Rashmi Vasudeva recalls how being compared to her mother impacted her own body image, and how it influences her relationship with her own daughter
My earliest memory of my nose was me trying to pinch it into shape. I remember standing in front of our hazy mirror and religiously pinching and pulling it every day. My parents never really grasped its importance they dismissed it as one of my many amusing eccentricities.
I was around 11 then and my nose was not my only woe. I had just begun puberty. I was tall for my age, my breasts were getting formed, and I was, what politically correct people call pleasantly plump. I also wore thick-rimmed glasses. My mother was young (she was only 22 when I was born), svelte and fair. I was ‘wheatish’ complexioned, a uniquely Indian and patronising description of brown skin that I hated then and hate now. I had a stub for a nose while my mother’s and father’s and uncles’ and aunts’ were all Roman aquiline.
Already painfully shy and a certified introvert (my relatives routinely labelled me kudmi or pustakada badnekai -- someone who always has their nose in a book), I hated attending family functions. I was routinely accosted by my random relatives who made conversation with me by informing me that I had turned a shade darker since the time they last saw me. To their credit, some also told me consolingly that I had turned fairer! All I remember wanting in those moments was to turn into a mouse and scamper away.
But I felt most miserable when my looks and personality were compared with my mother’s. I was often told I looked like my mother’s sister and this was meant as a compliment to my mother. Sometimes, I was even told that my mother looked younger than me. (Cue...laughter all around). Joke? I didn't know. Snark? I didn't understand then. Plain, casual attempt at empty conversation? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
As an 11-year-old, these words smote me bad. I caught myself looking at my mother with new eyes and thinking new thoughts. I must admit now, after all these years, those eyes were jaundiced and those thoughts were not very nice. I desperately wished to be like my mother and I desperately wished to be very unlike her. I wanted her to be beautiful and I wanted her to be dowdy. I have a faint memory of telling my mother not to wear salwar kameez anymore; clearly, my wretched attempt at making her look older by confining her to sarees.
It took me my entire teen years and a few more to break free of this suffocating image I had of myself. The chains began getting broken when my reading picked up; books opened up to me worlds of people who are black, brown, pink and white. Here were people who had freckles and yet fell in love; where stub noses were as okay as aquiline ones and where men made passes at even girls who wore glasses. No, I can never forgive Dorothy Parker for saying what she said. But in hindsight, I feel my body image limited my potential – I hesitated to learn theatre and dancing, both of which I really wanted to do.
My well-meaning parents never comprehended the extent to which it occupied my mind-space; nor did they understand the long-term effects it had on my thinking and personality. In their love-clouded eyes, nobody could be more beautiful than their daughter and their confidence in their love blinded them to what their daughter might be feeling. Only my aunt empathized and so many years hence, I still remember her telling me, “Rashmi, aren’t you happy you have such a beautiful mother? Be happy about that and ignore the rest,” she had told me. That was the first time I heard about ignoring noise.
Today, I am 38 and I have a three-year-old daughter who has a stub nose and she is the cutest thing that has ever happened to me. We do tease our daughter about her nose (Oh! Your little nose is growing smaller!) which makes her hold it tight but we laugh about our own noses too. We want her to see that it is rather liberating to laugh at oneself. But we also make sure to tell her it is the most beautiful nose in the world.
Nurturing a positive body image in our daughter and teaching her to“ignore the noise” because noise is inevitable, is for us a crucial step in helping her become a healthy, well-rounded adult. Our society is still fixated with conventional standards of beauty and will always be. Body image issues in the public space are mostly about extreme distortion -- as in the case of girls who develop eating disorders. But the everyday issues girls face because their colour or shape don't align to a supposed ideal is hardly talked about. I know what it means to be insecure about how one looks and I have experienced how it can drag your confidence down and make you jittery about any terrific talent you might have. Most of us do and it is up to us as parents to be constantly aware and sensitive to what our daughters and sons are thinking about themselves.
What we want for her is to be always okay about how she looks, and more importantly, not make it a dominant part of who she is, what she has to offer to the world and her sense of self-worth. We want to teach her not to get carried away by praise or be pulled down by lack of approval. How do we do this?
It will not work by pretending gorgeous people don't exist or lecture her about how appearances don’t matter. Gorgeousness exists, and, appearances, alas, do matter. What perhaps, may be more effective (and I say perhaps, because parenting is always a perhaps), is to listen to her concerns, acknowledge reality and tell her your stories. Let her know, as subtly as possible, that we had body image issues too and we overcame it and she should not let it come in the way of what she wants to do or be.
Another thing I have noticed is our anxiety about anything as parents rubs off on our kid. So If she sees us constantly worried about our beauty (or the lack of it), she sure is to pick up those vibes. So we are learning to chill about how we are. It is not easy but nothing worthwhile is.
We tell her it is okay if others do not like her nose or her hair or her eyes. When she runs to the mirror and admires her new hairclip and turns around and asks whether she is looking beautiful, we often ask her back -- what do you think? Do you think you are looking beautiful? Yes? Then you are.