If you have a daughter, as I do, the chances are you call her pretty dozens of times a week, again, as I do. I also routinely call other little girls gorgeous, adorable or some variation of that. There is after all, nothing cuter than the sight of a toddler dressed in frills and ribbons. But an ongoing debate in the parenting world is making me think twice about using these seemingly innocuous words.
American lawyer and TV host Lisa Bloom’s book, “Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World” has drawn much attention since it came out last June. Bloom argues that by constantly praising young girls for being pretty, we are basically telling them that looks are more important than anything else.
Eventually, she believes, it “sets them up for dieting at age five, foundation at age 11, boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23.” Bloom cites statistics to bolster her argument: 15 to 18 per cent of American girls under 12 now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and 25 per cent of young American women would rather win America's Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize.
“As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, women have become increasingly unhappy,” she says.
Over reaction? Perhaps. But it’s hard not to believe that Bloom might have a point, even if she may be overstating it a bit. The warning signs are already here. Currently, 300,000 women worldwide are wondering if their breast implants may rupture inside them, after PIP implants were found to contain non-medical grade silicone. This is a world that now has lotteries with free plastic surgery as the prize, push up bras for eight-year-olds and makeup for kids.
It’s easy, of course, to blame this on evil, shallow, materialistic Western culture. But the fact is that Indians are equally obsessed about the looks of our daughters — especially if it affects their prospects in the marriage market. In the good old days, our grannies told us not to play outside because we would get dark and no one would marry us. In 2012, Fair and Lovely tries to convince our daughters that dark girls are unemployable and fair skin is all they need to get a great job and make their parents proud.
That “imperative to be hot 24/7” is here. According to 2010 statistics, India is number five on the list of nations demanding plastic surgery. The only female role models that get any media attention are film stars, models and those who are a size zero. In most Bollywood movies, the girls are models, singers or action babes in black leather. More often than not, they have no professional aspirations whatsoever, in fact not a thought in their heads beyond marrying the hero. Things are changing, of course with women centric movies like Chak De, No One Killed Jessica, and arguably The Dirty Picture, but even so, women with ambition are usually portrayed as shrewish, bossy, selfish and given to swearing. Why doesn’t Bollywood ever show the normal working woman, the one who manages to juggle work, kids and home without yelling, drinking, wielding a gun or stripping?
It’s almost as if we can’t appreciate female achievement unless it’s in the glamour industry. Even after making it to world number two, Saina Nehwal, like Sania Mirza before her, was, (and still is) constantly asked if she wanted to enter Bollywood. Said Nehwal philosophically in a Times of India interview in 2010, “I guess they will ask sportswomen. They see a young, attractive face and think it's natural to ask.” But would they have asked Rahul Dravid or Leander Paes the same thing?
Even if you win a Booker or a Pulitzer, you are often still judged by your looks. Last year, Rediff did a story on the best looking South Asian writers — surprise, they were all women — with nary a protest from anyone. And there are other, more insidious forms of the obsession with uniform, Stepford wife beauty. Ever notice how all female newscasters and presenters have begun to look the same: young, fair, thin, with poker- straight, ironed hair?
What many young girls don’t realise is that there’s always someone thinner, prettier or more surgically enhanced around the next corner. It’s not a race you can win. In this cruel new world, a beautiful face will get you so far, but no further. It may get you an NRI groom or a job in the glamour world, but give it a few years and both may evaporate into thin air, unlike the more lasting gains of education and yes, hard work.
Of course, it’s difficult to convince self conscious teens that looks aren’t the most important thing, especially given the pressure from Bollywood, the media, and society in general. But we need to try. So should we stop calling our daughters pretty? Definitely not. But perhaps we should also attempt, at least occasionally, to praise not just their looks, but also their brains, courage and determination. Or we may just end up in a dumbed-down world where everyone’s forgotten what a real woman looks like.
Kavitha Rao is a freelance journalist and parent who detests parenting manuals. Her main parenting mantra: “This too shall pass.”
Updated Date: Jan 17, 2012 15:54:54 IST