|HER WORLD||Sunday, July 27, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
Weighing the ‘slim’ ideal with a reality check
I feel strongly
NAMITA and Sunita are both in Class 4 of St Xavier’s High School in Bhubaneswar, Orissa. Both board the school bus at the same stop. From the time she boards the bus in the morning to the time she leaves school for the day, Namita is full of sparkle. She is friendly with the driver and offers dimpled smiles to her school seniors. She gets all the affectionate pats.
On the other hand, Sunita’s mother has visited her daughter’s class teacher thrice in the last quarter. The complaint: her daughter is reticent, and has very few friends though academically she is among the top five in her class. In a nutshell, the mother’s worry is that her daughter is not getting any ‘smarter’ (or socially skilful) even after four years in school. Her teacher has no answer. Where could the problem lie?
A study on the ‘Role of (the) Mother in Educational Achievement and Social Development of Children’ by Sucheta Priyabadini, at Utkal University in Orissa, explores the changing role of mothers today. The study looks at urban settings in which employed and unemployed mothers influence the academic and social competence of children who are eight to 10 years old.
The clue to Sunita’s diffidence may be found not with the child herself but with her mother, who is a housewife. Namita’s mother on the other hand, works in a city hospital. The study indicates that children of employed mothers, particularly daughters, exhibit higher self-esteem than those of unemployed mothers. Interestingly, however, while girls of employed mothers have better personalities, those of unemployed mothers are more often academic achievers. In addition, unemployed mothers are seen to emphasise the importance of good behaviour, and hence their children are generally "better mannered".
The findings of the study contradict the general notion that mothers with jobs are unable to give adequate attention to their children resulting in a negative impact on their academic performance. The study finds that children of employed mothers fare better in school and definitely better in general knowledge. Besides, these children have higher motivation levels and are socially more competent in comparison to their peers.
High future aspirations, exposure to latest technologies, access to more educational inputs and aids, general awareness and career orientation are highest among children of employed mothers. This owes to the mother’s high education, her exposure to the outside world, her varied and possibly large social group, her sense of social competitiveness and, of course, the advantages of double income. Typical of the collective social attitude of Indians, however, mothers, irrespective of their employment status, are found to be more involved with the education of their sons than their daughters.
The study observes that parents in general, but mothers in particular, believe that the teaching methodology in schools evidently has a direct bearing on the social competence (read ‘smartness’) of children in this formative age group. Which, perhaps, partly explains the rush by urban parents to enrol their children in expensive private schools even when they can ill-afford the cost.
This observation is also borne out by both earlier and recent analyses of the merit list of the Indian Administrative Services (IAS). While private schools may breed more social confidence, it is the state-aided schools (with a language other than English as the medium of instruction) that, nearly exclusively, produce most of the successes in the examinations.
The home environment, a family’s socio-economic status, the parents’ attitude towards, and involvement in, school activities as well as child-rearing styles are other factors influencing a child’s scholastic and social development. The study also observes that in a household with an unemployed mother, the cultural environment, the economic status and the number of siblings all play an important role, in this order, particularly in the area of motivating a child.
In conclusion, the indications are that
employed mothers who try to achieve a balance between their home and
their job, those who are satisfied with their jobs and get support from
the family are much more responsive to their children’s academic
growth. — WFS
US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book Living History sold more than 200,000 copies within a day of its launch worldwide. With the former first lady of the USA telling the truth about President’s Clinton’s love life in the White House, the issue of why even empowered women like her live with infidelity in marriage has once again acquired importance, says Vimla Patil.
HILLARY Clinton is an American woman. Which means that she is a citizen of the world’s richest and most powerful democracy, where the constitution gives equal rights to everyone. She is highly educated. In fact, she is a very successful lawyer by profession. Added to this is the fact that she is an internationally acknowledged woman, who is presently a powerful senator in the US House of Representatives. She is financially independent. She is the wife of a former President of the United States. With all these incredible epithets, Hillary Clinton has, according to her recent book Living History not only accepted her husband’s ‘infidelity’ but also the truth that he lied to her about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky! Hillary Clinton, in her television interviews following the phenomenal sales of her book, confessed that despite her initial rage, disgust and frustration, she chose to stay on in the marriage because ‘Bill Clinton was not only her husband but also her President.’ She said she owed him support at a time when his career was at stake!
Hillary Clinton’s book and the well-publicised interviews she has given after its publication have brought the issue of infidelity into the limelight yet again. It is an uncanny co-incidence In various channels, women are shown to tolerate or even accept infidelity in their husbands, despite their anguish. Explaining this phenomenon, producers like Ekta Kapoor say, "Whenever we try to divert from the Sati Savitri image of an Indian woman, the TRPs of a serial drop instantly. Both male and female audiences in India want to see love stories where a wife remains loyal to her husband come what may and often, stands steadfastly with him despite his philandering."
Which is what Hillary Clinton has exactly done! Why have women in every age accepted infidelity from husbands with anguish or rage and then resignation? The reasons are many and strangely enough, they apply in every age, every strata of society and every country — irrespective of whether women have changed dramatically, become educated and worldly wise and even financially well off.
The first reason is perhaps the oldest one. That in every society from time immemorial, men have been expected to have relationships with more than one woman. Men are promiscuous by nature and women are monogamous by instinct — this is the theory on which human society is based. To an extent, this theory is supported by biology, which says that since the male of the species does not bear progeny, he has the propensity to look at sex as just pleasure. Whereas the female of the sex knows instinctively that she is the mother of the next generation! Therefore, she is more selective in the choice of a mate. Nature makes sure that the female of every species chooses a healthy, attractive male as the father of her offspring. Naturally women will be choosy about whom they have sex with and men will feel freer to experiment.
History as well as religious scriptures of all religions prove that men in bygone ages had the right not only to marry several wives but also to look at attractive women to satisfy their lust. Each wife in the harem of a man was expected to be faithful to the husband, he had the freedom to visit the home of any wife or a concubine at his will. In Indian mythology, every mahanayak or great hero had several wives, with the exception of Rama, who swore that he would only marry Sita. Every godling is credited with several wives and romantic partners. Historically too, nawabs and maharajas routinely married several wives and had mistresses. Often, marriages were used for cementing political alliances. Women in both the above circumstances were brought up to believe that they would always have to compete to get the attention of the husband by looking beautiful, or serving him with devotion or somehow winning his favours. This need to please men and win their favours has historically remained as a residue among women even today. For countless generations, they have accepted that a woman’s position in her husband’s life is insecure and that he can get another woman any time. The fear or jealousy of a souten has been traditionally celebrated in classical dance and music and folk songs all over India.
However, today’s woman is more worldly wise after 55 years of Independence. She is an equal participant of progress in the modern age of technology. Yet, the kernel of fear and insecurity has stayed in the secret recesses of her heart. Even in this techy age when women are educated, earning and self reliant men are still seen as more promiscuous than women which is why more women are engaged in prostitution than their male counterparts. Women faced by infidelity often choose security and social status over their self-respect!
Many women whose husbands are unfaithful tolerate their misdemeanours because of financial necessity. They do not have an income. Or, what they earn is not nearly enough to live a lifestyle they are used to. Mothers have an added fear that their children, if taken away, might suffer in their education and their future lives. Losing children to the father, who is considered the legal guardian, is yet another fear due to which women tolerate unfaithfulness in their husbands.
In several cases, when a husband is unfaithful, his family shows complete support and solidarity with the wife and the children. Women, though angry and anguished, stay on for the sake of the larger or extended family, which promises a normal life to her and the children. Yet other women, especially those in their later years, fear loneliness and the spectre of managing life single-handed. Most women are not trained or mentally prepared to handle every aspect of life on their own strength. For them to be father, mother, earner, homemaker and every other person to the children and the world at large is a frightening nightmare. They have not been brought up to deal with this responsibility, nor have they the experience.
A man at any age can get a much younger female mate — ’young enough to be his daughter’ as they say — for money or lure of power and a deluxe lifestyle. There are few women who can afford to ‘shop’ for a suitable mate in the open market for attractive males. Though more and more elder-women and youngermen relationships are coming to light these days, most women find it difficult to relate to men young enough to be their sons. The motherly instinct debars them from seeking mates from the younger generation. The fear of hurting their children or losing their dignity in the eyes of their families and friends is a further disincentive in opting for extra marital relationships. It is also true that in middle-aged couples, the sex drive is often naturally less or completely dead, so that sex does not remain a barometer of the success or failure of a marriage. A dignified life, space for each other and enough money to live comfortably and provide for the children are much bigger issues than a random affair by the husband. However, the converse of this theory may not be true.
Most of all, the reason Hillary Rodham
Clinton gave for staying in her marriage to Bill Clinton, who had not
only been unfaithful to her, but also lied about his affair, applies to
all women. They do not want to rock the boat of their lives as long as
it helps them to remain afloat. "As long as he comes home to me and
treats me and the children with dignity, what he does outside does not
bother me," say most wives who opt for security and status quo!
Weighing the ‘slim’ ideal with a reality check
A friend of mine is very upset about her increasing weight. She has started dieting, takes walks mornings and evenings regularly. Every time I meet her, her first question is, do you notice any change in my figure? My friend is a lecturer who has a 16-year-old daughter. Should we blame her obsession with thinness as a side effect of approaching-middle-age syndrome? What about the fact that her daughter is showing signs of being an anorexic?
Why are so many women dissatisfied with their body image? Who is putting pressure on us to be young and thin? You will find an answer right in your living room. just look around and you will find the culprit, your television set. When we’re not being bombarded with images of tall, slender and glamorous young women in programmes where all the fat characters are there for comedy value only, we then get subjected to adverts for slimming and weight-loss products on tele shopping programmes. True, no one forces us to buy these products in order to look like stars, but you can’t get away from TV, it’s everywhere. Leading characters in the current crop of TV shows and serials are all thin. The TV shows with the highest ratings have tall thin lead actresses. The subtle message that this is sending across is that the key to success in today’s society is to be young, tall and thin. Characters that are heavier are usually elderly, matronly, in low status occupation or on the wrong side of turf. Television is the most powerful communication medium in our whole visually oriented society.
The most disturbing thing is that men are not under the same pressure to kowtow. Although changing trends indicate that men are becoming more obsessed with their appearance than ever before (men’s saloons now provide threading, waxing and massage facilities which was never heard of before), society accepts a far wider variety of male body shapes than female. Women still shower affection on their boyfriends/husbands when they pile on the pounds. But the men find their partners unattractive if they happen go up a couple of dress sizes. Men can go without shaving and still feel sexy, but woman misplaces her razor and all hell breaks loose! Men can grow old gracefully, whereas women are constantly being told that wrinkles are bad and will make you look like a banshee.
In a recent survey by a teen magazine, 27 per cent of the girls felt that the media pressures them to have a perfect body, and a poll conducted in 1996 by the international ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi found that ads made women fear being unattractive or old. Teenagers have always been teased at school for looking fatter, thinner, taller or shorter than their peers but, as the magazine market for young girls increases and the desire to grow up kicks in at earlier ages than ever before, young women are finding it more and more difficult to accept the way they look.
Researchers suggest advertising media may adversely impact women’s body image, which can lead to unhealthy behavior as women and girls strive for the ultra-thin body idealised by the media. Girls suffering from anorexia show a refusal to maintain body weight over a minimal normal weight for age and height. They are disturbed by their body image and are always claiming to feel fat. They have intense fear of gaining weight. Bulimia is another psychological illness similar to anorexia. It is the practice of consuming enormous amounts of food then throwing them up to avoid weight gain. Girls suffering form bulimia have recurrent episodes of binge eating and regularly engage in self-induced vomiting an average of twice a week). These girls have persistent over concern with body shape and weight.
Shame seems to be another component of women’s attitudes toward their bodies. Women and girls are also consistently taught from an early age that their self-worth is largely dependent on how they look. In the eyes of society, women like Kareena Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai are the epitome of perfection. What girl would not want to look like them? Unfortunately, a number of girls want to be just like them. Every year, millions of people are hurting themselves trying to be carbon copies of these sex symbols. The media presents society with unrealistic body types promoting people, especially women, to look like them. Through TV shows, commercials, magazines or any form of advertising, the media enforces a certain body type which women emulate.
The media reflect images of thinness and links this image to other symbols of prestige, happiness, love and success for women. Repeated exposure to the thin ideal via the various media can lead to the internalisation of this ideal. It also renders these images achievable and real. Until women are confronted with their own mirror images, they will continue to measure themselves against an inhuman ideal.
How can we prevent our daughters from falling victims to this fallacy of beauty? We must prepare our girls to counter traditional stereotypes that encourage girls to be nothing more than "sugar and spice and everything nice."
Praise girls for their skills and successes, not only for their appearances. Say, "You did a terrific job," instead of "you look pretty today." Avoid rescuing girls. Encourage them to get dirty, dishevelled and sweaty climbing trees or playing in the grass. Allow them to take risks. Debunk the myth of Prince Charming. Eery girl needs to be prepared to support herself. Teach girls to watch TV and movies with a critical eye. Discuss what you’ve seen together: Look for strong, smart women who are not limited to "traditional" roles. Use TV to start a discussion about body image.
If you see something
unfair or biases on television. Write a letter to your local station or
the producers of the show sharing your concern. Support the work of
women campaigning for girls’ and women’s rights and equality. By
volunteering your time or money, or by supporting women-owned
businesses, you can make a difference in the world and in girls’
lives. The only way our culture will change is if we stop believing in
the social attitudes which make us fell not good enough and start
believing in ourselves and our right to OUR individual body.
I feel strongly
"The male hears in language only that which speaks in the masculine." —Helene Cixous (French feminist)
IN one of his scintillating verses, Kaka Hathrasi wonders why in Hindi the word Juda (the bun women make of their hair) has masculine verb usage and why moustache, the symbol of masculinity has feminine. The vagary of language leaves him flabbergasted as he gives up his efforts to comprehend the incomprehensible logic, if any. Feminism has already popularised new terms such as chairperson, spokesperson, Ms that have been incorporated into the dictionaries and the thesaurus. Identifying linguistic sexism is easier than eliminating it because language is not only a medium of communication but it has also the power to reflect and create culture. Attitudinal change is hard to come by. It is because of the conditioning of ages. Interesting facts regarding how we are conditioned by the use of language and its intonations and how they affect our reactions have come to light during various sociological and psychological researches. During one such study conducted by psychologists J. Condry and S. Condry, a group of individuals were asked to interpret a baby’s cry. They were not told the gender of the baby. All those who thought it was a male baby interpreted the cry as ‘anger’ and those who thought that the baby was a girl called it ‘fear.’ Obviously, anger and its allied emotions denoting strength and power are associated with masculine characteristics, and the reverse emotions like fear, weakness, and powerlessness are traditionally connected with the feminine. In the usage of language, too, women in almost all cultures are required to use different qualifying phrases than men do. These tend to be and are expected to be on the softer side: more refined, veiled and indirect. The male vocabulary, even if rough and direct is condoned. The defining principle of male-female expression is in itself gendered.
Words such as ‘he’ or ‘man’ when presented without context are judged as unambiguously signifying both male and female. These are known as "masculine generic" and are widely accepted. Sentences like: "Each candidate is required to sign his name" or "Man must do his duty," traditionally include women, when the sex is not specified. This grammatical rule not only makes women invisible but also shows a masculine-bias.
An interesting anecdote shows how these expressions have become culture and gender-specific. Once, a father and his son met with an accident. They were brought to hospital where it was discovered that the son would have to be operated upon. On seeing the boy on the operation table, the surgeon exclaimed, "I can’t do this operation. The boy is my son." What could be the relation of the surgeon to the family? When this quiz was placed before a group of men and women, it took them some time to decode the answer. On further investigation it was found that most of them could not guess instantly that the "surgeon" could be a female and the boy’s mother.
Interestingly, the masculine words have prestige and positive import. Men who enter the culinary profession are chef or couturier; if a plan or work is of high quality it is masterful; your credit card is master card; and if you write a brilliant book or produce an excellent work of art, it turns out to be your masterpiece; similarly you get your Masters or Bachelor’s degree. In this scheme of things where does the mistress stand? Likewise, words such as usherer, wizard, king, prince, lord, governor are elevated whereas their feminine usherette, witch, queen, madam, dame, governess have acquired trivialized meanings.
Feminist psychologist Alleen Nilson opines that the adjectives/verbs men use to describe women and their activities show the partiality of language towards men. She describes it thus:
The chicken metaphor tells the whole story of a girl’s life. In her youth she is a chick, then she marries and begins to feel cooped up, so she goes to hen parties where she cackles with her friends. Then she has her brood and begins to henpeck her husband. Finally she turns into an old biddy.
And now let me end this piece with a masterstroke: Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic finding that hysteria predominantly afflicts women angered feminists. But it was not Freud’s fault; it is the language, again. The word hysteria comes from the Greek root Hystera meaning the womb with which it was thought to be connected. The very word virtue is male: it comes from an old English root Wer, meaning man and so virtuous is manly.