THE END OF VANITY – Megha Nayar

If you’d told me six months ago that I’d find no use for this pricey underarm exfoliation scrub, I’d have laughed in your face. Because, the wide-eyed girl at the Floréal counter had assured me that I was going to become a loyal user for life, and I generally trust people who have such sincere faces. 

Floréal says that every woman deserves to be able to raise her hand without hesitation. “Put your hands up!” is the catchphrase of their latest campaign, where models flaunt spotless armpits and exhort the rest of womankind to join them. 

Honestly, I never knew my underarms needed polishing. I am the only woman in my department, surrounded by 24 male co-workers. The air-conditioning is always two notches too cold for my comfort. So, I wear a sweater every single day in office. The likelihood of baring my armpits in my workplace is very, very low. 

Nevertheless, when Bambi in the drug store coaxed me to invest in picture-perfect pits, I took the bait. You should have dissuaded me, because now I’m saddled with 30 grams of exorbitant goop I’ve no use for. I work from home these days, and will continue to do so till the rogue microbe is pushed into redundancy by mass vaccination. At this point, freedom seems as far out as Saturn, so I really don’t have the motivation to scrub my armpits (of all things) till they shine bright like diamonds. 

The date of expiry on the tin reads January 2021. Too close. I want to kick myself. Which sensible woman with a soul-sucking job and no trust fund will invest six dollars of her hard-earned money in such paraphernalia?

I wouldn’t be marinating in remorse if this were my only ill-planned acquisition. There are others too – matte lipsticks in five shades, a hair straightening brush, 36-hour foundation, and the most expensive of them all – a charcoal-based clay mask fortified with skin vitamins and infused with the soul of angels. 

At the time of purchase, each one made perfect sense. Floréal says people take you more seriously if you look “worth it”. Apparently, the most successful women are those who never show their true face or colours (literally speaking). You must beat your hair into submission and twist it into a gravity-defying edifice on your head, if you want people to look up to you (not literally speaking). You must also conceal the blinding monstrosity that is acne, and convince everyone that you were “born with it”, even if it means pretending that you wake up with a different lip colour every day – Magnificent Mauve on Mondays, Scarlet Seduction on Saturdays. 

But now, after six months of working out of my ‘home office’ – which comprises a table, a shelf, my sister’s books and some fake houseplants – I know that I’m never going to make the effort to look “worth it” again. The prospect of dressing up seems insurmountable at a time when I have to push myself to even bathe or shave. Computer technology hasn’t yet evolved enough to give away my odour of stale sweat or reveal the Amazon rainforest under my sleeves, so I intend to take full advantage of the opacity that WFH affords. 

At this point, almost every woman I know is in the same figurative boat. We exchange little notes in our Whatsapp groups – “175 days without a bra!”, for example – and giggle merrily at our newfound liberation. It makes me wonder though: what will happen when normalcy returns? Will we dare to step out of our cocoons without slathering on the assorted miracle potions we’ve been talked into buying? Or will our nonchalance crumble and our insecurities triumph, taking us back to the era of pretty-to-please? 

I don’t know. Because after six months of absolute seclusion, it is hard to predict what version of us will emerge on the other side. A part of me hopes we discard vanity and all these pointless unguents. But another part of me firmly believes that the more things change, the more they will remain the same. If people make more money than they need, Floréal will always know exactly what to do to make them part with it – even if it means convincing us that Helen of Troy was known for flawless armpits. 

If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught me though, it is that one must live for and in the moment. Going by that brief, I must quit worrying about the fate of my overpriced accoutrements and revel instead in present-day banality. 

What does the present look like? Today, it is a pair of well-worn pyjamas and mismatched bathroom slippers. This stylish ensemble is accentuated by my unwashed hair and patchy skin. My nails are unvarnished, my mouth smells of garlic. Nothing about my appearance says “worth it” right now – that is, if my worth depended on my appearance anyway. 

The point is, it doesn’t. It never did, and never will. 

The next time I’m in danger of being swindled by Bambi & Co., do me a little favour – make me read this essay, and remind me that underarms will never need a makeover. 

Megha Nayar was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020. She spends half her time teaching French and English. The other half, she devotes to learning Spanish, taking long walks, and pondering the purpose of human existence. Writing is her validation and catharsis. She blogs at meghanayar.tumblr.com and tweets at @meghasnatter.