Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Shame of Being Fair

By Maliha Mohiudun via UN Online Volunteers

“She did it again! How does she get up there?” my uncle’s wife looked perplexed yet slightly amused as I walked by, towel thrown over my shoulder, and made my way to the grand hall sofa. My father looked stern as he took in my color of my skin. What two days ago had been a warm cream, was now a dark mocha from the intense Indian sun. In an effort to keep me from the rooftop my uncle had placed layers of furniture along the last staircase landing, but I was adept at climbing and grasping the high railing I managed my way around the matrix of chairs and tables.

It was always a tense and irrational conversation that followed these excursions to the rooftop. “Who is going to see your skin? Why are you stubborn and set to bring shame to us? What if someone saw you?” “I do it for myself, I think I look prettier when I’m tan. Everyone in America is tan. Besides, I blend in here now.” I replied, avoiding his intense and disapproving gaze. It always boggled my mind how in a land where the majority of people were born with varying shades of caramel skin they could hate it so much.

Throughout my childhood I would overhear various family members discuss the merits of certain girls, “She’s pretty, but she’s dark.”  So many of my own cousins owned and diligently used ‘Fair & Lovely’ a bleaching cream widely used throughout India. Their marriageability ranked on their skin tone, often outweighing their education, career, and personalities. I was born to parents whose pigmentation favored that of toasted cashews and so I became a rarity in a sea of caramel, a rare jewel in the South of India. It was a curse.

From even as early as twelve years of age elder women would hound my grandaunts and parents to arrange a marriage between me and their son, nephew, whoever. All of this solely based on the color of my skin, regardless of how perverted their requests sounded to my whole family. Dressed in rich and vibrant blouses with ornate skirts, I often looked older than my age at weddings, which only added to these outrageous overtures. Back then, it hadn’t bothered my parents as much as it bothered me, but they grew concerned as I grew older. I had studied my mother’s photographs from her youth and  by 18 perfected the cat eye, pairing that against my cream skin and distinct beauty mark made me stand out from the crowd of girls whose mothers caked them in talc powder and magenta lipstick.

It wasn’t so much at weddings that my father began to resent my looks, but during the regular day trips in the city. Sitting in the back of our family car, my Disk-man on full blast I would gaze out the window, the passing traffic that weaved around those crowded Indian roads full of men on motorcycles. My dark hair whipping around my face as we drove to local sari boutiques. And then inevitably, one of those motorcyclists would notice me and just as suddenly they would take every turn that our driver did until finally parking in the market. 

I tried not to notice them, averting my gaze as I stepped out of the car, often dressed in long shirt salwars that didn’t follow the trends of India, but rather my own style of minimalism and clean cuts. Hours would pass as we purchased items in the top stories of these markets, often leaving past midnight after collaborations with the tailors, and yet I could still see at least one or two of those men perched on their motorcycles lying in wait.

Often, as I got into the car a little street child would run by the car and drop a note into my lap, the number for my stalker neatly written with some insulting comment about my beauty. It was upon such occurrences that my father would notice the men again following us, and angrily turn to me in the backseat, chastising me as he demanded I roll up my window and stay out of site. This happened often enough that on the rare occasions when I was left at home my father would have my uncle lock our front gate and post a guard.  I often resented my time in India as it tainted my relationship with my family, each one thinking of ways that I was a risk and how to keep me in or cover me from head to toe when I did step out. ‘How did no one else get harassed the way I did?’ they often wondered only to suspect that I must be initiating the stalking.

Instead of thinking that something should be done to alter the male gaze, the blame was placed on me, on the cream tone of my skin, on my naivety of a culture I did not understand. On the rare occasions that I would shout out at the men to leave me alone I was chastised, often left feeling ashamed for something far beyond my control. I never understood why those men weren’t on the receiving end of my father’s anger. As much as I resented feeling like a caged bird, I took comfort in the feeling of security at home that I didn’t have when I traversed the city. It wasn’t until I began my trips to the rooftop that I found a way to stop or at least minimize the stalking. I became less of that rare jewel and became just another Indian woman driving around with her family.

It took many years after these trips to have an open dialogue with my parents, my father in particular who was often uncomfortable when confronted with such topics, but it was necessary for me. His intention was always to protect me, but never understood that in shaming me he was only reinforcing the mentality that anything I had experience was my fault and not that of the men who violated my sense of safety. We have all changed in many ways over the years, but my family no longer allows for blame being placed on anyone other than the perpetrator. I am no longer shamed for taking pride in how I present myself in the world.

Now there are so many shows that we watch from the comfort of our couch in America about the way women are objectified and harassed, often ending in far more dire experiences than my own. Using these shows as a platform for change in a society that up until recent years has rarely held men accountable, now exposes those for who and what they are, perverted individuals in a society that is ready for change. 

Gone are the days where shaming women for the inappropriate male gaze is common practice, we are now in a time when men are being forced to change or else deal with the harsh consequences of the law. I’d like to think that conversations like the ones I had with my family over the years happened among other families leading to this movement, and that the volume of these voices is what is drowning out an outdated and foolhardy point of view.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Shamed for Being Thin

By Ananya De via UN Online Volunteers


There has been a variety of body shaming that I have faced, sometimes subtle and sometimes direct. There were some even over those features on which I actually have no control, for ex., my blunt nose or my height (when in school), but the one over which I have encountered the most throughout my life is over my thin body frame.

The most peculiar thing that I have seen is that most of the people here are not even aware that they are thin shaming. We see that people try to control themselves or others from uttering some remarks on someone’s obesity or darker skin colour etc., but we see automatic comments on seeing someone thin or skinny on how they need to eat something.

I know that due to the image portrayed by the media, people who are overweight face much stigma. But it’s actually a matter of perception. Even if the visual media is seen to promote to become thinner, it seems that in Indian common households girls with few layers of fat are more preferred or else why should I be given such kind advice from more than one person on how should I try to obtain a proper figure so that later I would be considered a good prospect in the marriage market. 

Again, I would like to make it clear I am not pulling any view on being under or over weight upwards or downwards, I am just telling about the way the people are affected by what they usually see in their society and how they judge others on the basis of what they think is ‘normal’. 

I am just putting forward the thought that if someone is happy with how they look, then, we should let them be so.

There was this incident which occurred when I was in school, maybe in class 9 or 10. Some of my friends from school and others, we all used to attend a biology coaching class together. I don’t remember the details clearly, but I remember that one day the teacher put forward some questions on whether I was not eating properly or if I was having any problems in nutrient absorption and metabolism. 

Maybe it was meant to be some remark in light manner, but it doesn’t diminish the effects that it had on me and the other friends who attended the class.

I still remember the way the questions plagued my mind. I still remember how it became a long standing joke amongst that teacher and my school friends. And I still remember how I thought that since he is a biology teacher, what he said must be correct and that if I was thinking in that way, my friends must be thinking in that same way. I remember that when added to the usual remarks of my classmates on how thin I was, it made me question myself time to time if I really had a problem or if I was really so thin that it should invite comments. 

These kinds of comments on any body type and shape are much damaging as they put a dent into one’s self-esteem and confidence.

But again, I remember the other aspects too. I realised that I was always eating more or less a balanced diet. I also remember how I searched a lot in books, internet and also discussed with our family doctor over these questions. 

And I remember how sometime later I had told that bio teacher about how genetic factors might be a reason along with other factors (three of my aunts, i.e., sisters of my father have similar body frame) and being thin doesn’t mean I don’t eat well or I have a metabolism problem. One cannot just assume that being thin means being unhealthy.

I don’t know if I could make him or others understand it no matter how much I have repeated it till even now. Even if it’s ironic that the ones at college (irrespective of boys and girls) commenting on how I would float away in the air or something else were the ones trying hard to lose weight and asking frequently about what diet I maintain. 

But that search backed by scientific facts was one of the firsts which put my mind into rest. I could tell myself clearly that being thin doesn’t mean I am weak or I have any kind of problem and there can be other reasons. And it is not my shortfall if I look differently than what is fixed to be the societal standard for ‘normal’. 

Yes, I still have self-doubts on whether I look too thin or not while trying over new clothes or so. 

There have been years of occasional remarks and various name callings ranging from stick to size zero which would have surely left some mark or so, more than I would like to admit. But I now know that if I think with a clear mind, I can try to put them past me. I know that if I am well and active, then, no matter how much people try to demean me, I should not let them pull myself down (my BMI stays around 20-20.5, well within the ideal range).

As we grow older, the way we perceive things changes and the way we handle things changes. Books and interaction with other people helped me a lot. It helped me to understand the differences between the spiteful comments, the teasing ones, the concerned ones and the remarks without any intent but due to habit etc. We have to realise when we need to protest and when we have to ignore it, i.e., when that person is not worth it. We are what we are irrespective of it being our choice or us being naturally so. 

And any kind of shaming hampers the process of embracing ourselves the way we are. Our nature, our personal character defines us, not a part of our body or a certain body type. Thus, we don’t have to listen to anyone if they are trying to portray us as anything less than a person as a whole.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Ain't I A Woman

By Ashley Dye via UN Online Volunteering

If I had a dollar for the innumerable times I’ve been called or refer to as he, him, or sir, I would be a millionaire. Seriously, it happens so often to me that I’ve actually become accustom to the shaming, offensive, and masculine pronouns.  It’s been happening to me since I was a kid. I grew pretty much a tomboy playing basketball, football, soccer and many other sports. Most of my friends were guys and the role models I related to the most, were the men in my family. Now, I’m not trying to infer that I didn’t have women role models. I’ve just always been an adventurous and active kind of person. 

The men in my life afforded me the opportunity to live that lifestyle. I’ve never wanted to be anything other than myself. I never thought that people would challenge my gender simply because I wear men’s clothing. My choice of clothing has always ventured toward an androgynous or tomboyish style. Yes, I am very aware of my both my masculine figures and my masculine personality. However, regardless, of my attire I’ve always indentified as woman. I just happen to shop in both the men’s and women’s department, but does that make me any less than a woman. It completely baffles me that some people can be so narrow- minded and not realizing the diversity in womanhood.

 As I got older I began to realize that I was fighting for my right to be called a woman simply because of the clothing I choose to wear, my hair and my masculine facial figures.  Clothing, hair, and physical figures shouldn’t be the only thing included when determining whether someone is a woman. We women are phenomenal in every aspect because we have the power to be anything we want to be, there’s no one type of woman.  We’re not all straight haired, makeup wearing, dress shopping and heel wearing types of women. Some of us like to switch it up. For example, my attire depends on my mood or comfortably. One day I may be in a dress with heels, and the next day I maybe in a Polo shirt with men’s jeans and sneakers.  Regardless, I still proudly profess and embrace my womanhood.

                About three years ago, I began working as a cashier at a local gas station where I live. I had just cut off my hair so that I could embark on a healthier and more natural look. The goal was to start growing dreadlocks. Now, from the first day that I began working there I would get mistaken for a man. I would get called sir, man, and dude.  At first it didn’t bother me because I thought maybe people aren’t use to seeing a woman with natural hair. However, it began to bother me after I would correct customers and they would continue to refer to as man. For example, I was assisting a regular customer one day with lottery tickets and he insisted on calling me sir after I had corrected him. Now keep in mind that this particular customer often visit the store and was very aware of my gender. 

                 After, getting annoyed with the constant masculine pronouns I finally told him sir, “I am a woman” and his response was “Well! I can’t tell.” It was right then and there that I realize that our society has a distorted picture of what a woman should look like.  It really got me thinking was my masculinity over clouding my femininity? Should I begin wearing makeup? Or perhaps I should just attach a sticker to my uniform that reads “I am a Woman.”

Chaka khan once sang “I’m every woman it’s all in me” because being a woman isn’t simply based on personality, the way she dresses or the way she wears her hair.  We women shouldn’t be place in a box because we are the very definition of diversity. Women come in all different shapes, sizes, races, cultural and of diverse educational backgrounds. 

One of the most common misconception is that women should act and look like women. But what exactly does that mean? Who came with this act like a woman notion? Why are we women constantly being place in a box? When I think of the diversity in womanhood I think of women like First Lady Michelle Obama, Erkyah Badu, Pink, Serena Williams and Janelle Monae. These are all beautiful women who have been shamed, demean and even dehumanize because of the way they’ve dressed, their body type, and the way they’ve worn their makeup and hair. 

For example, Serena Williams has been subjected to some harsh and cruel criticism throughout her career as a professional tennis player. It’s no secret that being a professional athlete puts you in the front row seat of critics. However, I feel some critics go too far.  In life, we’re all going to be subjected to some kind of criticism, and in many ways it’s good for our growth into adulthood. I feel that some of the things the media has said about Serena Williams have crossed the line.  The biggest issue for me is the constant body shaming.  Instead of recognizing her for her accomplishments as an athletic critics tend to focus on the fact, that her body type doesn’t fit society idea of femininity and beauty.   

Over the years, I’ve read countless articles and have seen horrible tweets about to her physique and how she’s apparently “Built like a man.”  Our society seems to be intimidated by women that don’t fit into the norm.   Serena Williams is an incredibly athletic and one of the most beautiful women in sports today, yet so many critics go out their way to try and demean, degrade, and dehumanize her simply because of her unique physique.  I can relate to Serena Williams because I know what it’s like to be shamed because of the way you look.

“Ain’t I a woman?” I mean, at the end of the day “Ain’t I a woman?” Sure I don’t look like the traditional idea of a woman. I don’t always dress in feminine attire. I have masculine figures both physically and emotionally. However, does that make me less than a woman or unworthy to be called a woman?  Society teaches us that femininity means looking, acting, and having particular body and facial figures. Society has inadvertently or perhaps purposely poisoned our minds with what it means to be a woman. 

Today’s society tell us that femininity and masculinity pertains to your gender when, in fact, it doesn’t.   Masculinity and femininity has nothing to do with gender and I believe because of this misconception I have experience misidentification. I think that young women everywhere should embrace who they are and not become accustom to societies social norms pertaining to women. 

Every little girl should be encourage to be themselves and not basic on what others think.  Your clothing, hair, personality, and lifestyle choices don’t define your gender, or your womanhood. We women are divergent, strong, and passionate and come in all different types of packages.  Not all women have the Hollywood look or meet social norms.  

Be you, be brave, love yourself and realize that not all women have to look like the women on television or in the magazines.  It’s okay to prefer jeans over dresses.  You don’t have to wear make up to be consider feminine.  For all the little girls that will be challenge with gender identity, know that you are phenomenal, beautiful, and very definition of strength.  Never like anyone make you feel unworthy or less than a woman simply because you don’t fit their definition of femininity and beauty.