Mirror Mirror on the wall who is the fairest of them all? Read a 6 year old from a popular fairy tale. “Mamma, why did she want to be the fairest? Do you have to be fair to be a princess?
A very valid question from the mouth of babes. Social psychology has often emphasised looking at stories and folklore to understand society. So what do our stories tell us? Both the Grimm’s fairy tales and the “Raja Rani Ki kahani” that we so enthusiastically read to our children have a very stereotypic images. The beautiful princess, the handsome prince, the ugly witch and the uglier giant. Its always the fair handsome God who kills the ugly obese Rakshas which means that even our mythology is not beyond body shaming.
It’s not just the old literature that is the culprit. Even our modern stories are trapped under the pressure of beauty. Don’t so many of them focus on how the ugly duckling becomes a swan and then suddenly everyone starts respecting them.
Ever wondered what these stories are teaching our kids. Kids who still have not understood the shades of life and still look at life as black or white. So either you have to be beautiful to be nice and handsome to be brave or you automatically become evil!!
There is a concept in psychology called the “halo effect” which basically means that if you like a person you like everything about him or her and vice versa. To put it more romantically it just means beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.
I remember reading a story as a child which was different from the rest of beautiful character stories. It was a story about a little girl who gets lost and cannot find her mother. She only says “my mother is the most beautiful woman in the world”. Now typically the king calls all the fair maidens of his kingdom but the girl just shakes her head. Finally comes a middle aged woman, plump and red faced, sweat pouring from her face. The little girl jumps into her arms and hugs her beautiful mother.
This story really touched my heart. Why can’t our stories be more like this? But sadly, it’s not just the stories and the folklore but our modern media too which body shames us on a daily basis.
Let’s look at our TV ads…I recently met an over worked mother who was almost in tears because of her 6 year old. “He is too demanding. He wants me to be like the T.V moms!!!” Meaning? That she has to be slim and pretty and wear nice clothes at home. “If moms on TV can do it why can’t you?” he argued.
So he is a 6 year old, he will grow out of it. Right? Wrong. Because the bombarding continues through adolescence to adulthood.
You can be equal-equal to a man only when you have a glowing fair skin!! And here I thought education was the key…but then what do I know. I never used the said product.
But it’s not enough to be pretty, you have to have size zero figure too. I really need more education. I grew up believing zero was a round figure but apparently no!!
This bias is not just limited to women. Men too are trapped under having a macho image for a girl to like them. I recently met a kid all of 15 years who bunked college to go to the gym. “Why?” I asked, he rolled his eyes and said “because I want muscles”….Ummm and you already have around 640 of them in your body. Ok we have already established that I am stupid, didn’t we?
How many of us unconsciously drill into the child’s head the need for beauty? Our stories, our songs, our media and our comments very passively point out that only beautiful people are liked and well received.
We can blame the media all we like but the truth is that we very subtly body shame a person. I grew up listening to “your mother is so beautiful, you must look like your dad.” Now I can laugh it off but as a growing adolescent it did make me insecure. Sometimes we even compliment one person by shaming the other “Your mom looks younger than you”. Yes the mother swells with pride but what about the teenager who is made to feel that she looks older than her mother.
Even our compliments are judgmental. “She’s dark but has a very charming face” or “She would look so beautiful if she lost a little weight” or “You need to work out to look like a man” It’s endless.
What do I do? Well it’s not too late to start changing our stories. Next time you read out a story to your child, let the princess be plain looking and the witch be beautiful. Don’t use lines like she was plain looking but the most intelligent girl or though he was skinny he was brave. Introduce your child to the subtler concepts of beauty like the smiling face and the confident eyes.
Next time don’t berate your spouse for putting on weight. Don’t look at your old photos and lament on how beautiful you looked.
Body shaming is not just about directly insulting a person; it is also about our subtler comments. You may think that not calling someone fat or ugly to their face is reflection of how aware you are but that’s not enough. The change needs to start with our acceptance of self as people too. The moment you body shame yourself there is a child around you who is forming negative body image. When you lament about putting on weight there is a kid getting anxious about her diet.
Be kind to your reflection, be a kind reflection to the others.
Now let a new story begin “mirror mirror on the wall ….who is the kindest of them all”.