Puja’s mother isn’t too bothered about beauty treatments. In fact, her first attempt at grooming her eyebrows was just before Puja’s wedding last year.
But that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of family beauty secrets. “It skipped a generation,” she says. “Everything I know I learned from my grandmother, who moved to the U.S. from western India about 35 years ago.” Admittedly on the more traditional side, her grandmother’s lessons are heavy on natural remedies, but aunts and cousins keep Puja up to date on current trends whenever she travels east.
My grandma just turned 91. Well, she doesn’t know her exact birth date because record keeping wasn’t all that great at the time. Same thing with my grandfather. When they came from India, they had to have birth certificates and official papers, so they went back to their town and the mayor was like, “Yeah, I remember my parents were friends with your parents, and I think you were born that year there was a lot of rain…” Anyway, she’s over 90, but she’s got most of her teeth, and she has amazing hair and skin.
I know a lot of people think Indians are obsessed with lightening their skin, but that’s kind of an outdated concern, or something that’s lost in translation. They want glowing, dewy skin, but not necessarily lighter. A common Indian beauty treatment is the “face pack”, a face mask made from turmeric, chickpea flour, yogurt, and honey. It helps get that glow. I know that my grandma’s been using it for years, my cousins use it, and I apply it once a week.
Two or three days before a wedding, women in the wedding party also get together to put turmeric paste on the bride, who gets dressed up for the ceremony. Turmeric paste is different from henna. Henna is a dried plant that stains your skin, while turmeric makes your skin softer and evens out your complexion.
I’ve told friends of all skin tones about face packs, and if you can’t find chickpea flour, you can use rice flour. Just mix it with a tiny bit of yogurt and turmeric and add honey, if your skin is dry. Slather it on, wait about 20 minutes, and rub it in to exfoliate as you wash it off. I credit this for my grandmother’s awesome skin, even in her 90s.
She’s also really big into rubbing cucumbers on the backs of her hands. She told me that she learned it from a neighbor in India, and that it helps keep her hands young. If she’s making a salad, she’ll cut off the edges of the cucumber and there she’ll be, rubbing it on her hands at the dining room table. Does it work? I don’t know, I guess she has nice hands for someone who’s 90?
I went to visit my mom today, and she was sitting around with henna in her hair. Most women use a henna paste for one reason or another—some for deep conditioning, some to lighten their hair color, others to cover grays.
But everyone in India puts oil in their hair before they wash it. You warm up a little bit of it and then rub it in, really massaging it hard into your scalp. Mothers and daughters will do it to each other, and so will cousins or sisters. Even though I’m almost 30, I still ask my mom to do it whenever I go home.
You either braid your hair or put it in a bun, leave the oil on overnight, and then wash it the next day. Seriously, it makes hair so soft. Coconut oil has become a “thing” in the U.S. recently, so it’s everywhere. My grandmother was complaining that she used to be able to buy it for $2: “Now it’s $7 because all these people have discovered it!”
Thick eyebrows are very important in India. My grandmother and I never spoke about any body hair other than brows, but pretty much everybody threads them. I don’t know anyone who gets them waxed. Other facial hair, including the upper lip, the side of the face—it’s all threading.
And it’s really easy to do! Being Indian, I had upper lip hair by the time I was nine, so I learned it from my grandmother early. I can’t do my eyebrows because you have to shape them—one wrong move and you’ll take out your arch. I won’t be taking that risk.
There are YouTube tutorials, but you literally need just an 8” or 9” piece of thread, which makes sense. My grandmother was born in India in the ’20s. They didn’t have hot wax, but they had thread in their houses for sewing clothes. It was an economical solution.
My relatives do get their arms and legs waxed, though. Since I live in the U.S., I never do anything to my arms. They think I’m some freak of nature. I remind them that I have really fine arm hair, and they’ll casually say, “Are you sure? We’re going to the beauty parlor, you could get your arms waxed…” When I was about 18, my aunt was like, “You know, the boys aren’t going to like that…” No one is looking at my arms! With a lot of beauty things, women notice them, but I don’t think men even care.
Kajal, the black eyeliner that goes on the bottom waterline, isn’t even considered makeup. When my aunt’s maid comes to do the dishes, she’s wearing kajal. My grandmother still wears it every day. It’s just a normal part of life, like combing your hair. There are even pictures of me as a baby wearing it, and I’ve seen my cousins give their one-year-olds a bath, get them dressed, and then put on the kajal. They prefer to use ayurvedic stuff that’s been working for centuries rather than commercial formulas, so they make it at home. I don’t know what they put in it other than camphor, which is cooling for the eyes.
For events, women get decked out in makeup: full face, bold lips, eyeshadow, eyeliner, the whole nine yards. But for an everyday look, it’s so hot and humid that most people use powder and kajal and leave it at that.
Indian women are not afraid to eat food with fat in it, but portions are much smaller—and being a little chubby isn’t a bad thing.
I was really skinny when I was in my early 20s, and my grandmother would say, “You’re too skinny, no one’s going to marry you!” They think that being curvy or even a little overweight is considered a sign of health. If you’re skinny, you’re too poor to afford food.
But if you gain a few pounds, it’s not something they’ll dance around. A relative you haven’t seen in ages might mention your weight before anything else, and they’ll immediately offer remedies: “As soon as you wake up in the morning, drink some warm water with lemon and honey to help you lose weight.”
Once, my mom put on a few pounds before we visited family. I asked her if it bothered her that random people she hadn’t seen in years were saying she looked fat and giving her advice. She spent most of her life in India and said she didn’t feel upset, because they genuinely think it would be rude to not say something if they care about her. It’s like if you have a cold, and your mom tells you to drink some hot tea. You might want her to mind her own business, but she sees it as her business.
My grandmother does oil pulling, which has also become popular in America. She and my grandfather have been doing it once a day for their entire lives. They just take some coconut oil and swish it around their mouths for four or five minutes, then spit it out. It supposedly keeps your gums and teeth healthy and white. I’m not sure about the white part, but they still have their teeth. I tried it a couple of times, but I’m not a fan. I accidentally kept swallowing the oil.
You know how in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there’s that guy who thinks Windex will cure anything? A lot of Indian people think of turmeric the same way. It’s the miracle drug of India.
If my mom cuts herself while she’s cooking, she’ll run for the turmeric, sprinkle it on the wound, and put a band aid on it. I’m in the medical field, so that horrifies me.
In the winter, they drink milk with turmeric in it. It’s supposed to keep your immune system strong. My grandmother and older relatives down a bunch of the spice and then chug a water—they think it helps with arthritis. Turmeric has been found to reduce inflammation, so I don’t think it’s complete B.S.
Up until very recently, dating was taboo. You only talk about marriage. It’s just in the last 10 or 15 years that my cousins will even mention dating, and even then you don’t introduce a boyfriend to your parents unless you’re ready to get married. If you do, you’ll never hear the end of future wedding plans.
It’s traditionally different for men, of course. But I do have cousins that were raised to think they were equal to men, so it’s been harder for them to accept that they’re equal in every way but courtship. They’re pushing back against it, but even new “dating” sites are called matrimonial websites. Their goal is to find you someone to marry in the very near future. Considering most people still had arranged marriages 20 years ago, finding someone for yourself and dating for a few months before your parents get involved is progress.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.