What Kajal Means to South Asian Women

Beauty practices all around the world have blossomed from historical and cultural traditions. And for Indian beauty in specific, it's all about celebrating the eyes.

For centuries, kajal — otherwise commonly referred to as kohl eyeliner — has been used in Indian makeup, and is the go-to product for women in the South Asian community.

As I was growing up, wearing kajal just seemed like a requirement as an Indian girl — I never thought twice about it. I even remember seeing my mom gracefully rubbing a black stick on her eyes everyday right before work and I would just think, "Ooh, pretty." Soon after, I started wearing it myself.

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Kajal has become so ingrained in South Asian culture that it can be considered essential. "It's such a fundamental thing," my friend Apoorva Saxena, a certified kajal enthusiast, shares. She wears kajal daily.

That said, it shouldn't come as a shock that all across India, dressing up for any type of special occasion requires lining your eyes with kohl. And formal makeup styles could never be fully complete without it.

For Apoorva, wearing kajal is a different experience when she goes back to visit India, given its ancestral roots, but it's still essential in her daily beauty regimen while she's overseas.

My mother doesn't even dare to wipe the dripping liner from her teary eyes while chopping onions. My dad frequently jokes, "I don't think I've ever seen Mom without kajal on." For her, wearing kajal has become ingrained in her morning routine.

The point of wearing kajal is to exaggerate natural features, rather than changing or hiding them. And one of the best parts is that it can be used to brighten all shapes and sizes of eyes, regardless of color.

"Everything can be portrayed well with the eyes," explains my mom. "Eyes for Indian women are one of their prized features." She goes on to explain that the eyes and expression are crucial in understanding kajal's heritage in Indian culture.

The darkness of the kajal was historically meant to scare off anyone peering at you with an evil eye. And wives didn't always have the right to free speech, so they used their eyes to communicate with each other.

Religious figures are decorated with kajal, one quite notably named Kali Ma or Dark Mother. There are even poems, songs, and movies have been devoted to illustrating Indian women with bold, beautiful eyes.

The classical Indian dance Bharatnayam is another influence for the role of kohl eyeliner in South Asian beauty.

Bharatnatyam relies on drama to fluidly express the full range of human emotions. And even at the age of five, I was expected to deliberately douse my eyes with kajal to draw attention to my dramatic expressions as I pranced around the stage.

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While my friend Keerthana Sharath says that "in the west, a lot of people consider wearing a lot of eyeliner as emo," she enjoys experimenting with kajal when she's outside of India. But she still will lean into the idea of an emo look, while also knowing that wearing lots of eyeliner is a statement of elegance in Indian culture.

"A lot of times [when] I wear kajal, I'm feeling particularly Indian in general, to remind myself of home or even sometimes go for the aesthetic of the outfit I'm wearing," Keerthana tells me.

Though it's just one stick, kajal can be used in all sorts of ways to accentuate the eyes.

If you want to go for a more natural look, simply decrease your finger pressure. If you need to stand out, darken it up on the top and bottom. It even comes in handy when you don't have the motivation to achieve the perfect liquid eyeliner.

For a more non-traditional look, you can skip the waterline and focus on enhancing the corners of your eyes, or line the top. You can also smudge the kajal for a smoky touch, which is one of Keerthana's exciting suggestions.

While kajal has deep roots in India, its popularity can be felt globally. Brands like Lakme, Maybelline, and the new Kulfi brand have all come out with a variety of retractable liners, and there are a spectacular assortment of colors, tips, and textures to suit everyone's needs — whether you're Indian or not.

But for a lot of us in the South Asian diaspora, this practice is something we have carried and learned to incorporate into Western society. And we will continue to do so for generations to come.

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