Glamour undone

With a case in consumer court, a high-end beauty clinic is in the spotlight for irreversible damage caused to the eyesight, psyche and future of a young girl 
Shaweta Anand Delhi

For those of us who have studied Biology in school and dissected frogs in the laboratory, the following visual analogy might help. Preeti (name changed) had to lie face down on a bench, arms and feet spread out, so that the doctor could perform lumbar (spinal) puncture - a painful procedure involving surgical removal of excessive fluid from the spine to relieve the high fluid pressure that was blurring her vision. She screamed in pain but the operation was the only way to save her from going completely blind, thanks to a drug reaction.

In this procedure, a needle was used to extract a maximum of 25ml fluid to relieve her bulged out eye so that it could see better, and to treat severe headaches. This was the last resort after every other medical treatment to diagnose, treat or suppress her intense, intolerable pain had failed.

As was finally diagnosed by the neurophysician treating Preeti, the high fluid pressure was caused by a reaction to the minocycline drug prescribed to her at the high-end Kaya Skin Clinic for treatment of acne, rendering her 80 per cent blind at that time. Sadly, instead of stopping her from having more tablets, clinic staffers ensured she continued having them "to complete the medicine course".

Preeti underwent the spinal tap once and then another procedure - optic nerve fenestration - to save her failing eyesight, but is still left with permanent loss of peripheral (sideways) vision with blurry vision in one eye. She has acquired a hypo-allergic face skin that gets purple and blotchy under the sun, and so she will always have to use a special sunscreen or avoid sun exposure altogether.

It all started when Preeti complained of mild acne as an adolescent, which is a common complaint at that age. Impressed by advertisements, she wanted her pimples to be removed cosmetically and immediately. She could have also chosen a simple, healthy and balanced diet; but that perhaps would have taken much longer to work, compared to the quick-fix options offered by seductive, often brazenly unethical, ads.

"Since the time we contacted the Noida branch of Kaya Skin Clinic for treatment, our daughter has been traumatised. She has not stopped going to hospitals for one reason or another because of the reaction to the medicine they prescribed her," says  her father, on condition of anonymity.

Among other things, Preeti was prescribed minox/minocycline 100 mg tablet daily, without any warning about probable side-effects that are well-established in medical literature. The consent form mentioned nothing to that effect either.

When contacted, Kaya representatives did not respond to this reporter's queries about the issue.

"Despite absence of proper legislation, the one thing that beauty clinics shouldn't be allowed to get away with is malpractice like this," says Dr Shehla Agarwal, consultant skin specialist, Mehak Skin Clinic, Delhi, who has hands-on experience of dealing with adolescents, anxious with skin problems. 

"The consumer has to be more vigilant and should not get swayed by big media advertisements. They should ensure that people they go to for beauty treatment have the right qualification and are registered under the Medical Council Act," says Dr Shishu Bhushan Singh, a cosmetic surgeon at Dr Rekha Suman's Laser Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Clinic in Delhi.

Not only that, every clinic should maintain proper documentation of treatment they are giving. They should provide consumers with elaborate consent forms that clearly spell out the side-effects of medicines prescribed by their qualified doctors.

Doctors argue that people should understand how 'selling beauty' is big business because establishing and running such clinics in cities is not an easy job. Hence, demanding full information about the products and services they offer is the consumer's prerogative. Plus, none of the practitioners can claim to have magic wands for quick, short-cut, yet healthy treatments, as is misleadingly claimed in ads promoting beauty products and services endorsed by celebrities.

"Inexperienced medical graduates (fresh degree holders) should not be allowed to deal with patients in beauty clinics as the knowledge required to monitor the side-effects of medicines comes only with time," argues Dr Agarwal. "In many such clinics, there is this trend of different people dealing with the same patient each time s/he visits the clinic, thus breaking continuity in effective monitoring of the treatment."

"Yes, provision of services should be done ethically. The service provider should have full knowledge of the treatment s/he is giving. Another important factor is the quality of chemical products used during beauty treatments to avoid such chemical reactions. Today, every product in the market has a cheaper duplicate, from milk to garam masala. So when anyone goes for beauty treatment, s/he should also enquire about the quality of products used because beauty clinics commonly don't use original, good quality products so as to maximise their profit," says Karan, a senior make-up artist working with the Hindi film industry.

"Whatever the legislative weaknesses with regard to the beauty and cosmetic industry in our country, the fact remains that due to constant bombardment of the so-called ideal beauty images, especially targeting women, they have developed an inferiority complex and deep-seated insecurities about who they are and how they look," says Dr Rippon Sippy, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist. "I mean what is wrong with having acne sometimes? If you let it be, it goes away on its own."

In the contemporary anorexia-driven beauty business in metros and urban India, there is a constant comparison between bodily 'imperfections' vis-à-vis the artificial perfection of models and celebrities. Secretly or openly, the desire to possess a perfect skin, body, features, has been stimulated. Even youngsters, especially girls in their teens, face immense peer pressure, and suffer deep anxieties and insecurities. Like perhaps Preeti did.

Given that a section of women has more money to spare - it empowers but also creates an ironic decrease in self-worth - it is not surprising that many use products and services to alter their looks, points out Jessy K Philip, a sociology teacher at Delhi University. "In cities, fitting the beauty stereotype is something women are more obsessed with than in a village in Kerala, for instance, where women are also valued as workers."

As Naomi Wolf suggests in her book The Beauty Myth, why does this stereotypical notion of beauty - light coloured, fair, flawless, acne-less, hairless, smooth, young, tight skin and an hour-glass anorexic, almost famished, body shape - exclude women's inner qualities, integrity, resilience, achievements and talents? Why are educated, working women expected to conform to the mythical, antiseptic, market-driven, commercial body image, as if their acquired knowledge and professional skills are not enough?

"In my profession, if your face is not acne-free and your body weighs more than a prescribed standard, you'll be soon on your way out. This does cause stress, but it is part of our job to appear that way," says former air hostess Sanjam Jasuja.

Producer-anchor of a TV channel, Kajal Sharma, feels that for someone who appears on the TV screen every day, it becomes mandatory to constantly work towards a fair, smooth skin, wear make-up, have hair of a certain length, flaunt a certain kind of figure and look 'beautiful'. Just being intelligent and efficient is not enough.

Altering one's looks for 'job security' is one aspect of the problem women face, but changing one's appearance to feel valued as a person in relationships seems far more depressing. "One of the reasons why my marriage didn't work out was because I couldn't live up to the beauty norms prescribed in Punjabi families, which is different from what we learnt in Marathi culture. I remember growing up comfortably, like a tomboy, but today I use every product I must to make me look and feel feminine, and worthy of love," says Shruti (name changed), a JNU student in Delhi.

"I dress up conservatively and don't wear as much make-up in Delhi as I do when I am at home. This is because with people from the northeast, other stereotypes are associated. If we wear bright lipstick, we are thought of as women who are easily available. So then, this unfriendly city decides how beautiful I can look or how comfortable I can feel while I live here," says another student from JNU.

Celebrated feminist author-filmmaker Jean Kilbourne brings out similar, deeper concerns in her documentary Still Killing Us Softly, which is about beauty images that media propagates through ads. She says that ads sell not just products, but values, images and concepts such as love, sexuality and normalcy, defining who we should continuously aspire to be. Or else, you can feel left behind, incomplete, imperfect and guilty.

So, be it luxury creams or products to prevent aging, remove pregnancy marks, tighten the cleavage, soothe eyebrows, lighten skin colour and increase lip volume, or treatments for acne removal, facial wrinkles (botox) or body hair removal (waxing or laser), removal of 'ugly' fat (liposuction), breast augmentation, hair spa and so on: everything seems legitimate. However, the bitter realism might be different. "I doubt if women are dying to have body-altering treatments as most procedures are not physically comfortable, some involve painful sittings in beauty clinics with medical risks, some require multiple visits and cost a lot of money. Who would want to go through so much inconvenience unless there's some nagging compulsion inside," says Philip.

Uncannily, the UK has reported several cases of women who want 'vagina-cosmetic surgery' because their partners prefer younger-looking vaginas, similar to those advertised in adult magazines and films. This suggests the level of 'self-hate' and 'deep insecurity' women nurture under the guise of being successful, beautiful, rich and happy, argues Wolf.

In her film, Kilbourne also explains the stereotyped images of the 'perfect male'. In the Indian context, celebrities like Shahrukh Khan, Shahid Kapoor, John Abraham and cricketer MS Dhoni have endorsed fairness cream brands for men. In this racist worldview, to be 'fair' is to be handsome, successful and an achiever, with women chasing you. 

The crux is that the concept of 'ideal beauty' is fake, fraudulent and false. It is driven by crass commerce with beauty clinics and products claiming to do the 'magical' transformation of the 'ugly' into the 'beautiful'.  But when a silly acne-treatment fails and turns into infinite physical and emotional trauma, altering one's life into an abyss of despair, pain and tragedy (like that of Preeti), then it's time for a serious re-think.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2011