Beauty lies…

…in the eyes of the beholder. Then why is it that we judge ourselves by the impossible standards set by the beauty industry all the time? How many of us have been told we’re too fat, too thin, too dark? How many of us have been shamed for wanting that one extra dollop of butter or that extra paratha? How many of us have been asked, “Where do you buy your groceries?” in an attempt to shame us for being us. I have. And I’m sure that at some point, you have too. This should have been a tweetstorm, inspired by this thread by Naomi Barton. But, I somehow felt this deserved a more detailed and larger discussion in the form of a blogpost. So, I am going to take the opportunity to answer some of her questions concerning body image.

1) How old were you when you realised your body was not good enough?

Maybe 8 or 9. Every time my cousin told me that I could be beautiful if only I scrubbed more and became whiter, every time someone called me gundoos or fatty. Every single time. Maybe, just maybe my body wasn’t good enough.

2) What’s the one thing about your body you’ve been wanting to change forever?

Unwanted body hair and height. I wished forever that I could be one of those beautiful women who’d just need to wash their faces and be ready. I wished I didn’t have to subject myself to the torture of having eyebrows tweezed and legs waxed each month. I still sometimes, but can live with it. The second was my height. I wished I weren’t so tall. Being mistaken for a 20-year old when you’re barely 12 isn’t fun.

3) What item of clothing are you forbidden from wearing Cuz ‘it doesn’t suit your body type’?

Anything tight I suppose. I used to shy away from wearing fitted clothes because I always felt I was too fat to carry it off well. Anyway, that’s history now and I’m happier for it.

4) What is the weirdest, most demented thought you’ve had about your body on a Fat Day?

I don’t think I’ve had such thoughts, except for an all-encompassing sadness about being too fat.

5) If you had a girl child and she came to you with that thought, what would you want to tell her?

I’d tell her she’s beautiful. Every single person on the face of this earth is beautiful in their own way. I’d tell her there’s no ideal of beauty, no matter what fairness cream commercials tell you. She needs to believe it. And believe it way sooner that I did.

6) As fucked up as it is, what are the things, on the fat days, that you tell yourself about why you are worthwhile to exist? Your mantra?

This too shall pass. Every time.

7) What do you want to see in the bodies billboards and hoardings and magazines and music videos, to make them look like yours?

I want to see fat bodies, thin ones, dark ones, the ones with stretch marks and cellulite. Every type of body. Every single type.

8) How many of you have stretch marks?

Am I even human if I don’t? I do. Because I’ve gained weight and I’ve lost it. I’ve been through changes, biological and emotional. I’ve binged, I’ve starved. I have stretch marks and happy for it because they tell me I’ve lived.

9) If you have to choices – one where you have the perfect body, and one where you no longer had to give a fuck, which would you pick?

Do you have to ask? The latter. What I wouldn’t give to be able to not give a fuck! I’m trying. I’m getting there. Slowly.

10) Do you think you are beautiful? Why?

I’m beautiful because I’ve lived. So have you. Each one of us is here after having fought our own battles. And that’s what makes us beautiful. I’m also beautiful because I’m happy. For myself and for those who care for me.

On chivalry and assorted things…

Tell me honestly, when was the last time a man had the courtesy to let you pass before going through the door? Or held your chair for you to sit down in a restaurant? Can’t remember? Well, I couldn’t either until I met a friend recently. In an entirely unexpected meeting with a friend, I realised a fundamental truth: men seem to have forgotten to be chivalrous.
Now, I do realise that there are women who consider chivalry a form of chauvinism and at best, do not expect it. But, let me tell you. I’m not one of them. Give me old world charm and chivalry any day to modern-day individualism. As a woman, I enjoy being pampered. I love it when a man pauses to hold the door open for me or pulls up a chair for me to sit. Of course, I am perfectly capable of doing all those things myself, but I do feel nice to get that sort of attention from a man. However, the sad truth today is that men don’t seem to know how. Perhaps it’s the highly individualistic world in which we live, perhaps it’s the Indian male’s sense of entitlement or even an assumption that feminists don’t expect chivalry. Whatever it is, chivalry as an attribute is both disappearing and underrated.
Call me old-fashioned, but there is something incredibly attractive about a man who knows how to treat a woman. When my friend, let’s call him X, held the door open for me, I was more than just pleasantly surprised. Talking to him later in the day, I mentioned this and all he said was, “My sisters would give me a proper dressing down if they realise I didn’t do that. For me, it’s normal.”
This definition of normal seems to be fast disappearing, especially among Indian men. In my everyday interaction with men of all hues and shades, I find that almost none have the courtesy to hold a door from slamming on the face of the person behind them. Indeed, in several instances, opened a door only to find men race past me and through the door like they’re in a tearing hurry to catch a train. Very few have even had the courtesy to say thank you after I’ve stepped back and held the door for them.
In a world were common courtesy seems endangered, it was a happy surprise to know that men like X still exist. An uncommon species perhaps, but not yet completely extinct.

Women can’t have it all…

There is something deeply disturbing about Indra Nooyi’s brutally frank interview with Business Insider about why women cannot possibly have it all. Her narration of being unable to share her joys with her own mother speaks volumes about what is expected of women in this society.

Her mother’s reaction that she may be the CEO of PepsiCo but she is above all a mother, a wife, a daughter and a daughter-in-law is both and brutal and honest in the current context. We may have come a long from the days when a woman was expected to stay within the home and care for everyone else but herself. But, we still haven’t gotten over the mindset that the primary responsibility of a woman is to care for her family.

Ever noticed that no matter how accomplished and successful a woman is society always points fingers to her personal life and comments on it? Why is that no matter how much you try, you can never seem to make anyone happy as long as you choose to be independent and pursue a career? You may be the CEO of a company but you are still a bad mother if you fail to make it to a PTA meeting. I see women struggle to balance home and work every single day. Yet, when they complain about not having the time, nearly every member of the family and even friends suggest that maybe it’s now time to take off and concentrate on family. As Nooyi’s says, the biological clock and career are always at loggerheads. First, the kids need you, then the husband, then ageing parents. Somehow, a man never seems to need to make a choice.

Sometimes, I feel that we live in a world that’s inherently unfair to women. The tragedy of our times is that we seem to be unable to do much about it. We seem to be increasingly resigned to the fact that we will never be able to change things no matter how much we try.

The freedom to choose…

Today is unique. The day will be remembered for all the wrong reasons by those who stand by freedom of choice, no matter how difficult it may be to accept. I will refrain from commenting on the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377 of the IPC, not because I think the courts are above criticism, but because I believe much has been said about it since morning by people more qualified to comment on it than me. But, what strikes me as representative of Indian attitudes is the constant reference to Indian culture, as if by speaking of sexuality in the public realm we somehow compromise on values.
The very fact that the judgement is today being criticized in the public sphere marks a step forward in Indian critical thought. It was not very long ago that the very mention of sex and sexuality in public was hushed up with moral indignation. The very crux of our problem with homosexuality is the reluctance to acknowledge and speak of some issues, especially sexual and gender-related in public. The Supreme Court in its judgement mentions “minuscule minorities” while referring to the LGBT community in general. And evidently, the rights of this minuscule minority are insignificant when compared to the sensibilities of the ignorant majority. For a country that prides itself on affirmative action for minorities, the LGBT community obviously does not qualify. They find little or no support from political parties who run to support minority rights for every other conceivable group. Perhaps because the community lacks the organization present in many other countries and because they do not form a vote bank?
As many commentators pointed out, the belief that homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality and transgender are against Indian culture is completely false. There are umpteen examples of homosexuality in Indian mythology and still more examples of the fluidity of gender in our socio-cultural fabric. Yet, we refuse to acknowledge these very truths in our everyday life.
We like our lives to be neatly ordered and fit perfectly into slots designed by society. When someone refuses to be slotted and classified, we have a problem. We label them as unnatural and abnormal. When such labelling occurs in private, the impact is relatively limited. But, by clubbing homosexuality with issues such as bestiality, rape, incest and child abuse we do a great disservice both to those who fight for gay rights and to those who deal with violent sexual crimes. Even in public discourse we fail to distinguish between what goes on within closed doors between consenting adults and unpardonable violence against men, women and children against their will and without their consent.
Unless we learn to speak of issues as sensitive as gay rights and sexual violence with a modicum of common sense, we are doomed to find extreme and contradictory views in public discourse. As long as our public debates remain superficial and limited in world view, we are doomed to live in a society that is both hypocritical and ignorant.

The IT industry and the Indian family

If you watched Sun TV news earlier today you would have seen a special report on the decline of the Indian family. Now, I don’t really expect BBC level analysis from the likes of Sun TV, but I would definitely expect some sort of perspective to a phenomenon that is both complex and difficult to understand. The report claimed that there is an increase in divorce rates, especially among couples working in the IT industry.
We are all used to IT being reviled and blamed for all things from the devaluation of the Indian rupee to the breakdown of moral values ever since the boom of the late 90s. But, you would expect that journalists, visual media and analysts would bring in some perspective on this 15 years on. But, apparently not.
The report squarely places the blame for the increase in divorce rates and the breakdown of marriages on IT due to the long working hours, the commute from home to work and back and the lack of time for each other. This is not entirely untrue, I admit. However, the problem with such reports is that most of them tend to confuse correlation with causality. To say that divorce rates are increasing among couples working the in the IT industry is different from saying that IT causes divorce.
It is important at this point to understand other factors that have influenced this trend. A change in mindset is one of the most important factors. Divorce is no longer taboo. Even otherwise conservative parents are now willing to back their children in the decision to end a bad marriage. And, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Also, the newly-acquired financial independence (especially for women) gives them the courage to take difficult decisions.
Blaming IT without taking into consideration all the other societal factors at play is both juvenile and simplistic. The IT industry has changed the way we look at money and career. This change is here to stay. We need to stop making IT the villain of the piece if we need to really understand and tackle the changes wrought within the Indian family.

The art of sari-draping…

I am strongly convinced that the art of sari-draping is dying a slow death. Why else would someone be willing to pay 6000 rupees to a random stranger to teach them to drape a sari perfectly. In case you are wondering what I am going on about, you should probably read this article from Wall Street Journal.

The story talks of Kalpana Shah, a freelance sari-draper who offers “basic and advanced sari draping courses” for a fee in Mumbai. On top of that she gets invited to conduct group sessions on sari-draping. Wait a second! I am missing something here. Someone actually makes a living from this kind of thing? And others pay for it? Now, that’s a lovely business idea, ain’t it? Maybe I should consider this an alternative career. Now, sari-draping is one thing I do reasonably well. And, so many women seem to think it’s an art that I should perhaps make use of the opportunity. Making hay and all that you see…

However, I can’t help but lament the fact that the sari is slowly becoming a garment to be worn only for wedding and special occasions. Not that I am a prolific sari-wearer, but the day I do end up in a sari to work, people look at me rather strangely. Just yesterday, I was dressed in a sari and was accosted almost the second I entered office by an enthusiastic soul who asked me almost accusingly, “So Amrutha, what’s special? Sari and all…” I was so taken aback by the tone of the question that I just stammered that there was nothing special.

I find the slow disappearance of the sari quite unfortunate. After all, a well-worn sari actually makes a woman look lovely. There is something about the sari that lends elegance and beauty to the woman in question. And, it doesn’t necessarily have to take hours to drape. I truly appreciate women who take the effort to wear saris regularly despite the obvious conveniences of kurtas and jeans. I only wish I could be more regular in wearing saris to work and elsewhere.

Maybe this should be a new year resolution: Wear the saris in my wardrobe at least once a year! What say? 😉

Dark is beautiful…

When I first received an invitation to like the page Dark is Beautiful from a Facebook friend, I didn’t think much of it. I ignored it as just another spam message. But, something led me check it out one day when randomly surfing the net. Perhaps it’s the involvement of celebrities like Nandita Das or perhaps the manner in which the message was conveyed. The campaign instantly appealed to me.
I have for many years now tried to avoid using any products that promise to make me fairer, sometimes illogically shunning even sunscreen just because of the message it conveys. But, the campaign for non-discrimination on the basis of skin colour hits a raw nerve. It is not very long ago that I was considered dark. Growing up, relatives often commented that with this skin time I would never find a suitable boy. A cousin once put her hand against mine and said, “See? Your skin is black. Mine is white. It basically just means you’re not scrubbing hard enough when you bathe. Scrub nicely and you will also become white and pretty like me.” For a 12-year old me, this statement was heartbreaking. The cousin in question was six years older and considered very pretty by my extended family. From then, the concept of fair is beautiful stuck on, much like the grease from a badly-baked cake, that refuses to wash no matter how hard you try.
It took me nearly a decade to get over my complex of being dark-skinned. A decade of feeling inferior and trying to tide over that complex by doing things that my fair-skinned cousins would have never dreamt of doing. A decade of trying to be the best in what I did in an effort to prove that my dark skin was not a handicap.
Nearly twenty years after that incident, I realize that I am worth much more than the colour of my skin. I realize that dark is not ugly and will never be. I realize I was perhaps foolish in trying to overcome what was never a handicap in the first place. But, the memories linger. Today, when I tell people that dark is beautiful, that being dark is nothing to be ashamed of, I am often greeted with the retort, “It’s easy for you to say because you are not dark.” No, I am not dark. I realize that now. But, there was a time, over a decade of my relatively short life, when I spent hours in front of the mirror agonizing about the pigmentation on my neck and the blemishes on my face.
It has not been easy for me to say this aloud. I do understand how people feel when they are called dark and ugly. But, it’s time we stop obsessing about fair skin. It is time we stop linking success and beauty to complexion. It is also time we stop relying of chemical cocktails that promise to make us fairer and lovelier. Fair is not always lovely. And dark is indeed very beautiful.

Being an only child…

In the past week, I have heard the term “Single Child Syndrome” at least half a dozen times in relation to someone else. It irritates me unfailingly. Every. Single. Time. If you have no clue what I am talking about, you probably belong to the small minority who believes that your birth order does not necessarily dictate your personality and that other factors contribute equally.

To put it simply, the “Single Child Syndrome” or “Little Emperor Syndrome” suggests that children who do not have siblings, biological or adopted, are bratty, arrogant, bossy, selfish and lonely. Despite several studies that show that single children are no different from their peers from multi-child families, this stereotype just doesn’t seem to go away.

Perhaps one reason why talk of this gets to me is that I have been personally affected throughout the 30 years of my existence. In school, I was often labelled snobbish and introverted because I was not so comfortable talking to people. As I grew into adolescence, this stereotype only grew worse. People who knew me from childhood couldn’t fathom how the quiet and reticent child suddenly became a confident teen. This change was attributed to the imaginary “pampering” I received at home by virtue of being an only child. At college, my general outgoing nature and confidence was often perceived as snobbishness and arrogance. A teacher would often tell me, with the best intentions, that I would lose some of my arrogance only if my parents got me married into a large and difficult joint family and if I was in some way criticized by my in-laws. “Maamiyaar veetla adi vaangumbodhu thaan budhi varum.”

It’s not easy to survive such constant criticism for something over which I have no control. It was not my choice to be an only child and it’s not fair that I must bear the brunt of this situation. Secondly, being an only child in no way presupposes that one must have a difficult personality. As an only child, I often found myself cornered when people around me made statements implying that the lack of a sibling made me anti-social. Frankly, there is no way I can logically counter that argument because I indeed have no siblings and cannot really put myself in the position of someone who does.

Couples increasingly choose to have just one child. If all single children were bossy, arrogant and selfish, the world would be filled only with selfish people. There is absolutely no evidence that children with siblings are better adjusted socially that single children. Can we please stop judging others because their situation is unfamiliar to us or because we presume that they must have enjoyed a privileged upbringing because they happen to be only children. We have no idea what they have been through and we have no right to judge!

When you begin to say, it’s enough!

This is the first post of 2013 and also the 300th post on this blog. At this juncture, I expected to be writing about something rather more pleasant, but some things need to be said. And now. The whole world and its dog has just exhausted its energy crying itself hoarse about the need for change in anti-rape legislation and justice for the murdered 23-year old physiotherapy student. Demands for justice ranged from the sane and sensible calls for societal change in attitudes and stricter law enforcement to some knee-jerk demands of hanging, chemical castration and even physical castration for the accused. However, what really struck me in this whole drama was that every other protester spoke of how the increasing incidence of sexual violence against women went against Indian culture that respected and worshipped its women since time immemorial.

Now, I do agree that many of those who spoke of an irreproachable Indian culture  were young men and women barely out of school. But this just goes to prove how much we are brainwashed into believing that everything Indian and traditional is good and great. We truly believe that the root cause of the increasing rate of crimes against women is western decadence, even if we are too diplomatic to say it in as many words. But really! Enough is enough. Enough of blaming the pub culture, western influence, mini-skirts, Facebook and Bollywood for rape. Let’s face it! Indian culture has traditionally treated its women no better than any other culture.

In case anyone forgets, we are talking about the same Indian culture that shows, covertly or overtly, a distinct preference for sons, that teaches its girls to be submissive, that kills off baby girls for the crime of being…girls. It is the same Indian culture where thousands of young women lose their lives for the crime of not bringing enough dowry. It is also the same culture that refuses to acknowledge a woman’s identity as distinct from that of her husband and where it is still a crime to survive the death of a partner. Rapists and sexual offenders are not made in a day. They grow up with a sense of entitlement and cannot fathom why a woman would say no to them. In fact, they do not even realize that a no really means a NO, simply because they have never been denied a thing. We are talking of an Indian culture where a parent will deny their daughter three full meals a day to fulfill every whim of their son. Just because some of us are lucky enough to grow up in a healthy and gender-equal environment, it doesn’t mean that Indian culture is all good.

If we really want to change things, we need to demand societal change. And, this doesn’t come with amending laws or naming a new anti-rape legislation after the unfortunate 23-year old. It comes from within. Holding candlelight vigils and chanting slogans against misogyny will not help. If we are so concerned about change, we must not hesitate to change ourselves. Let’s stop praying for a male child because that will take us to heaven, stop treating our sons differently from our daughters, refuse to buckle under the societal pressure to kill off our baby girls. Let us also refuse to pay a dowry to secure a “good match” for our daughters and instead look for men who respect them enough to keep them happy. Let’s stop using the B-word to insult women we do not like or worse, call misogynistic men b*****ds. Let’s remember that when we do that, are not insulting them, but their mothers. If we really want things to change, let’s BE the change we so crave to see.

But, while we are at it, let’s also remember that change does not come easy. It may not even be visible for the next 20 years, but there will come a day when we will be able to turn out a better class of human beings for a better future. This may not be as satisfying as hanging the rapists or castrating them, but will surely be more effective. And this solution will take time. After all, Rome was not built in a day.

Perpetuating myths…

There has been considerable outrage on the expose by NDTV and Tehelka on the attitude of policemen in and around the National Capital Region towards rape victims. While it is shocking that such comments come from those who are supposed to be protectors of the innocent, none of this is really surprising. The attitude is simply representative of the attitude of a large majority of Indian men who seem to think that a woman who is in a relationship with one person automatically grants privileges to 10 others because she is of “loose” character.

Nor is it surprising that the very act of forcing a woman is considered “normal” because she was drinking, or exchanged phone numbers, or dressed in “skimpy and provocative” clothing. I do not remember how many times women’s rights activists, women in general and several others have reiterated that provocation or “losing control” does not exonerate the rapist. Along with rapists, the police and other law-enforcement authorities, sometimes including our law courts are just perpetuating several myths regarding rape:

Myth: If a woman dresses provocatively, drinks or is in a relationship with someone, she “tempts” a man into raping her.

Fact: Rape is NOT a sex crime. Rapists rarely do so because they are unable to “resist temptation” or because they lose control. They do it because they are trying to establish their power over a woman by doing so. Rape is about power, not attraction. It happens because the perpetrator of the crime does not even consider what he is doing as a crime. It also happens because the rapist believes (and with good reason) that he will get away with it. As with most cases, shoddy investigation, unsympathetic police personnel and lack of DNA evidence results in an acquittal.

Myth: A woman who dresses modestly will not be raped.

Fact: Rape is the result of the twisted logic of a sick mind. What else could explain rape of 2-year old children and 85-year old grandmothers? A woman is at risk of being raped even if she were dressed in a burqa. Asking women to dress modestly and not “provoke” only puts the onus of security on the victim. It practically exonerates the actual criminal and victimizes the victim.

Myth: She is doing it for money. When someone uses force, she cries rape!

Fact: Even if a woman were a prostitute, she does not deserve to be raped. Her character has nothing to do with the whole affair. And in case our cops don’t realize, forcing a woman is indeed called rape.

Apart from all this, it is quite distressing that the Delhi government seems more inclined to impose restrictions on women rather than address the core issue of rape as a law and order problem. To top it all, the Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has expressed concern at the state of women in NCR. We do not want to know if she is “worried”. In fact, she should be angry, not worried. She should be angry enough to do something about the current state of affairs in order to make a difference. She should, as the Chief Minister of a state, take action to ensure that Delhi’s  streets are safe for women, and not pay lip service to the plight of women in the country’s capital!