I recently read and loved Aditi Mittal’s tweets directed towards the horrible “fairness industry” in this country. It is brilliant to see people wake up and embrace ‘dusky’, ‘wheatish’, ‘biscuit-colored’ and whatever other gorgeous browns God has gifted us with although it is still miles to go before Indians stop giving skin-color any thought at all.
This starts right at birth, maybe even during pregnancy. If both parents are ‘fair’ then everybody seems to be quite relieved as fairness seems to be guaranteed in this case. But alas, if one parent is a little higher up (or lower down!) on that ghastly shade-card range, in pours the unwarranted advice on masoor and besan-dal scrubs etc, right from Baby’s first bath.
Unfortunately, baby beauty is not just restricted to skin color. The other obsession with us is the shape of the nose. The maalishwali happily oils her fingers and tugs at the tiny perfect nose and shows you proudly how you can ensure a ‘sharp’ nose. “Tase kele nahi tar baal naktach rahil.” (I don’t even know how to translate ‘nakta’; it is the Indian euphemism for ugliness.) The hair should be thick and dark (Mundans are generally done to ensure ‘good’ hair growth and I don’t know anyone who has been able to explain its religious significance to me), but only till puberty for girls, when that same thick and dark hair becomes unsightly and we resort to waxing, shaving and the like.
The signal that we are giving out to our children all the time is that looks matter more than anything else. We may say a hundred times that what actually matters is inside, but then we go and slather yoghurt and turmeric on their faces. We are constantly being reminded through media around us that everything is about how you look. How you ‘present’ yourself. How you appear, not to yourself in the mirror but to everybody else out there. How your clothes ‘make or break you’. How much the first impression matters. And while there is enough evidence to back all of these things, there is too little on how to work on yourself inside out. Because nobody has the time, or inclination, to find that out.
I came across the terms ‘Character Ethic’ and ‘Personality Ethic’ in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and I think almost all the focus nowadays is on the personality ethic; how to dress right, how to ‘appear’ confident, how to make a good impression, and so on. Even the effective use of social media entails how to project yourself right, how to sell yourself quickly etc. Are we talking enough to our kids about how to find meaning and fulfillment, how to move towards inner peace, how to master their own demons and how to be their best selves even when no one is looking?
We need to choose our words very carefully. Even when we are encouraging our kids and praising them and showering our attention on them, what are we saying? How much of “You’re looking so cute!” and “Pretty princess” are we using as opposed to “I love how kindly you spoke to her” and “You were very brave when you owned up to breaking that toy”. Kids naturally love to preen and dress-up and look good. Rumi changes her outfits at least 20 times a day. She takes my Dupatta and puts on my glasses and twirls in front of the mirror. The first question she asks is “Kashi distiye mi?” (How do I look?) Pruning her vanity now might mar her confidence for life (I remember being told “Stop admiring yourself in the mirror” so often that I still cannot look at myself in the mirror without a tiny bit of shame). So it is up to us to balance out all the compliments she receives for her looks with concrete words for all the positive, loving, empathetic actions she takes.
Rumi has also been subject to a lot of physical scrutiny. A favorite here is the hair. My husband still goes through that after 38 years of existence with his curly crop. I cannot imagine why, because he has the most gorgeous healthiest, bounciest, mass of curls I have ever seen and I simply adore his hair. But we hear the odd remark about “Haircut nahi kela ka?” all the time! He in turn loves my brown, straight, fine strands which I have repeatedly been admonished for. (Thin hair equals weak hair: something every single person in my life has told me except for me blessed wedding hairdresser who explained to me, how fine hair does not mean thinning and that my hair was “healthy”). Rumi’s hair is a perfect juxtaposition of the two of us. Really fine, very brown (“blonde”) and curly. We cannot get over it. But the same goes for many others who constantly ask us why we haven’t shaved it off yet, so that it grows back thicker, although our awesome pediatrician laughed when he said “her genes won’t change with one haircut” (haha, he’s so cool).
My Abbu who worries about everything there is to worry in this world constantly reminds me to oil her head, although oiling hardly changed my hair. He even worries about the birthmark on her face; she has a heart-shaped red patch on her cheek which I like to think of as God’s personal stamp at work in my womb. He asks me if we can use any creams etc to lighten it. I wish I could set him at rest and tell him how Rumi is perfection already. And not because of her beautiful hair and eyes and smile. But because of her soul and what she has inside; something that is entirely hers that can never ever be like anybody else’s.
We should worry about her thumb-sucking and TV watching for reasons of health and well-being and not because of spectacles and braces. We should feel prouder of the fact that she fearlessly feeds all the strays than that her blue frock suits her to perfection. It is up to us to watch our words and actions so that we may raise our children to see themselves as well as others inside out rather than outside in.