A study done by this writer as part of her work included interacting with kids aged 6-10 years regarding their dreams and aspirations. One of the probes included asking the kids what they would like to become when they grew up…while the answers given by boys varied from ‘pilot / scientist/ prime minister/ soldier/ Virat Kohli/ businessman’ etc. the answers given by girls were uniquely one dimensional. All girls wanted to be ‘Miss India/ Miss Universe/ film actress’.
Another question asked was regarding the qualities these kids aspire to have. The boys admired qualities like ‘bravery, courage, enterprise, hard work’…whereas all the girls aspired to be ‘pretty and delicate’! This led me to think about why do kids as young as 6-years react so differently to the same question. Professions like pilot and scientist are as achievable for girls as for boys. India had a women Prime Minister some decades ago, but none of the girls knew about Ms. Indira Gandhi or thought of her as a role model. Their role model were the pretty faces that they saw on their TV screens or billboards.
Likewise, if there is a Miss India, there is also a Mr. India (the pageant). But not even one boy said he wanted to be ‘handsome’ and aspired to be Mr. India or Mr. Universe. Why do 6-year-old girls and boys aspire to be different people? Similarly, honesty, bravery, valour, determination are character-building attributes, so why is that only boys want to be brave?
Obviously, there is something immensely wrong in the way we, as parents, as grandparents, as loving families and as society are bringing up our kids. Though well meaning, we are inculcating the wrong values in our kids based on our stereotyped views of their gender. Compliments can and should be gender agnostic. But a little girl is always told that she is so pretty / she looks like a princess/ her frock is like a fairy’s. A little boy, on the other hand, is hardly ever told that he is so handsome/ he looks like prince/ his clothes are like a king’s! He will be complimented on the way he plays football, the way he got up after falling or the way he handled a conversation. To date, I have not been able to understand why this difference exists. My hypothesis is that possibly we are so attuned to evaluating women based on their appearance to the exclusion of other attributes they may have, that subconsciously we start projecting the same belief onto little kids. We do not realise that by giving gendered compliments, we are doing our kids a huge disfavour.
Every time a little girl is told ‘she is so pretty’, she is learning that her appearance is the most important thing about her. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look presentable and attractive but looks cannot be the overarching definition for a person – male or female, adult or kid. Nothing illustrates this fact better than the Navratri festival which is about to start.
The Sharad Navratri is a 9-day festival which focusses on worshipping the various forms of the Goddess Durga. The Goddess is worshipped on different days as Shailputri (daughter of the mountains), Brahmacharini (the one who practices penance), Chandraghanta (the one who wears the crescent moon on her forehead), Kushmanda (giver of warmth and light), Skandmata (mother of Kartikeya), Katyayani (daughter of sage Katyayan), Kaalratri (destroyer of negative energies), Mahagauri (the pure one) and Siddhidatri (fulfiller of divine aspirations).
As is seen by the names itself, Shakti or Goddess Durga is worshipped for either her attributes or her actions. She is always worshipped either as the giver of boons and/ or the destroyer of evil. Depending upon her form, she is depicted in different ways – seated or standing, riding a mount (tiger /bull/donkey etc.), 4 or 8 armed, holding a trishul or sword or japamala among other objects, hands raised to kill or bless, eyes brimming with benevolence or anger.
All the mantras and hymns dedicated to the Goddess either speak of her benevolence, her valour or narrate tales from the multiple forms she chose to appear in. The narrative around each of these forms is focused on the Goddess’ courage, steadfast devotion and commitment. Rarely is there a focus on her ‘beauty’. None of these Goddesses are worshipped because they have long, black tresses, or a flawless complexion or radiant eyes. In fact, some forms of the Goddess defy all norms of conventional beauty.
Unlike many other faiths (except for religions of ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt etc.), Hinduism is a religion where God is not exclusively male. Being a polytheist religion, Hindus have Gods and Goddesses- each of whom have a role to play.
Moreover, there is also no single common narrative in Hinduism. Hence, there are narratives and sects that believe in a single God and multiple devtas (demi-Gods) and devis (demi-Goddesses). Either ways, Hinduism has many female deities who are worshipped with all faith and humility.
Not one of these deities is worshipped because she is pretty or ‘looks like a princess’. Even Goddess Laxmi – the Goddess of wealth, has secondary manifestations like Dhairya Lakshmi (wealth of courage), Vidya Lakshmi (wealth of knowledge) and Vijay Lakshmi (wealth of victory). Ultimately how the Goddess appears is secondary compared to what she does. And rightly so! After all, beauty is simply a matter of genes….it is habits, qualities and actions that should define a person.
It is well known that people affirm what they value. As a society, we focus on how girls look and what boys accomplish. Hence the dominance of matrimonial ads which focus on ‘pretty, fair, slim girls’ and ‘well settled, high income men’. It is a rare to see an ad which speaks of a man’s appearance before his qualifications or income. Likewise, it is rare to spot an ad which speaks of a girl’s qualifications and income with no mention of her appearance.
This tendency to give gender-based compliments is teaching girls that their looks are the first, and often the only thing about them that matters. Thus, the high desire in 6-year-old girls to be beauty queens. While this is a harmless dream to have for small child, it can and does lead to complications as the child grows up. The struggle to achieve a near-impossible perfection in beauty and the desire for a life of unreal glamour leads to low self-esteem and fragile mental and physical health.
Does it mean that we do not compliment girls? No, it does not mean that. But if our Goddesses are worshipped for their bravery, dignity, knowledge and wisdom, why not our daughters and nieces? Maybe the next time, we meet a small girl, we should refrain from telling her that ‘she is so pretty’. It may be better for her if we compliment her on her manners or her intelligence or her sense of humour or the way she plays a game. This Navratri let’s try and inculcate Goddess-like qualities in our girls. They, we and society will be a better place for it.
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Aditi Kumaria Hingu is a marketing graduate from IIM Calcutta, currently she works in the corporate sector. She comes from an army background.