By Tanu Shree Singh
There was this girl I knew, two actually. One had a mum who would repeat at least thrice a day how this colour didn’t suit her or that, since she was dark. And the other stopped her from afternoon sports practice because she was fair and the sun would do her no good. There was also the girl who was repeatedly told by her mum that she was too fat and would look horrendous in fitted jeans, the latest fashion then.
Cut to 2019, and things haven’t changed much, the online communities are ripe with queries about fairness creams for the child, hair removal for freshly minted teens or younger, and of course places where makeover birthday parties could be held. For seven-year-olds.
I used to wonder back then, if it were the same for boys. I still wonder the same. Are they also stopped from playing in the sun, because they would get a shade darker? For the record I was 50 shades of brown while growing up because thankfully my folks had their priorities straight. Do boys too get scrutinised for body hair and weight as closely as the girls? The questions remain.
The idea of beauty as it exists today is driven by a multi-billion dollar industry of beauty and so called fitness products. There is a standard idea of what is beautiful: she is fair, tall, slim, has straight hair with a shine that could reflect your face in it, no wrinkles, no grey hair, no cellulite, and a pink glossy smile. We are happily sold this idea over the years wrapped in the pretty cloak of happiness. The advertisements start off in greyscale with a woman whose life is just not falling together thanks to her brown skin. Then with the discovery of a fairness cream her life becomes full, the advertisement becomes coloured and happy. The end. Oh and the pink glossy smile and hair being caressed by the gentle breeze forms the last frame. Now replace the cream with hair colour, anti-wrinkle cream or any of the other gazillion products. The result: a girl (or an older girl) somewhere sitting in front of the TV getting a twisted idea of beauty.
This gets taken to extreme when I see women slog it out at the gym with the sole aim of getting in that particular dress or shedding an inch for the upcoming wedding season. The idea of fitness too somewhere gets lost. Fad diets, severe fasting, unguided workout – everything goes in the name of that perfect figure.
Take a moment. And think. What would you rather have your child grow up with an unachievable illusion of beauty created by the industry or true fitness of the body and mind? It is not easy to go against the tide. I have friends who deliberately let their underarm hair grow even though they sported sleeveless blouses to lead by example, to show their little girls that removing body hair was their choice and not a mandatory step towards being accepted as a pretty teenager.
It is not easy. But it is not an act of extreme courage either as it is made out to be. It is just a conscious choice of making yourself and the child aware of what is truly important. I recently started working out again with the sole aim of getting fitter. I want to be able to go for day-long treks without dying of breathlessness. For me fitness is more important than the shape of my bum. There is a friend who decided to take charge of her life and joined a course to learn meditation. For her the route to true beauty is through the soul. Everyone has their own paths, provided they discover them. For us (and the little ones) to truly hear ourselves, and to be able to see clearly, it is important that we:
Reflect on the true meaning of beauty
Is it the skin tone? Is it straight, shiny hair? Or is it a mindful life? Read, research, and reassess to come to the conclusion. Your opinion. Not something which has been manufactured by social and media pressure. Talk to the child about what truly matters. Lead by example.
Walk the talk
On one hand we tell the child, ‘you don’t need make-up!’ And then we spend hours applying layers upon layers of it, standing in from of the mirror judging ourselves. I am not saying make-up is bad! But giving mixed signals is.
Understand the difference between fitness and body weight. One can be wafer thin and be absolutely unfit. On the other hand, there could be someone who falls outside the so called ideal weight range and yet be fit as a fiddle. Fitness is linked to body weight but not dependent on it. So while it ought to be compulsory for everyone to regularly indulge in some kind of a physical activity, the aim should be to increase the stamina and fitness level rather than attaining ‘ideal body proportions’.
Indulge in self-love!
Unless we consciously value ourselves, love ourselves, the chances of falling for advertisements that promise to improve our lives via the skincare routine will remain high. And teaching children to value gets easier if we value ourselves. This is perhaps the toughest and doesn’t come by just reading two lines in some random column. If there are some long standing issues, take steps to resolve them, seek help, do what it takes to get yourself back.
I recently got my hair what they call dip-dyed in different shades of blue and red. I am probably a shade short of looking like a peacock. But the greys are untouched. The reactions I received were fairly amusing. From being called brave to strange – I heard the entire range. It is sad that people think it is brave for a woman to do something as insignificant as getting unicorn hair. And sadder when they are perplexed by my choice to let greys be. The idea of beauty is a standard, boxed in image. Everyone sporting the same hair, the same skin tone and the same pink glossy smile. We need to refuse that idea and form our own. For me, beauty is freedom to choose, fitness of the body and the mind, and a smile that exposes all my teeth and crinkles around my eyes. What’s your idea?
(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)