But I write almost every day. I write and in doing so, I feel deeply connected to something inside me.


Through writing, I feel deeply connected to myself – not my body, not my face, not my skin, not my life, not the years behind me or the years ahead of me – but connected instead to something formless and timeless. Something without physicality and without age. It connects me to something that has no muscle or bone or skin. It goes deeper than all of that.


Writing connects me to something that is powerful, and present, something that I don’t think I have the right words to describe. Writing, like prayer and meditation, connects me to something so pure and strengthening, that I know it must be divine.


I tried to define beauty through words and stories, and instead words and stories help me go beyond my skin, words help me connect with God, with the beauty that is inside me and inside all of you, the beauty within that connects all of us to each other.