When I was in High School, I stood for elections at School, for the post of a Captain of one of the houses. Just before kids went into cast their vote, I saw a girl telling the girls of my house not to vote for me. She didn’t realize I was around, so I used the advantage of being hidden from view and leaned in closer to listen.
"Don’t vote for her, she is ugly. Vote for the other girl. Do you want someone pretty to hold the flag of your house, or not?" she told the kids. It felt like a punch had landed on my stomach. I felt winded. I don’t remember how I got through the rest of the hour, but I did. The results were announced. I didn’t win.
When I was at Law School, someone told me that I was too fat to hope to stand up before a crowd and even try to convince them of my points. Someone else told me that I was too ugly, and couldn’t be pretty even if I took ‘pretty pills’. Girls would snicker at my lack of fashionableness. Guys would talk to me and tell me that they were nervous around pretty women, and couldn’t talk to pretty women. (Yep, this wasn’t just a line Jackie Chan said to Jennifer Love-Hewitt in The Tuxedo). They wouldn’t take me seriously when I put forth my arguments at presentations. If I got through with anything, they’d say it was pure luck, because according to them, with a face like mine, I couldn’t get anywhere. By then, I was thick skinned. I realized, at this point, that the book is always judged by its cover.
It never mattered to them that I worked hard. It never mattered to them that I walked the extra mile to add to my aptitude, and if they listened, sometimes, I actually did just make sense. It didn’t matter to them that I had no reason to be subject to this shoddy and hasty assessment.
It never mattered to them that I had feelings, too.
And this isn’t just me – I don’t go through this alone. Girls and Women world over are the subject of scrutiny for how much eye-candy they are, and by that yardstick, are allowed the luxury of attention and the boon of being taken seriously.
If Hillary Clinton makes a speech, people have only her short hair, sprightly features and outfit to comment on. When Michelle Obama visits school children in India, the world is too busy commenting on what she wore and how she danced. If Hina Rabbani Khar comes in to meet with the External Affairs minister of India, the media is too concerned about how she wears her headscarf with élan and how she redefines style. If Julia Gillard has something to say, people are too busy noting that her shoe slipped off. No one cares that these women have credentials that most people can only hope to achieve. No one cares that these women have achievements to their credit. No one cares that there is so much more to these women than their parochial understanding of them.
Does anyone check out what Barack Obama is wearing? Or which colour would best bring out David Cameroon’s eyes? Or do they wonder why Ban Ki Moon couldn’t dye his hair auburn? So why target the women, then? Why is the world ignoring women and their achievements? Why is this world so quick to decide that it is her appearance that matters and not her accomplishments?
It isn’t only just a male thing to do – women increasingly assess other women only on their appearances. It doesn’t help one bit that there is an increasingly thriving market for fairness creams and bleaching agents, anti-ageing creams and cosmetic surgery. A disturbing manifestation of this is the “criminalizing-the-victim” phenomenon, where women are claimed to be deserving of sexual violence because ‘what they wore meant that they deserved it.’ Why? Because that is the world.
Actually, come to think of it, it does not surprise me that this happens.
This is the world that had its origins from a time when Helen of Troy was the reason for a war. She was, as the men said, a face that could launch a thousand ships.
But the fact that it continues, when the world has travelled with education, development and technology in tow, is so disheartening. Call it what you might, but this harsh judgment IS violence against women.
As for me? I’m happy about how I look. I don’t need an adjective to qualify my appearance.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Ending Gender-Based Violence 2012.