Breaching pigeonholes: Lifting head and heart

In a society that tries to standardize thinking, individuality is not highly prized. -Alex Grey In this era of rapid technological advancement, one would assume that society’s mindset would evolve accordingly. However, it is disheartening to witness the persistence of outdated stereotypes among even educated and sophisticated individuals. These stereotypes restrict the freedom of expression […]

In a society that tries to standardize thinking, individuality is not highly prized.
-Alex Grey

In this era of rapid technological advancement, one would assume that society’s mindset would evolve accordingly. However, it is disheartening to witness the persistence of outdated stereotypes among even educated and sophisticated individuals. These stereotypes restrict the freedom of expression and individuality, with consequences that extend far beyond the present generation. What are we truly imparting to future generations with these regressive mindsets?

Unfortunately, incidents and attitudes that reinforce stereotypes continue to prevail in our society and girls and women have been the prime victims of patriarchy and toxic masculinity for ages. A recent example is the case of Prachi Nigam, who faced online bullying due to her facial hair, despite achieving top marks in the UP 10th Board exam, Uttar Pradesh. Such instances highlight the shallowness and maliciousness of certain individuals, emphasizing the urgent need for a transformation in mindset. Instead of judgment, let us choose silence and reserve admiration for those whose appearances align with our preconceived notions.

If one can’t appreciate someone’s genius and hard work, one need not to pass his/her judgment as well. These type of persons can better choose to see those saree draped or short flaunting dresses type influencers with fair skin, bleached faces and waxed legs in Insta reels silently rather than speaking loud about those who are beyond their little head and heart. And what if a beautiful girl had topped or a boy haired like a bear would have topped, no body had trolled liked this. We should wholeheartedly appreciate that both masculinity and femininity, together, form the complete spectrum of existence, Brahmanda, and both should be valued and respected, moreover, the talent should be valued rather than trolling due to appearance hurting sentiments.

The power of movies to challenge stereotypes cannot be underestimated. “Margarita with a Straw,” starring the talented Kalki Koechlin, beautifully portrays the human potential for desire and achievement. This film serves as a reminder that judgment, criticism, and discrimination have no place in a progressive society. Another influential movie, “Parched,” courageously confronts societal norms regarding female appearance, body image, and desires. Through its compelling narrative, this film urges us to embrace individuality and personal aspirations.

A personal account shared by a former colleague deeply shook me and inspired me to write about this issue. She revealed how her husband forced her to quit her job simply because she was overweight. He belittled her appearance and shattered her self-esteem, claiming that her physique would reflect poorly on him in professional settings. What settings? What situation? That she is a fat lady with some extra pounds on her body. But does her weight diminish her talent, dedication, and perseverance? It is disheartening to witness such discrimination, especially when her colleagues, administrators, and even company management had always valued her professionalism and performance. It reminds me the words of Simone de Beauvoir what she writes in “The Second Sex”- “male defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being”, but as an object, a body with so many social constraints.

Even at celebratory events such as weddings, there is often pressure to conform to societal standards of beauty. I have personally experienced this pressure when an overly concerned relative constantly adjusted my glasses to make me appear more attractive during a function. But why should someone else dictate my perception of beauty? I am comfortable with who I am, glasses and all, including my choice to wear lipstick.

This prompts us to question why we are so drawn to superficial pleasures; the joys of flesh, fixated on physical appearances, while neglecting the pursuit of higher levels of consciousness. We need to challenge ourselves to move beyond judging others based on their physical attributes and instead value and respect individuals for their true selves, regardless of their race, gender, physicality, or any other external parameter. Sonakshi Sinha’s film, “Double XL,” also conveys a powerful message about breaking the barriers surrounding female appearances and desires. Through her participation in this empowering film, Sinha contributes to the ongoing battle against societal stereotypes.

Just recently, an esteemed magazine made a mistake while publishing an article written by one of my writer friends. When she pointed out the error, the editor’s response was paradoxical. Instead of admitting the mistake and rectifying it, he requested a simple photo of look alike an author, rather than a photo where she appeared beautiful or wore red lipstick or kohl in her eyes. Where is it written in the rulebook of journalism that authors should not wear red lipstick or submit such photos for publication? What stereotypes and mentality are at play here? Does the presence of lipstick hinder the writing and publication process, or does it make the man sitting in the editor’s chair uncomfortable? The movie “Lipstick Under My Burkha” also addresses such crucial issues and emphasizes the urgent need for a shift in mindset to foster the holistic growth of our nation. It advocates for a society that encourages and accepts diverse desires and aspirations of women.

A few months ago, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, I had an interesting conversation with my teenage daughter. She noticed some homemakers from our society at the book stalls and asked why they would be interested in attending an intellectual event. She wondered out loud about their role in society, considering their fondness for extravagant festivities and traditional celebrations, often accompanied by elaborate makeup, hairstyles, and gaudy ethnic attire. They are frequently seen celebrating Navratri, Karwachauth, or participating in lively cultural activities such Bhangra, Dandia or Bhajan Keertan. I took this opportunity to explain to her that being a homemaker, devoted to household chores, is a personal choice and does not indicate a lack of education or passion for intellectual pursuits.

Modernism encompasses a fusion of tradition and progress, and it is essential to challenge stereotypes and embrace new ways of thinking and make our youth, the future of the country learn the value of treating others as equals and without reservations.

During this discussion, I emphasized the importance of listening to one’s heart and unapologetically being oneself. Whether one chooses to wear a traditional lehenga or kurta with sports shoes or submits articles to newspapers with a photo where they wear red lipstick, it is entirely an individual decision. No one else should have the authority to dictate how one carries themselves or expresses their identity, especially in the case of girls and women who are often targets of scrutiny.

There is an advertisement by Tanishq in which the lead actress questions whether being called a “superwoman” is a compliment or an expectation. Why are women expected to be servile, good-looking, and excel in every aspect? Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Simone de Beauvior, Kate Millett, bell hooks, Marilyn Frye, Martha Nussbaum and many more feminists have raised their voices against discrimination at global level through their power writings.

In India, Savitribai Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai Shinde, Dr Anandibai Joshi, and Ramabai Ranade, Amrita Pritam, Ismat Chugtai and many more talked about individual growth, care and humanism as virtue; fought for human rights, rights of education and rights of human development when women were considered mindless, opinion-free objects of desire. Unfortunately girls and women of our country are still facing humiliation and discrimination at various levels.

In his book “The Feminist Challenge”, David Bouchier says that women face any form of social, personal or economic discrimination because of their sex. Therefore, it is high time we break free from these stereotypes and prejudices and create a society that encourages individuality, celebrates diversity, and allows everyone the freedom to express themselves without fear of judgment. Only by embracing newness and accepting others as they are and as equals can assist in true progress as a society.

It is crucial to value individual desires and the importance of respecting and accepting physical appearances as they are in today’s society. It is disgraceful to demean or harass someone based on parameters such as skin color, height, beauty, education, wealth, weight, and more. Every human being is composed of the panch tatva (five elements), and although some may have more or less flesh or fairness, we are all creations of Brahma. Therefore, why do people’s manas (minds) and hridya (hearts) gravitate towards superficial qualities and incline towards rhapsodies of epithelium, knowingly or unknowingly causing harm to others, rather than seeking the ecstasy of mindfulness? No one has the right to judge others; instead, we must learn to value and respect beyond color, race, gender, and physical appearance.

It is high time that we recognize the importance of individual desires and choices and strive to create a society that respects and accepts everyone, regardless of their physical appearances or imperfections. Movies like “Margarita with a Straw,” “Parched,” “Double XL,” and “Lipstick Under My Burkha” and writings and philosophies of many thinkers, writers and feminists serve as powerful reminders of the significance of inclusivity and the need to break free from societal norms that restrict individual potential and growth.

(Dr. Shalini Yadav is a professor, poet, and columnist.)