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Childhood lessons in the casteism of perfection

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Mariyam has scars on every corner of her face. Count, and tell us how many are there?.. How did you get that scar at the bridge of your nose?.. Oh god, your daily cycling to school has led you to have such a tanned neck, and arms. Apply yogurt paste, or else it will stay like this forever..Haha, Mariyam has a broad nose, like a pakoda. Nobody tried sharpening it when she was a baby? Should keep on pinching it, babies’ skin adjusts to it and takes a better shape..Her eyes disappear when she laughs! So small..Your forehead is darker than your cheeks. You must be careless in washing your face properly, rub each part vigorously to get an even tone.”

If you were raised as a girl in a middle-class home in North India, chances are you must have heard such remarks through your years of growing up. In my case, I remember them as early as perhaps four years old. I’ve always known I have a broad nose, small eyes, and just way too many scars on my face. Every female member in your mother’s generation or above, has been attentive enough to point them out to me. Sometimes as mere jokes, sometimes as serious concerns.

As I grew up, my attention to my scars began fading because I got used to them and was diverted to other parts of my body. I did not have the perfect set of dentures, my hair were always unmanageable, my body was not as slim as my sister’s, and of course, acne.

“Apply lime juice. Apply besan paste. Rub aloe vera. Avoid the sun. Mix unpasteurized milk with red lentil paste and rub it on skin. Don’t stress. Don’t study too much. Eat less spicy food. Drink water.”

The advice never ended. My looks were a continuous work-in-project, that most women in my circle had taken a responsibility to fix. As a pre-teen, I looked up to the women in my life, and they all showered me with endless advice on how to become a perfect girl. Despite doing well at my school, I always had a nagging feeling that I was not good enough. And that desire was reinstated through various opportunities, at home, at school, everywhere.

Some girl had a better skin, another one, had a better laughter. I was always on the lookout for perfection to imitate it. To feel associated with the ultimate prettiness that was desired of me. I was subconsciously possessed by that idea. It grew worse, to the point that I let me eyesight become weak in the fear of having to wear glasses, which would make me look ‘so unattractive’. (I eventually had to, and today, I’m in love with them).

There was a constant beauty standard that I had to strive for in order to look perfect in my family’s circle. Or that was the thought which slowly made home in my mind. If even a single standard wasn’t to the desired expectation, someone would notice and point it out. Even before I had entered my teens, I had been passed on with the primary parameters that classified you as ‘beautiful’:

  • Fair complexion
  • Thin (Being fat was the complete opposite of beautiful)
  • Long hair
  • Big eyes
  • Sharp features (whatever that means)

I received massive doses of education on it from the female members in my family and the wider circle : mother, aunts, elder cousins, neighbours, relatives, guests. Almost every woman had an opinion on what beauty means, none had the right education on it. Nobody questioned as to why these standards were set in stone and why was every girl pitted against them.

There was so much focus on rejecting on how you looked, that there was no room for accepting who you were.

Why did being fair qualify as a colour and not the rest? Why was being good in studies, or badminton, or singing, or running, or anything else, less of an asset than the physical features?

And gradually, I recognised the casteism that dwells within my own family and the women around me. A pernicious combination of patriarchal notions about women’s status, their abilities, their futures and their expectations, mixed with indomitable pride. Being born with those set criterion placed a girl on a pedestal among her counterparts. Young girls with fair skin were constantly reminded they’re beautiful and that’s enough to lead a sorted life. Because the ultimate aim is to marry a ‘suitable’ boy. While girls with dark skin were pitied upon, murmurs floated around them that getting those girls married would be hard.

Women hoped to be blessed with a dark coloured boy than a dark coloured skin. “Ladka hai, kaala bhi hua toh koi baat nahi.” (It’s a boy, even if he is dark in colour). If a girl met with an accident, as long as her face is not bruised, it is okay. “Chehre ko toh kuch nahi hua na?” (Nothing happened to her face right?)

My first 12 years of childhood were filled with accidents, as I busted my knees and rammed my head into walls. I was a restless kid, as my mother always recalls, never sitting in one place, dashing to get out of the house. The restlessness resulted in stitches across my face, succumbing me to the inferiority complex that was built around it. Something, that took me a very long time to get over.

My mother helped me recognise my qualities, pushed me to focus on them, perhaps seeding the first ideas of feminism in me. She has always been a fiery woman who has stood up to any injustice within the family or outside, instilling in her children a deep sense of fairness. But at the same time, she did not challenge the defined beauty standards and their status quo.

Gradually, I realised how shallow and dry living a life in such insecurities is. When I shifted my focus onto other things, I found an endless alley of challenges and opportunities opening up. Doors which I had never knocked, freedom that I had never tasted.

However, this disturbing casteist trend continues even today within families. I still find young girls pushing themselves to look better and more beautiful. Girls as young as ten, constantly checking their lipsticks in the phone’s camera, fixing their hair at a wedding, while they could be running around, spilling malai kulfi on their dresses and using dupattas as ropes in tug of war.

Why is nobody telling them they are enough as they are? They are complete, beautiful, and everything that comes in between. That there are far more wonderful ideas and adventures out there than merely cozying up to standards of imitating Barbies (even they are undergoing a transformation). That accepting yourself is the most important feature of your body and mind. That social media is often a place of lies and misguided truths.

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That no one can define perfect and imperfect, except for your own self. That beauty does not lie in homogeneity rather in diversity and vibrancy. Learn to appreciate the uniqueness of what your body and mind is, no two people are born similar, then why should their physical features be? Find out who you really are, go on a journey within yourself. In Japanese, the term ‘wabi-sabi’ means accepting and appreciating the imperfection, as part of this life and world. That beauty is defined through many contours, and being imperfect is one of them.

As long as women choose to be a part of this casteist cycle, it thrives.From mothers to daughters; from cousins to nieces; from teachers to students; from friends to neighbours. Questioning the status quo, rubbishing the undue beauty privilege, respecting each other, and educating yourself on body positivity, are the first steps to breaking this loop.

Otherwise, this never ends. And perhaps, many girls will never really realise where their true potential lies.

Hi, thank you for reading the post. This is part of my new series on body positivity and self-value. If you like it, drop a comment, or follow me for more such posts. Thank you. ❤

Mariyam Raza Haider

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A journalist by training, Mariyam Haider is a writer and performance poet in Singapore.
She is the researcher of the book The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age written by James Crabtree.
Her writing has appeared in Hindustan Times, Livemint, Feminism In India, New Asian Writing and Kitaab.

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