The Way We Look


“Look upon the world with loving eyes and the reflection everyone sees will contain love.” 

― Bryant McGill


A: Yes, I went to their house to meet her.

B: Did you see her children?

A: It was late by the time I got to their house. So only the oldest one was awake. The youngest is just 3 months old.

B: Now that she has three children, is she fat?

I interrupted in an exasperated tone, ‘How does that even matter? She’s just had a child!’

Later that evening, as I kept playing that conversation in my head, it hit me: it’s things like these that make even a five-year-old child have body image issues.

A meerkat crowned for its looks by fellow meerkat judges, leaving out other animals
Photo Credit: Jeanne Masar via Compfight cc

Why?

Because when we define a woman by the way she looks, when we use words like “fat”, “too thin”, “sexy eyes”, “big nose”, “chunky thighs”, “ugly”, “big boobs”, “pretty”,  we are reducing her entire existence to be the sum total of her body parts, labelling each, as if she’s a specimen to be dissected. We are telling her that it doesn’t matter if she’s brilliant, smart and intelligent, it doesn’t matter if she’s talented, if she has a successful career she loves, if she’s kind and generous, it doesn’t even matter if she’s a good human being, because her one sole purpose in life is to fall within the purview of what others consider to be “beautiful”. And let’s be clear here, it’s physical beauty we are after. Whoever cares about what’s on the inside? The heart and the mind are just organs to keep us alive, right?

I talked to my husband about this, he’s usually my sounding board, and he said something that made me realise I wasn’t looking at the whole picture here. He said, even men have to deal with the pressure of looking a certain way. That’s what all the men’s magazines do as well. All the male models in magazines and commercials look a particular way. Unless you have a chiselled body and sculpted features, you are not “handsome”. If you have an “average body” , whatever that means, “you are too lazy to work out and don’t care about how you look”.

It is true men have to deal with body shaming as well, but the thing is, a man’s success is not usually diminished by the way he looks. But for a woman, no matter how much she has achieved, she still has to measure up to unreachable expectations of others’ idea of “beauty”.

What makes all this doubly sad is that we women try so hard to measure up to that unattainable expectation and blame ourselves when we can’t. Worse, we do the same to other women, commenting on their looks, telling them how they are supposed to look and how they have failed miserably at it. And as we spread our own insecurities, we seem to forget how much such comments can dent people’s self-image. We don’t even pause to question why we try to measure up to someone else’s expectation of physical beauty! Why does a woman even need to be defined by the way she looks? Wouldn’t it be better if we valued ourselves for who we are as individuals, for our achievements, for our talents, rather than some random notion of physical appearance?

As I’m about to bring a little boy into this world, all this makes me question, what are we teaching our children when we define people by the way they look? When we comment on the way a little girl looks and make it the only thing that matters about her, we are also telling the little boy hearing that comment, that it’s okay to objectify women. We are telling him that a woman’s physical appearance is all that matters and he doesn’t have to bother to look beyond that, that he can be disrespectful to women, and treat her like some property to be owned, because, hey, she’s just a collection of beautiful parts, perfected to look just the way he likes, and her feelings, her thoughts, her existence, don’t really count for anything on it’s own, right? That little boy will grow up believing that women want to be treated this way, and will not understand that women deserve respect.

At once, I hear an indignant voice in my head saying, ‘No son of mine is going to be disrespectful to women!’ I’m not sure how I feel about that, because as a parent it’s not my job to control my child’s life, it’s not my job to dictate his entire existence. But as a mother, as a parent, it is my job to teach him to respect women and respect himself. It is my job  to give him the confidence to realise that a person’s gender, their physical appearance, the colour of their skin, their race, their sexual orientation, their economic status, do not define who they are, and it is not okay to judge a person, especially based on those factors. What matters is their heart and mind, their character, and their actions. And I hope that he grows up to be the kind of person who never makes anyone, girl or boy, feel self conscious about their body, and he sees himself for who he is, and not how he looks.

The fact is, it is not enough to teach girls to be confident and secure in their skills and talents as a person, instead of focussing their energies on how they look. We have to teach boys to look at a person as a whole and not as a girl with individual body parts, to respect a person for all that they are, instead of dissecting their appearance. And, though a large part of the beauty and fashion industry seems to relish preying on people’s insecurities, to all those who are obsessed with how people look, and are focussed on others’ flaws, I have only one thing to say: Stop, NOW, or step away from us and our children.

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