Zinnia Kumar Reflects On The Real Meaning of Beauty | Verve Magazine
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December 29, 2016

Zinnia Kumar Reflects On The Real Meaning of Beauty

Text by Zinnia Kumar. Photograph by Kay Sukumar

In an exclusive write-up for Verve the scientist and model opens up about her personal battles with social phobia and distorted expectations of women in fashion

I was one of those late bloomers, a tomboy and completely unaware of how I looked. I was used to being called ugly and silly nicknames like Chewbacca and Gollum, mostly by guys. I wasn’t glamorous, I didn’t dress like other girls, always wearing clothes five to six sizes too big. I felt most comfortable in a T-shirt and trackpants. I would look at girls in magazines and think I’d never be like them. I believed in the stereotype that smart girls or ‘nerds’ are not pretty, and I was okay with that.

Before I started modelling I worked as a field ecologist and conservationist in the Australian Outback. I’m not afraid to get down and dirty in remote and rugged environments to track rare and endangered animals. I’ve had some of the most amazing experiences while out there, and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat! At my core I am a wild child. At university I kept on following my passions and for my final year project I decided to study human evolutionary biology, focusing on sexual selection and human attraction.

I’d seen subliminal messages all over Bollywood, Hollywood and TV, telling me that there was no way I could be ‘attractive’. The pretty girls in movies were glamourous, had light hair and skin, wore tight or revealing clothes and were portrayed to be kind of dumb; plus they could usually dance. I was so far from that — I failed dance class and was exceptionally good at math, science and everything else. To add to that, I had no interpersonal skills because I suffered from social anxiety. To make matters worse, intelligent women were always portrayed as extremely plain, or, on the rare occasion, as some kind of anti-men sexual predator; there was no in-between. The whole process was a vicious cycle — and people around me would feed off that and tease me. I felt so inadequate, I thought I must look like an alien and it made me more and more self-conscious, shy and embarrassed.

At 20, in an attempt to get over my social phobia, I forced myself to talk to one random person every day. I slowly started to come out of my shell and eventually experimenting with clothes. It was quite strange for me initially, I wasn’t used to attention. For the first time in my life I was hearing the words ‘pretty’ and ‘Zinnia’ used in the same sentence. “Me? Really!?” I didn’t understand how I could go from being labelled ‘ugly’ to ‘pretty’ simply because of how I now dressed and did my hair. Why were the snobby sales assistants in stores so nice to me all of a sudden? I went from being unaware of what I looked like to constantly being judged on the basis of my appearance. I felt empty, I’d entered a world where it seemed I was one-dimensional and my brain had no value. I felt lost, the divide between beauty and intellect had been created and I didn’t quite fit in either place.

I studied human attraction to try and understand why this was happening, but the deeper I delved the more confused I got. Beauty is nothing more than a perception, an ideal forever changing with time. The only thing consistent about external beauty is that its definition is inconsistent. For example, in one study large lips would be considered highly attractive and in another it was nothing special; it varied based on opinion, circumstance, time and culture. The only beauty that is consistent throughout studies is inner confidence regardless of external appearance. So that was when it occurred to me that ideas of ‘beauty’ are completely engineered and propagated by the media. What is most fascinating is that many of those features are actually not scientifically considered attractive.

The more I got to explore the world around me, the more aware I became of how we are conditioned to think that pretty women are stupid and smart ones are ugly. I’ve met professionals in and outside the fashion industry, both men and women, who simplify their speech and sometimes talk down to me when they hear I’m a model. That is until they find out that I am also a scientist and their whole vibe changes. It makes me wonder why biases about a woman’s profession, appearance and her abilities still exist today and why we stress on beauty so much. I find the phrase ‘beauty with brains’ archaic. I never hear those words being used to describe men.

What is important here is that if society can condition us over decades to think beauty is stupid and intelligence unglamorous, it also has the ability to undo this. We live in an extraordinary time with social media at our fingertips, a tool so powerful we can end stereotypes ourselves. Instead of continuing to divide each other based on one physical attribute or the other, we should be teaching women and girls to feel beautiful and confident in their own skin and be fearless. Women should be regarded wholly, not on one dimension alone.

In this age where we can swipe left or right entirely based on the way someone looks, depth of character and integrity are more important than ever. The world is in desperate need of women who have the courage to stand up and challenge labels about their appearance or intellectual acuity in multiple fields, to say ‘no’ and demand change, to live by example and become empowering role models. We need to breed a culture where we are no longer evaluated on the basis of our appearance, disregarding our essence. This is our time and it’s never too late; be the change you wish to see in the world.

About the author:

Born in Sydney, Zinnia Kumar is a published scientist and fashion model with IMG Worldwide. A researcher in human evolutionary biology, a ‘skin tone liberationist’ and motivational speaker, she will make her Hollywood debut in DC Comics Wonder Woman.

Watch our fashion film with Verve‘s November cover girl Zinnia Kumar, here.

Zinnia Kumar shows you how to master laidback luxe this winter, here.

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