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16-Yr-Old Vedika Sharma Shows Boys They Don’t Need To ‘Man Up’ To Fit Toxic Norms

Posted: February 12, 2020

Teenage author Vedika Sharma demolishes the toxic norm of ‘boys will be boys’ that prevents boys and men from being fully themselves, through her pathbreaking book Boys Will Be Better.

Meet Vedika Sharma, the author of a path-breaking book Boys Will Be Better, which is a must-have for anyone looking to understand how positive masculinity can turn your life around for the better. A 16-year-old student at The Shri Ram School, Vedika is also the proud recipient of the Diana Award, an international recognition given to a young person for making a positive social impact in the world.

The following lines in the Prologue of her book piqued my interest: “The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female. Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone. They have absorbed the message: They are outperforming boys in school at almost every level. But it isn’t just about performance. To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions. Boys, though, have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate towards a full expression of their gender. It is no longer enough to be a man – let us no longer even know what that means.”

I realised I wanted to try and understand her motivation for choosing a subject like this (while also trying to pick her brains on related issues), and her perspective on positive masculinity, and why a movement in this direction will reap dividends that we may not be able to fathom.

Vedika spoke at length about that defining moment which led her to compile a series of essays the subject. “I had interned at the Election Museum. During my work I came across a leading politician trying to side with a colleague who had a sexual assault case on him, saying ‘Thik hai koi baat nahi, ladke toh aise hi hote hain’ (Hindi version of ‘boys will be boys’).”

That phrase forced her to take on the mantle to dispel this clichéd but flawed perception that is prevalent among a huge section of our society, and change it to (a more hopeful) ‘boys will be better’, so that anyone would think twice before trivializing something as grievous as sexual assault.

Calling out patriarchal gender roles

Vedika narrated several incidents involving her childhood where she and her brother were constantly being told to conform to strict gendered roles.

“I never liked the idea of our distant relatives constantly chiding my brother for showing emotions or their fixation with the colour of our clothes because according to them, boys can’t wear pink because blue is synonymous with boys and pink is synonym with girls. Fortunately, my parents never believed in altering our behaviour in any way just to fit the stereotypical boy or girl, but our relatives were not so enlightened. Seeing him go through this also made me sensitive to the pressure guys can be under, and as such this topic of Boys Will Be Better was always close to my heart,” she says.

From idea to published copy – an invigorating journey

Vedika has always been comfortable with the art of writing from a very young age, having been the chief editor of the sociology newsletter in her school. She was also an active member of her school’s editorial board. Her parents encouraged her to take the leap of faith into harnessing her passion for positive masculinity, and use her writing skills to create a manuscript that will not only bring out her novel ideas about the topic but will also guide many others. “To say that the entire experience was an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement,” she says.

She began the journey towards Boys Will Be Better by interviewing a number of people, many of whom were friends with her parents, to understand how patriarchy has affected their lives. Most of the interviewees were older than Vedika but some were from her age group as well, something that helped her get a well rounded perspective on the entire issue. One of those experiences came from her aunt, someone who was an acid attack victim. Hearing her side of the story was heart breaking for Vedika but it also strengthened her resolve to make this book a reality.

She then proceeded with giving all of her interviewees several topics, so that they could come up with their own perspectives and give the readers an insight on how to address the various issues concerning not just toxic masculinity but also to make it a relic of the past.

Her main achievement with this exercise is how she has been able to throw light on so many issues. This is something that she is very proud of. “In my book, all the topics are different from each other and each of them covers a different part of masculinity like boys can cry, it is okay to wear pink, masculinity 2.0, politics and masculinity, raising better dads, or men in progress. We took special care to introduce each story with a proverb or a quote from women who had endured pain and suffering at the hands of toxic masculinity, just so that our readers could not only understand what the upcoming story was trying to address, but also to get the gravity of the situation that almost half of our populace is undergoing around the world but especially in a patriarchal society like India.”

When she finally got the stories together, Vedika spent another eight months to edit and compile these narratives into a singular, coherent piece along with writing a prologue that beautifully encapsulated the central theme of her book. The cover design (done by one of her friends) and publishing took another month before the book finally hit the stores.

Thus, began an engaging conversation

Vedika feels that her efforts bore fruits not just in terms of the popularity of her book (It got listed on the Delhi Book Fair apart from selling in bookstores in Delhi and through online platforms like Amazon), but that it managed to start a conversation on an issue that not many people wanted to talk about.

Speaking of using her book in sessions, she says, “Those who read Boys Will Be Better’ were in agreement with what was written, but the turnaround was when I started interacting with boys. Those heart to heart conversations made me realize that they were under tremendous pressure to adapt to a set of obsolete yet widely followed behaviours because of toxic masculinity.”

Safe Space Club – A world of its own

The main idea behind the Safe Space Club, according to Vedika, was not just to start a group discussion on toxic masculinity but also to make its participants feel secure enough to allow themselves to both accept and bond with their real identities (not the ones enforced on them by society) by releasing themselves from the bondage of patriarchy.

“These sessions are generally held in and around my locality. Till now I have done around 15 safe space sessions that have been remarkably constructive. In one of those sessions, we had something called the ‘Gender Lightbulb moment’ where each member present in the session talks about instances when they were discriminated against on the basis of gender. Everyone talked about their examples of how they were humiliated by others just because of their refusal to act as per the prescribed gender rules, how did it make them feel, where do they think they went wrong, what is it that they can do differently the next time and what were their learnings from that experience. People were able to open their heart out and engage in a free-wheeling discussion without the fear of being looked down upon by those around them,” she says.

Responsibility of popular media

She firmly believes that movies (esp. Bollywood and Hollywood) have enabled this ‘macho behaviour’ where this idea of ‘being a man’ is revered, which is not just incorrect but is also extremely problematic. The rigid definitions of masculinity are doing more harm than good and the time has come to acknowledge that men do not need to subscribe to this regressive and anymore, something that is reflected in the following lines in one of the essays in her book:

“Society is putting all men into a box. Masculinity is different for every man, and all definitions of masculinity are valid.”

“The Silver Screen gives more emphasis on promoting a stereotypical narrative of men rather than providing them the freedom to open up and express their emotions.”

Things like smoking in public, having a muscular body, being misogynist, chasing a girl repeatedly without consent are seen to be more ‘manly’ whereas things like teaching boys to be more sensitive and empathetic are looked down upon.

Breaking Gender Stereotypes – literally

There is a noticeable hint of excitement in Vedika’s tone as she recounts her experience of being a panellist on the topic of ‘Breaking Gender Stereotypes’ that was held at Sri Ram School. “The panel that I was a part of had people from different walks of life, including a rugby player and a belly dancer. Through this discussion, I had a chance to conduct a free and open question-answer session and iron out the innumerable myths about gender stereotyping.”

Vedika noticed something very intriguing in that panel discussion which she shared. There was a particular moment within that discussion that brought out in the open our faulty conditioning on gender roles and responsibilities. “When the audience was asked to identify the profession of the male panellist who incidentally was a ‘Belly Dancer’, not one student was able to come up with the right answer. They all thought that he was a doctor, engineer or a sportsperson. It was a shocker for them when he revealed his profession and even showed us his dance moves. He also spoke about the discrimination and lack of acceptance that he had to face from family and friends due to his profession and how he overcame that to be in this position today.”

Toxic Masculinity needs to be nipped in the bud

Vedika repeatedly points out in our conversation that Toxic Masculinity cannot be taken lightly anymore. And it is not restricted to any particular socio-economic group. There are so many educated men who cannot tolerate their wives or girlfriends earning more than them and there are several husbands who just do not want their wives to work just because it will hurt their ego.

She takes particular interest in talking to women raising small sons; a group she feels can possibly be the engine that can bring a real change in our society by teaching their young ones to be perils of toxic masculinity. “Some of them even talked about how they made it a point to read it to their sons, which then triggered meaningful discussions in their households on a topic like this, which led to some positive outcomes.”

She feels that it is absolutely vital for young boys (who are at a very impressionable age) to be taught to be more expressive, emotional and forthcoming, to choose the profession they want to regardless of how ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ it may seem to others around them (unfortunately even today many professions are segregated on the basis of gender) instead of just constantly trying to coerce them to restrict their whole identity and behaviour within the confines of a stereotypical ‘Mard’. Teaching young boys will also have an impact on them showing the mirror to the elder people in their homes which can help drive the change that we need in our society

“It is high time that our mothers take special care to encourage their sons to do the same thing that they would want their daughters to do. Small steps lead to big changes in terms of social impact and that is what our mothers should do,” she stresses. I agree completely, though I do feel it is as much the responsibility of the fathers as it is of mothers.

Body positivity is here to stay

I asked her about this topic for the simple reason that most of us have, at various points in our life, come across people (family, friends, and influencers) who try and make us feel ashamed of our body shape and size. This attitude is prevalent across genders, professions or age groups, which makes it almost impossible to accept our body as it is when every other person that we know is advocating the exact opposite thing i.e. drown yourself in the pool of pity and self-loathing until you get that hourglass figure, regardless of the fact that trying to do so can cause numerous physiological and psychological problems.

Vedika says, “The whole idea of body positivity is to accept your body as it is. So staying away from social media pages that obsess over particular body shape and size and demonizing people who fail to attain that. It is vital to ask oneself as to how a particular body shape or size allows others to make judgments about who you are. And it is equally important to seek the company of those people who accept you the way you are and not force you to be someone else.”

What ahead?

Vedika is extremely excited about what the future has in store for her, something that was apparent in our conversation. Apart from continuing with what she is doing currently, she wants to make an impact in the field of human rights along with working on a sequel to her book.

“My ultimate aim is to study law and be a human rights lawyer ten years down the line. I am also working on a second book which goes by the title of ‘Patriarchy ka pack-up’ which will be a narrative from the men’s perspective on how it feels to be in the box of patriarchy and how it affects their mental health,” she says. At 16, it all seems doable!

A book that needs to be read by all

The book has been received very positively by her readers, also declared ‘best-seller of the year by a well-known bookstore in New Delhi. Vedika has donated the entire sale proceeds to Dream Girl Foundation, an NGO that she has been closely working with for quite some time now.

For someone who has repeatedly been chided as ‘girly’ all throughout his childhood just because of the tears that rolled down his cheeks, reading Boys Will Be Better brought in a sense of both affirmation and relief. For someone who still hides his tears while watching something on the telly, this book serves as a reinforcement that being emotional is not a sign of weakness.

For far too long, men have closed themselves off in every possible way when it comes to expressing their inner feelings. But every now and then those feelings burst out in the open in the most violent of ways that benefits no one. It is time that we address this issue. And Boys Will Be Better is a step  in that direction.

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Images source: Vedika Sharma

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