“Thank god, it’s a boy! How wonderful! Congratulations” I remember the desi uncles and aunties saying with abandon even as I stood right next to my parents. My memories of their uninhibited exclamations of “Badhaai ho, munda hua!” ring loud and clear even today. Being their first-born, a daughter, I couldn’t help being overcome with feelings of jealousy and apprehension. The realization that someone else was going to steal my parent’s attention was enough to get my 6-year old heart racing. My big brown eyes widened and filled with fear as I looked up at my parents and repeatedly asked “Do you still love me?”
As my brother and I grew older, sadly my fears became reality. The favoritism had become strikingly apparent not just to me but others as well. My aunt and neighbors noticed and did what they could to make me feel special. My grandmother, on the other hand, visiting from India could not see past my brother.
I faded into the background and all my tiny accomplishments in kindergarten and elementary school went unnoticed. I began to realize just how important it was for my parents to have a son, particularly my mother. As teenage years approached, the treatment meted out by our parents was obviously differential. He got to stay out later than I did. His mistakes were more readily forgiven. His anger and outbursts excused with “Boys are like that, its ok.” He was bought an expensive car because “it would stay in the family.” His announcement of having a girlfriend was met with pride and encouragement while even a mention of my boyfriend would probably inspire histrionics. Over the years my hostility towards him manifested and our relationship floundered.
Many Indians including Punjabis tend to agree upon the value of the male child. In Indian households and particularly in North Indian families, the son is expected to live with his wife and children while caring for his aging parents in the same house. This can be quite a lot of pressure for any son. Financial responsibilities and the lack of privacy can make life pretty miserable for everyone.
What is bothersome is not that these biases exist but that many families strive relentlessly to preserve and propagate those here in America. My own family, I feel, has been guilty of this. Many a times my mother has made statements such as “He’s a boy, so it’s different. You should be more understanding”, ” We feel sad for so and so. They just have two daughters. Who will care for them when they’re old?!” A daughter can take as good if not better care of her parents than any son could. Why such a strong bias especially when you have a daughter who cares for you? A gift from me is “no big deal” but any small card or gesture from my brother is received with open arms and praise.
How does being female somehow make us inferior? The last time I checked we were in the year 2008, weren’t we? Not 1930. One would think these views about women would be the height of the matter but surprisingly they are not! It actually makes a difference if you are thin and fair. Even Bollywood has adopted the “gori chitti aur patli” (fair and skinny) paradigm. Recently, Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor has made headlines for becoming an unhealthy and perhaps anorexic size zero. “Zero” not only describes how good she looks but also her acting abilities.
Bollywood actresses like her wear drag-queen-style make-up to match the desired skin color to appear beautiful. Up until recently no significant effort was made towards making the nearing 40 year old balding male actors with receding hairlines and age inappropriate clothing, more appealing.
No doubt Bollywood is guilty of such nonsense but what does one say when the almost 300 lb aunties in sarees with bulging love handles, blouses that barely fit and extraordinarily huge hips casually comment on how so and so’s daughter should lose weight. “She would look so much prettier.” What about their own short chubby sons? I'd like to ask. The standard response which I've heard so often is "Oh, but they are boys, so looks don’t matter as much. It is the girl that has to get married off.” Such a mentality is difficult to change.
Enforcing these beliefs in girls raised in the United States is ridiculous. It breeds low self-esteem within an environment that values confidence and grooming over skin color and weight. Tanning salons have opened up all over and constitutes a multi-billion dollar industry. Yet you still have Indians saying “Hai! Kitni gori hai, patli hai! Changa munda milega”.
As a woman born and raised in the US, I now find myself rolling my eyes at these comments but I have to admit, they affected my self-worth deeply as a teenager. Perhaps on a subconscious level they made me rebellious as well. Why do the women have to endure phone calls and comments centered around their weight and looks? How fair is it that no one seems to notice the nice developing potbelly on my brother or the man boobs that have appeared on Kunal? Women have to deal with comments such as "moti hogayi hai na?"
It doesn't matter that you might be a successful researcher or a prominent scientist or an engineer. Fat is of utmost importance. It is the men,the sons who are complimented on their careers. Even your female friends who happen to get in touch with you online after years have past don't care about your professional accomplishments. "You've become chubby" "Moti, fat jaadi....i".This obsession with weight among Indian women in particular is upsetting.Why aren't such comments directed towards men?
Hearing such female-degrading comments from families and friends at social gatherings has become commonplace for me. However, it was astonishing to face such comments in a professional setting. My very own Indian ex-PhD advisor wasn’t afraid to reveal and act on her biases. At a lab lunch celebrating my birthday, she in a very matter of fact manner said “Indian women need to be subdued, as Seema will learn.”
On other occasions, instead of providing advice regarding my project she would make comments about how I should “lose weight” so that I can “get a husband.” “ You should work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week because you don’t have a husband or kids. Look at all the other people in lab,they aren’t single. They have families. Even XYZ has a girlfriend.” As I listened to these unprofessional comments, I couldn’t help thinking ”aren’t you a woman too? Don’t you have a daughter? “ At the time being her student, I was too scared to say anything for fear that she would jeopardize my future. As fate would have it, I didn’t have to say anything, I guess just being an overweight, single American woman of Indian descent was enough for her to screw me over on a whim.
It’s depressing that such strong biases exist in the US among Indians even today. It takes a toll on you when you hear the same comments so many times from the people who are supposed to be your strongest supporters. It is even more alarming that people with these views can abuse their power and get away it. Isn’t it about time that people do away with this mentality and accept each other with fairness and equality? Man, woman, short. Tall, fat, skinny—what does it matter? Aren’t we all human?
- » Published on May 15, 2008
- » Type: Opinion
- » Filed under: