I wanted to feel like myself on my wedding day

I wanted to feel like myself on my wedding day

March 29, 2021

My experience with South Asian bridal makeup 

By Naina Chhiber, Contributor 

It’s no surprise to those of us in the South Asian community or those who have attended a South Asian wedding, that bridal makeup reaches a whole new level. While it is the day when a woman can embrace her chance to ‘feel like a princess’ with all eyes and cameras on her, it is also a day with symbolism steeped in cultural expectations. The bride is transformed overnight — if not, over a longer period of time — with some toxic elements of our South Asian culture also encouraging pre-wedding weight loss. Although South Asian women are often introduced to makeup with a ‘less is more’ philosophy, heavier makeup looks are encouraged at weddings. Aside from learning about the expectations and feeling comfortable with this life change, the bride is also pushed to address all her ‘problem areas.’ After all, 

The bride is expected to showcase how her features can be molded to fit into what is deemed ‘photogenic.’

I remember starting the process of finding my wedding makeup artists. 

While my journey was not traditional, there were some elements that stood out to me. I went down a rabbit hole of Instagram tagged accounts to find an artist who had not taken their creative license to the next level — by transforming the bride into looking like someone she was not. As someone who enjoyed makeup and beauty with an arms length distance, I was warned that as the bride, I had to wear significant amounts of makeup. When I floated the idea of doing my own makeup to my friends, the response was a unanimous, “No, don’t do that!”

Naina Chhiber wearing henna
photo credit: Naina Chhiber

After hearing this response too many times, I realized that I was just out of touch with the wedding world back home, and I decided to listen to the advice of my girlfriends. My mother in India and my mother-in-law in Turkey were going to each pick the final MUA after in-person meetings while I was still in the U.S., but I had to shortlist options based on what I was finding on social media. Both mothers were just as confused as I was, as their generation didn’t experience the creativity of makeup the same way we do, focusing on makeup as an enhancer and not a transformer. I came up with a list of artists who seemed to have the right balance of what I was looking for and had experience working with distant brides, all through a quick glance of their Instagram pages and some confirmations of prices. 

While I respect bridal makeup and beauty as a creative industry, the rabbit hole I went down showed me some elements that were pandering to Eurocentric beauty standards and perpetuating problematic parts of our culture. 

Why is there a push to create alternative versions of the brides instead of empowering them to feel comfortable in their own skin?

Skin Whitening

On top of the list of things that some bridal artists take liberty with is the lightning of the bride’s face through use of foundations, concealers, and baking techniques. It’s common knowledge that photos come out better when light bounces off the object of focus correctly; however,

The notion that your natural skin color is not going to give you naturally beautiful photos is preposterous. 

The shocking part was when I saw artists extending the lighter shade of skin to other exposed parts of the bride, whether it was her neck, chest, or even her arms. From the comments on each picture, it was evident that compliments were flooding in, and no one was straying toward the elephant in the room: Wait, why have you made her look like someone else? It was sad to see how many young women may have ended up asking for this look, because that is what they had come to envision as the bridal makeup they wanted, perhaps perpetuated further by social media. I couldn’t help but think of the grooms as well, who have also come to expect a certain look for their bride, one who had to fit a culturally acceptable definition of Eurocentric beauty associated with lighter skin.

Faux Enhancements 

The sudden growth in faux enhancements that can be put on and taken off easily with little investment or long-term damage has made achieving certain beauty adjustments momentary. Whether it is faux lashes, nails, or hair, this is yet another way that makeup has made certain Eurocentric and other trendy looks accessible. Every culture and heritage has its own strengths, and South Asian cultures have many that the world has tried to appropriate before we embraced it in our own way. Our naturally thicker brows and lashes make me wonder why people insist on using faux lashes that transform our eyes. Similarly, most of us spend so much time in puberty struggling with bushy, unruly hair. What suddenly changes on our wedding day? For me, personally, I decided to stay away from faux lashes after my wedding, partly because I have to do a double-take whenever I look at my wedding pictures. Those eyes didn’t look like mine, let alone feel like mine.

Red Lipstick

Bollywood has crafted very niche images of what a villainous female character looks like and what the girl-next-door looks like. Deep shades of red and brown, thick eye makeup and more experimental colors represent the vamp, while the girl-next-door wears little-to-no makeup, always in shades of pink and peach that are meant to blend into her skin.

South Asian bride wearing red and gold
photo of a South Asian bride by Dollar Gill

Why should creativity be associated with what is considered good or bad? And why does none of that matter when it comes to a wedding day? As a bride who wasn’t well-versed in what her perfect shade was for her lips, I kept telling the MUA that I will go for a pink lip. I couldn’t help but make the connection to the awful stereotypes of how red would signify that I was trying too hard. 

I grew up hearing these tropes about what wearing certain makeup said about you as a woman in our society. 

In this case, I was happy that the MUA pushed me out of my comfort zone and out of these stereotypes, even though the argument was more about what would look good in photos and what wouldn’t. I finally settled for a pink-nude that had just the acceptable amount of a darker shade so my lips would ‘pop’ just enough. 

Beauty remains in the eyes of the beholder, and while Bollywood’s version of a vamp is still someone who is beautiful, the fact that we associate certain makeup, colors and styles with a certain moral character is inherently problematic. In certain homes, the bride is still expected to dress up and wear as much makeup as she wore on her wedding day for the first few months of her marriage, during her honeymoon, and newlywed phase. Oftentimes, South Asian cultural expectations tied to marriage begin with this idea of transforming women into completely different characters for their weddings and continue to expect women to play the roles of the perfect wife, daughter-in-law, and mother.

While my experiences with bridal makeup was brief, I am not totally turned off by the industry. 

The artists I worked with were respectful of my wishes but still had experience that I relied on to make the final decisions of what would look good. Perhaps a more intimate relationship with the artists would have prevented some of my disappointment, and I hope young girls turn to friends, family, and artists who have done their makeup before their ‘Big Day.’ I still wish I had done my own makeup, because I wish I saw myself in the so-called highly photogenic memories. I wish I had not tried so hard to hide some of my flaws. I feel lucky that I was given enough confidence from friends and family who understood how torn I felt about how I looked on those days. I may not have felt as beautiful as I thought I would, but that was because I didn’t feel like myself and from being told that I shouldn’t feel like myself. 

To me, the ultimate goal of beauty is to feel comfortable in being who you are.

And being able to express that in whatever way you want. I wish ‘feeling like a princess’ was tied less to all the extra things you have to do — hide who you truly are — and more to do with how you deserve to be treated regardless of what you look like. It’s heartening to see a shift in the industry to more natural looks and less skin-whitening, as more diverse shades become available and as we continue to embrace our natural South Asian features. More and more brides are opting out of the stereotypes while still giving space for creativity in the bridal makeup industry, creating just the balance we need. There is still much more to do to empower South Asian women to look more like their natural selves —and makeup seems like an easy first step. 

About — Naina Chhiber (she/her) is a consumer insights and marketing strategist in the beauty industry. Originally from New Delhi, she grew up in the Seychelles and came to the U.S. to attend college at a small liberal arts school in Iowa. As a history major, she loves exploring all kinds of stories and psychologies that form part of South Asian history from volunteering at the 1947 Partition Archive to being an advocate for the multiethnic consumer in her organization. She loves to travel, learn new languages, read, take care of her plants, cook and drink copious amounts of chai from her home in NYC.

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