Last week, I was at an Upanayanam ceremony for one of my nephews. Lots of relatives gathered, there was talk of an upcoming wedding, and an album was being passed around. Some of my aunts were sitting and looking at pictures of someone’s engagement.
“Her mouth is a bit wide,” remarked one of my aunts.
“I kept telling the boy’s mother to not rush – to keep looking for a more beautiful girl – but they ended up settling for this one,” replied another.
The person in question (on whom the rude comment was made) was sitting with another group of people in the same room. I noticed her flinching, then quickly recovering and pretending not to have heard.
It is hard to describe how I felt. On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised – I have grown up around similar conversations all my life. Passing judgment on someone’s looks is done openly, shamelessly. In many cases, the person passing judgment is very far from being an Adonis or a Cleopatra. Yet, I can never get used to this routinely blatant putting down of another person. No one else in the room felt anything was wrong with this conversation.
After the ceremony, we sat watching a TV show based on singing talent. One by one, the participants came and sang beautifully. For every participant, comments were made about someone being “too dark” or “too fat” or “having terrible teeth”.
“Wait, I thought this was a singing contest,” I said, “I didn’t realize it’s a beauty contest.”
The sarcasm was understood, laughed at, and quickly dismissed. The rude comments continued.
I’ve noticed that this particularly happens in certain situations –
- When people get married, their looks are relentlessly dissected. A woman’s looks are dissected way more than a man’s, but at the time of marriage, many men do not escape some level of scrutiny either.
- A daughter-in-law’s looks continue to be the subject of discussion for the first 10 years of her married life – how they should have looked more, found someone better, how the parents should have listened to better advice, why the children are darker because of her, etc, etc. After the first decade, for some reason, people move on (perhaps to make time to criticize other newly wed women?) A daughter-in-law is seen as a trophy perhaps, not as someone’s life partner, and a trophy must, above all else, shine.
- If most people in the family are lighter skinned, the fewer people who are darker skinned suffer a lot of insults. If most people are darker skinned, this does not become much of an issue. Relative differences in skin color seem to determine the extent of the problem. God forbid if a person is born with darker skin in a relatively lighter skinned family – she becomes the subject of lifelong regrets.
- There is intense staring in public places. Looks (of complete strangers) are once again being meticulously evaluated for reasons unknown. There is the general staring which I find harmless and dismiss it as idle curiosity. There is a certain type of staring directed at women – especially women walking or traveling alone make prime targets for this x-ray type staring. If the starer feels bold enough (depending on the situation), he passes rude comments on the looks of the person being stared at – both negative and “positive” comments are demeaning.
Questions that come to mind –
- In a country that is defined by racial diversity, you’d think we would be used to a wide range of skin tones and facial features by now. Also, racial mixture in our country has happened to the point of complete lack of clear delineation. Most people look mixed race. So, why this obsession with skin color and race based features?
- Let’s say we accept that someone happens to have these regressive attitudes. Still, how has it become acceptable to communicate in such a rude, insulting fashion? Where is the social filter?
- Why do people at the receiving end of such remarks not protest? Why do they meekly accept these remarks as if they did something wrong?
- Can we stop the staring? It’s rude and makes people uncomfortable and makes public spaces uncomfortable. If you are a woman and walking or traveling alone, you will get the worst of it. I tried saying an unsmiling ‘hello’ or ‘can I help you’ to ward off staring and it did work many times. Maybe if more and more people object to it, it will reduce.
- Is there hope for change with regard to these attitudes regarding skin color and rigid definitions of beauty? When will we start accepting that it takes many diverse faces, body types, and skin tones to make up the world? When we learn to embrace diversity?
When will we learn to look a little beyond the surface? Because if we tried, we might notice someone’s genuine smile, someone’s warmth, the mischief in someone’s eyes, or the iron will in someone’s purposeful stride. We might notice someone’s natural grace or someone’s thirst for freedom or their intrinsic kindness. It is all there – in their faces, in their bodies – in their fleeting expressions, in their evanescent gestures – those qualities that uniquely define them – if we care to look a little beyond the surface.