Big Hero, Size Zero – Let Us Talk About Gender [Book Review]

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Big Hero, Size Zero written by Anusha Harihariharan and Sowmya Rajendran is a great book for not only teens, but also for adults to explore the concept of gender.

Prefrontal cortex is an interesting brain area. It’s involved in a whole range of high level cognitive functions, things like decision-making, planning, inhibiting inappropriate behaviour, so stopping yourself saying something really rude or doing something really stupid. It’s also involved in social interaction, understanding other people, and self-awareness. And recent studies show that the prefrontal cortex is still developing in adolescents. Excerpt from TED Talk by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Cognitive Neuroscientist

In teenagers, if the area of their brain shaping their self-awareness, identity and their perception of the world they live in, is still not properly developed, how do they make sense of all the subtle social rules regarding gender?

Throw in some hormones and the constant input chatter from the highly connected world we live in today. How do they differentiate between a myth, an opinion, a contextual message, the absolute truth and simply what is right and what is wrong?

This is where Big Hero, Size Zero comes in. The authors aim at creating an awareness in teenagers about one main aspect that confuses them, namely gender and its offshoots – what is expected from a gender, and gender equality.

The book is structured to effectively address the needs of the age group they are talking to. The flow is from within towards the outside. It starts with an individual, be it male/female/ third gender, what constitutes an individual’s identity and with every step zooms out to the next level such as role of family on gender, role of society on gender, role of country/culture on gender etc.

Right at the beginning, the book decouples sex and gender by pointing out that sex is physical, something we are born with. And gender is an identity, a shared feeling that is supposed to help us through our existential crisis, but is complicated enough to create a crisis in its own right.

The language used is simple and direct. The examples used are contemporary, something that target audience would readily identify with. For example to talk about gender stereotypes propagated by advertisements, the book quotes how actress like Katrina and Deepika are used to convey the idea of fresh and luscious while M.S.Dhoni and Kohli are used to convey the idea of hard work, strength and persistence.

Big Hero, Size Zero

Image source: Amazon India

I was fascinated with the lovely way metaphors were used to put the essence of a thousand words into a concept. To quote in particular the complexity of identity is explained by comparing it to a Matryoshka doll. “At first glance, it looks like a single doll but when you open it up you find a similar, smaller one inside, and another inside that. People, too are a bit like Matryoshka dolls, with many identities beneath the surface.”

The tone of the book is respectful and explanatory without being preachy. There is enough information given, followed by a “THINK” section that encourages the audience not to just read the book but to engage in thinking and to have a dialogue within a peer group.

Think prompts like, “Many products are pitched differently for men and women. Deodorants for men are packaged in dark colours while those for women have light floral tints. Do notions of gender lead to such ads or do ads reinforce these ideas?” could possibly be the stand alone subject of a discussion group.

Though three different individuals have been involved in creating the books, the book flows very well. Kudos to whoever came up the idea of adding Nivedita Subramaniam’s visual commentary. It is funny, bang on and elevates the book subtly! I particularly enjoyed the one on key being feminine in Spanish and masculine in German. Take a bow Nivedita!

There are rectangle dialogue box inserts that quotes from relevant culture. Supreme court of India recognizing the third gender, Facebook’s free-form field to gender, ration cards recognizing women as the head of the family, families supporting sex change operation, etc. keeps the book ‘real’ on many levels and helps in relating to it better.

All in all, it is a book not just for adolescents, but also for anyone trying to make sense of gender grey areas covered with myths and conventions.

Getting your own copy?

If you’d like to pick up Big Hero, Size Zero by Anusha Harihariharan and Sowmya Rajendran, published by Tulika Books, use our affiliate link: at Amazon India.

Women’s Web gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!

Image source: Indian teenagers by Shutterstock.

About the author: Anitha Ramkumar is a teacher, librarian, a dreamer and an independent spirit. She used to believe that she is a multi-modal thinker. But off late she is realizing that she only has two modes - the 'reading mode' and the 'what to read next' mode. And she is quite happy with this epiphany!

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