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Is the only way to compliment girls by saying they look pretty/cute/like a princess? It sets them up for failure by telling them their looks are superior to their selves!
The year was 1995. I was about seven years old. Our class was told that we would be having a play. No this was not like the plays we had in Kindergarten where we would be dressed as flowers or animals, and shake sideways to some funny music. This was a play about a princess, a prince and a monster with a script and dialogues! This was the real stuff!!
We were given some lines to learn for the audition. I prepared for a week for the role of the princess. I memorized all the lines, worked on my expressions, and diction. I would practice in front of the mirror. Finally it was the day of selection. I recited the lines beautifully. There were two teachers who were in-charge of selection.
Teacher 1: Very good. She remembers all the lines. And her voice modulation was also good!
I had no idea what modulation was, but I beamed with pride and flashed a set of perfectly uneven teeth.
Teacher 2 in a low voice: Yes, but the princess should be very beautiful. Niharika from Section C would be a great choice. You have seen her right? The fair, tall girl with grey eyes?
Teacher 1: Niharika could not remember a single line! How will we make her say the dialogues!
Teacher 2: That and all she can learn! We have three months’ time!
Teacher 1: But this girl is good!
Teacher 2: We can give her some other role. We need two maids also for the princess. There is another girl, Prachi in Section A. Looks like her only. Short, chubby and front teeth has gap. They will look cute. Niharika will be in the center. These two can hold the baskets…..
Few days later, I would refuse to play the maid. Niharika, the most stunning child in the second grade would play the princess. Everybody would fall in love with her. For months to come, people would marvel at her beauty. Parents. Teachers. Classmates. Senior students. Junior students.
I learnt two important lessons:
No matter how good we are, or what we do, it does not matter. What matters is looks. And it cannot be changed.
I hated Niharika.
Needless to say, the brutal superficiality I witnessed that day scarred me for life! But that was not just one incident. As I grew up into my teenage years, it only became worse:
She played too much in the sun this time. Rang kam lag raha hai… (she is looking darker).
Why don’t you go play on the monkey bars? If you don’t you will remain short all your life! If you are 5’2, you will only get a guy who is 5’6!
Spend less time on computer! Eat carrots and spinach. It will cure your power and your glasses will go away!
Each of these statements not only made me feel inadequate, but somehow made me feel responsible for my ‘unacceptable appearance’.
In India especially, it is completely OKAY to comment on people’s appearance. From distant family members to random strangers, everybody likes to comment, and little girls are not spared. Kids are not born knowing that beauty is appreciated. We make them realize this early on. But is it really the beauty that they are seeking, or just appreciation in general?
What if we started appreciating other qualities in people? Would kids watch and learn? In the above example, I was not jealous of Niharika because she was beautiful. I was jealous because everybody loved her, and appreciated her. The reason may have been her beauty.
I cannot change the world. I cannot decide that beauty pageants should not happen or that models should not be fantasized about. I cannot control the bullying in school that girls may face. But my interaction with the daughters of my family, and the values I teach them to appreciate are very much within my control.
Is it wrong to compliment young girls on their looks? No! it is only natural. I look at my nieces, and say they are looking pretty, like a doll or a princess.
But is it the only way we can compliment them? What are they learning? That they will be appreciated only if they look good? No wonder by the time they reach the “marriageable age”, they become salable commodities in the superficial marriage market.
How can we interact with them better, so that they grow up with a rounded, balanced personality with a strong sense of self-esteem that is not dependent on their appearance?
We are watching Aishwarya Rai dance on screen: Instead of saying ‘Wow she is so beautiful’, we can say ‘She is such a great dancer! Must have worked so hard to learn all the steps.’
A girl is wearing a pretty dress: Instead of complimenting her on her clothes we can compliment her choice. ‘You have selected such a stylish dress! Great taste!’
You can compliment girls like this:
You are so creative!
You are so kind and generous!
You are so caring towards your younger siblings!
You are so brave!
You have an adventurous spirit!
I finally learned with my experience and age that I have everything I need, and that I do not have to seek people’s approval.
This is me! That is the who I would ever be, and it is perfectly okay! It is a great feeling, but most of us start feeling like this by the time we have already wasted precious years of our life hating ourselves for being inadequate. We never reach our full potential in life, when we suffer from such an inferiority complex. We let go of opportunities and visibility. We want to hide as it is the only place we find comfort and acceptance.
Let us not forget that the damage is greater than we think. Girls with a poor self-esteem may have higher chances of falling for boys who are not good to them, just because of their need of feeling validated. Women also feel pressurized to marry men they do not like or stay married to abusive men, because they have been told that they are not good enough to look at, and they should be grateful someone agreed to marry them!
It is time we raise our daughters to be strong, confident and kind. And we can achieve this only when we ourselves appreciate such qualities in them, and others.
Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself. – Coco Chanel
Image source: pixabay
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