Like every girl, I spent many nights through adolescence leaning into my bedroom mirror, wondering why my body looked nothing like it should.
Why does my belly crease? Why do my arms jiggle? Why am I not fair? Why are there dark patches under my eyes? Why am I taller than boys my age? Do stretch marks ever go away? Will this cellulite stay forever?
“Itni lambi, itni kaali,” a relative casually let slip at a family gathering. “Shaadi kaun karega?” It confirmed that my greatest insecurities were well-founded.
When I was 13, my family took a trip to Goa. Aishwarya Rai was there vacationing with a friend, and we spent an evening with her. I still remember that in blue jeans and a white tank top, she looked like royalty. It baffled me.
I didn’t know much at 15. But I knew I could never look like a Bollywood actress.
Two years and some surprising life decisions later, Sanjay Leela Bhansali cast me in Saawariya.
Despite being on the cusp of actually being a movie star, I didn’t believe I looked the part. I constantly worried that, if asked to dance in a backless choli, rolls of back fat would give me away as an imposter to the industry. Nobody lines up to buy tickets to see cellulite.
So I embarked on a series of unhealthy behaviours. I dieted serially; sometimes South Beach, other times Atkins. Once, in desperation, I tried a diet that had me eating pineapples all day.
I pushed myself too hard at spin classes, did power yoga for hours at a stretch, and developed an unhealthy relationship with food. Some weeks, desperate to drop a couple of kilos, I would simply not eat.
At 18, I went on a date that I thought went well. Later, the boy told our mutual friend that “Sonam is too big”. I didn’t eat for a day.
(Now, thanks to those dumbass teenage decisions, I’m stuck with acidity for life.)
I had assumed that the self-loathing goes away once you’re on billboards at Juhu Beach. I was so wrong. Far from accepting my body once I was making a living as an actress, I was shown new reasons to hate it.
Articles surfaced online, photos zoomed into my arms and thighs, red circles drawn around the slightest hints of a blemish.
When I had a couple of movies out, Shobhaa De wrote a blog post saying that Sonam Kapoor “just doesn’t cut it in the sex appeal stakes”.
People started calling me flat-chested. I’d never been insecure about my C-cup but I got defensive about it on Koffee With Karan.
Eventually, I didn’t even need the tabloids to point out my flaws – I could look at myself on camera monitors and predict what would be criticised. I still remember the frames I hated immediately: the tight silver dress from Bewakoofiyaan, the song with Neil Nitin in Players, the swimsuit and shorts in Aisha, to name a few.
Of course, scrutiny of female bodies isn’t new, or even restricted to celebrities. I mean, raise your hand if you’ve ever been called “healthy” by a relative, or been given unsolicited advice by a friend about how to lose weight.
Raise your hand if you were told to stay out of the sun so you don’t get dark.
Raise your hand if you started hating your body after somebody else told you how.
Here’s what’s gone wrong:
We’ve been taught that women need to be flawless even when our flawlessness is wildly implausible, sexy even when our sexiness is a break from plot. We're sprinting through Jurassic Park in heels, fighting supervillains in strapless corsets, being stranded on deserted islands for days without a hint of stubble. Real female bodies are so taboo that hair-removal-cream ads show hairless legs even before the cream is applied.
The rules of beauty are strict and it’s almost impossible to win. Anushka Sharma has been skinny-shamed, Sonakshi Sinha has been fat-shamed, Katrina Kaif has been fit-shamed. These are women who are and always have been staggeringly beautiful.
But where there’s a broken system, there’s a solution. The problem is in mainstream culture’s rigid definitions of female beauty. The solution, for me, has been in the women I know.
It’s been a decade since I entered the film industry with my awful self-esteem in tow and, thanks to the female support I’ve had throughout, that self-esteem is in a healthier place now.
I’m lucky to have had my friend and makeup artist Namrata Soni, who sees my face from hyperclose quarters and goes out of her way to make me feel good about it. When I whine about my laugh lines or dark circles, she tells me they’re natural and that’s why they’re beautiful. I have a forcep scar on the right side of my face and my lip lifts up on one side (you notice these things when you’re in front of a camera a lot). When I float the idea of getting them fixed, Namrata reminds me that they make me me.
Instead of letting me interpret my body’s quirks and changes as “flaws”, Namrata helps me celebrate them as unique markers of unique beauty.
I’m lucky to have had my sister and sometimes stylist Rhea, the hottest girl I know. When I’m beating myself up for being too lanky, for not having her curves, she shuts me down and insists I look good in everything she makes me wear. When I start complaining that I don’t look like I did when I was 21, Rhea tells me I look better now.
All the women who’ve championed me have taught me that kind, genuine support can change your friend’s or sister’s or colleague’s life.
(Think of how much better your day is when it starts with a compliment. Think of how easy it is to give that to someone else. Do it every chance you get.)
Today, at 31, I like my body because it’s healthy. I’m done celebrating thinness or flawlessness. I’ve embraced a fit lifestyle, clean eating, and the pursuit of waking up every morning feeling energised. There’s beauty in good health.
The ball is in the media’s court to celebrate fit bodies rather than thin ones, and to know the difference.
I know now that there’s nothing wrong with stretch marks, cellulite, or scars. They’re markers of our growth. There’s beauty in their realness.
And, for the record, I’m not writing this to discourage the pursuit of glamour. Anyone who knows me knows I love feeling pretty – fashion can lend power, makeup can become motivation, a fun accessory can become your source of confidence for the day.
But pursue prettiness for yourself, by your own definitions – not to meet culturally preset notions of “flawless”.
Because flawlessness is a dangerous, high-budget myth, and it’s time we shattered it.
So, for every teen girl leaning into her bedroom mirror, wondering why she doesn’t look like a celebrity: Please know that nobody wakes up like this. Not me. Not any other actress. (Not even Beyoncé. I swear.)
Here’s the real deal: Before each public appearance, I spend 90 minutes in a makeup chair. Three to six people work on my hair and makeup, while a professional touches up my nails. My eyebrows are tweezed and threaded every week. There’s concealer on parts of my body that I could never have predicted would need concealing.
I’m up at 6am every day and at the gym by 7:30. I exercise for 90 minutes and, some evenings, again before bed. It’s someone’s full-time job to decide what I can and cannot eat. There are more ingredients in my face packs than in my food. There’s a team dedicated to finding me flattering outfits.
After all that, if I’m still not “flawless” enough, there are generous servings of Photoshop.
I’ve said it before, and I will keep saying it: It takes an army, a lot of money, and an incredible amount of time to make a female celebrity look the way she does when you see her. It isn’t realistic, and it isn’t anything to aspire to.
Aspire, instead, to giving your body as much sleep as it needs. Aspire to finding a form of exercise that’s actually fun for you to do. Aspire to knowing your body and how to live well in it.
Aspire to confidence. Aspire to feeling pretty and carefree and happy, without needing to look any specific way.
And the next time you see a 13-year-old girl gazing wistfully at a blemish-free, shiny-haired Bollywood actress on a magazine cover, bust the myth of flawlessness for her.
Tell her how beautiful she is. Praise her smile or her laugh or her mind or her gait.
Don't let her grow up believing that she's flawed, or that there's anything she's lacking for looking different from a woman on a billboard. Don’t let her hold herself to a standard that’s too high, even for the women on the billboards.
Tell her I definitely didn’t wake up like this. She won’t either. And that’s totally, completely fine.
As told to Rega Jha, by Sonam Kapoor.