Anatomy

Image sourced from https://www.bloote.com

Two years ago, an article from The Guardian, stated that a ‘lack of confidence holds women back in their careers’ with a whopping 92% of the 2000 women surveyed saying that they had body hang ups. This statistic, as shocking as it may be to read, is something that I’m not really surprised by. In fact, I believe it’s a figure that many of us aren’t surprised to hear, because to find a woman with good self-esteem is like finding a black rose. I could sit here and blog about how the media, celebrity culture, cosmetic giants and advertising all play an equally huge part in making women feel inadequate about themselves. Equally, I could also discuss how this distortion is now affecting the way that men feel about their bodies. But I’m not going to talk about that.

It’s a given that advertising, fashion and beauty companies play an overwhelming role in determining how women regard their bodies. We know how influential it is and how deeply it penetrates every area of our lives, but despite having that knowledge, none of us have been fully relieved of the social pressures that we feel as women.

92% of the women surveyed said that they had body hang ups

At the end of last week I was featured in this interview series from Asian Women Mean Business, which was really humbling and made me think about things. For the vast majority of my life, I’ve observed the way that women generally regard themselves, their bodies and the impact it has upon them in a variety of spaces – particularly South Asian women. And to be honest, this will probably be an ongoing observation, as I go through my life.

The first thing which springs to mind is skin-lightening cosmetic giant, Fair and Lovely, which millions of Asians around the world have quite rightly slammed. Yet at the same time, millions of Asians still use their products. For generations, many Asian women have grown up associating dark skin with ugliness, poverty, illiteracy and as a sign of demonic behaviour (ever wondered why demons in religious programmes have dark skin?). There are so many drives and initiatives – such as Dark is Beautiful and Stuart Gatt’s film My Beautiful White Skin – to help Asians accept and love their skin tones. What I haven’t been made aware of, are similar campaigns to help Asian women feel more at ease about their bodies and have a frank discussion about it.

With regards to how attitudes, lifestyles and how Asian women express their grievances has changed, the furthest I can go is as far as the early 20th century to first and second generations. The main trait that I would associate with these generations is passive due to social constraints that they were bound by. This passive nature was largely influenced by the attitudes upheld by their families and communities; it’s no wonder that so many women of this generation suffered with depression and loneliness. I did some research into my father’s side of the family to find out how depression managed to seep through four generations of my family; I was emotionally shaken to find that it had started with my great-great-great grandmother and continued unquestioned since. You don’t have to go that far back to realise how constrained they were; a conversation with a great-aunt or elderly female relative will usually suffice.

The third/fourth generation is where things started to bubble and boil; they were restless and understandably kept pushing for change by beginning to have conversations about subjects which were considered to be taboo. This restlessness gave way to women’s groups and forums, such as Southall Black Sisters, being created which has filtered into this generation of Asian women. It has given Asian women today (some fourth and fifth) a half decent platform to continue those conversations and open up new ones – and why shouldn’t we? We have one of the biggest advantages that previous generations didn’t have; education, technology and access to the world.

The female Asian body is something which we know exists but don’t really speak about. We know it’s there, because Bollywood has no qualms with scantily-clad women in its films. Whenever an attempt is made to talk about Asian women’s bodies and welfare, it’s usually met with the embarrassed mutter and downcast look of: ‘it’s a private thing.’ This is all very well and good, except that such conversations don’t happen enough in private – so where do we go to have an honest discussion about the way that Asian cultures view women’s bodies?

For a long time, I’ve often felt that aspects of womanhood are seen as a source of shame, For example, we know of certain beauty ideals that many Asians uphold and strive for: fair skin, long thick hair, big brown eyes, slim noses and full eyebrows. Much emphasis has been placed on how Asian women’s faces should look, with their bodies being determined by whatever the West deems as ‘sexy.’ Naturally, ideas of beauty, what is considered to be beauty and who gets to be beautiful, fluctuates over time. The biggest example is the body types that Bollywood actresses in the 1950s and 60s had; by today’s standards they’d be classed as ‘fat and ugly.’

 Where do we go to have an honest discussion about the way that Asian cultures view women’s bodies?

Which brings me back to the core of today’s post: despite a current generation of Asian women being more liberated than previous generations (in theory) why do we still feel almost ashamed about our bodies? Things such as wearing tops that show your bra straps, menstruation (Canadian poet Rupi Kaur encapsulated this perfectly), menopause, a sense of shame towards Asian women who have large breasts, big lips, are sexually active and/or when puberty begins. At this point, we could become complacent and say: ‘Well these are problems that women all over the world face, regardless of colour, it’s not unique to Asians’ to which I would agree with because some standards of beauty are universal. But the point I’m making is that we do not acknowledge Asian women’s bodies yet we will either hyper-sexualise, dismiss or hide it away.

Much of the narrative that Asian women have grown up hearing, with regards to their bodies, is mainly negative. I find that it largely centres around the whole idea of modesty, covering up and being pure; if you don’t adhere to these principles you are declared ‘one of those women.’ These concepts derive from our mothers, aunts, grandmothers etc, who we can’t really get angry at because they are merely reiterating what they were told about their bodies by their own mothers. In this sense, it becomes a vicious cycle of feeling detached and uncomfortable about your body, which has a knock on effect with things such as emotional health, self-esteem, self confidence and sexuality.

The first step we can take in changing this conversation is by being more open about it all. Not every interaction or conversation has to be hostile, violent or exclude men; I believe that they are a vital part of finding solutions. Utilise those forums, connect with each other and start talking about why there is still so much shame surrounding Asian women and our bodies so that we can find some viable solutions. The human body is simply incredible; why should we continue to shame it? Some useful literature that I’ve found (and would recommend) are the following:

  1. ‘Indian Women across Generations’ – Uma Narula
  2. ‘Perspectives on Indian Women’ – R.S Tripathi and R.P Tiwari

Square Eyed Monsters

It’s safe to say that in our modern world things have changed; whether it’s good or bad is entirely subjective of course. We are living longer, have better access to vast amounts of information, generally have a higher standard of living and our world is ever shrinking thanks to continuing developments in tech.

Despite having the world at our fingertips (quite literally) I find that many of us are swimming in oceans of data and information. We feel connected yet disconnected, at the same time, and  are unable to seek out sources that are full of originality, knowledge and wisdom. We find ourselves in a situation feeling overwhelmed because we simply have too much to sift through – let alone choose from!

An article in The Guardian stated that there is simply ‘too much television’ and estimated that there are approximately 400 shows on our televisions. And it makes sense; these days it feels like there is too much on TV for us to watch. In addition, even if we forget about the onslaught of new shows and series, the vast majority of them are poorly made and/or badly written. When I think about it, it makes me question the whole purpose of why so many sub-standard television shows are even created in the first place.

I like to think that television, at its best, is like the Arts

Which brings onto my topic about TV shows that are specifically designed to engage with and/or target a particular segment of society or ethnic group. Regardless, it is a slightly reassuring sign, to see contemporary television begin to use actors from an ethnic background or write stories which involve characters of ethnic heritage. I have found that such shows and story lines tend to be very hit-and-miss: they either become classics (like East is East) or adhere to cringey stereotypes or end up being left in the past where they belong.

There are usually a number of intentions behind the creation of TV shows made for those of an ethnic background: monetary gain, increase viewings as well as creating unique programmes which are more inclusive and reflective of a contemporary, diverse Britain. It is very rare for the latter to occur, unless there is some serious funding, a renowned film maker’s involvement or if a particularly convincing pitch has been made.

I like to think that television, at its best, is like the Arts in that it is a possible reflection of the world that we live in. However, I particularly question the originality of shows that are created with the sole intention to appeal to young British Asians. Many turn out to be the brown version of popular, mainstream television shows or films (which really is most of Bollywood if we think about it) and are not as innovative as they claim to be. For example, you can cover a pile of excrement in glitter and claim that it’s magic until you are blue in the face. The fact of the matter is that it’s still a pile of excrement. With a bit of glitter on it.

Is it any wonder that scores of young people (including myself) are heading over to YouTube

We see this happen, time and time again, whenever documentaries (or  reality TV shows) are created and purport to discuss modern British Asian life. I cannot stress how disappointed I feel whenever individuals decide to create a TV format which ‘busts the myths about <insert particular ethnic group>’ or tells the rest of Britain that ‘we’re just as normal as you guys are.’  Sometimes it can be a revelation and prove to be some sort of social breakthrough. But most of the time it falls short. Newsflash: we’re not unicorns or mythological creatures who need to be discovered, diluted, patronised and scrutinised against a mainstream gaze. I’m pretty certain that many of us face that level of scrutiny on a daily basis.

However, some of the pit falls of creating television with this sole intention, is that these shows often become unintentional ambassadors/spokespeople for their target audience. This itself is hugely problematic for both ethnic and Caucasian viewers because it is impossible to represent every single person of a particular ethnic group. We cannot claim that EastEnders is an accurate portrayal of how people live in East London, in the same way that, Bollywood does not represent the lives and thoughts of South Asians living in the motherland or Diaspora.

When I was younger, I remember watching shows such as Desmond’s, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, My Wife and Kids (yes I am well and truly a Millenial child) and many more. Sure I was British Asian, but that didn’t stop me from watching such TV shows, because they were original pieces of television that were relatable and great to watch.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I still feel like I can’t relate to many of the South Asians who grace my TV screen. This comes, despite there being several films and television shows, which follow the lives of British Asian women and South Asian experiences since the 1990s. Is it any wonder that, now, scores of young people (including myself) are heading over to YouTube to watch vlogs, video series and channels that are created by people who either look like them and/or feature those who they are able to connect with?

For some television might be all about making money, becoming famous and milking particular social situations. But for the vast majority of people, television is an important format which often acts as a sophisticated mirror critiquing the types of attitudes, mindsets and societies that we are living in.

 

Motto

Today, the news broke that Sundar Pichai has become the new CEO of Google, following a major company reshuffle which will see one of the world’s most iconic websites become a subsidiary group under Alphabet Inc. It is a fantastic achievement and one which fills me with so much inspiration to see Pichai join a list of other Indian-born CEOs heading up influential tech companies.

It reminded me of a conversation I had had with my family at the weekend about careers, Higher Education and who had studied what at university. To cut a long story short, there’s basically a lot of engineers, lawyers and people working in finance – it’s a nasty stereotype of South Asians which I abhor but many of us grow up being ushered into such fields for a plethora of reasons. Some range from wanting to secure jobs with financial stability to going into a field which an older generation is familiar with and obtaining a job title which will garner respect within certain families/social circles to other reasons I may not ever know.

After about 20 minutes into the conversation, I realised that I was the only person in my family (in the UK) who holds a degree in Literature, which is strange considering that I come from a family which has had four generations of writers. I am always surprised to see South Asians sneer at those who study Literature, the Arts, Humanities or Design. We come from a heritage which is steeped in art, creativity, dance, music and literature that has shaped the variety of cultures within the sub-continent. Why would we choose to shun it purely because it won’t make us millionaires?

In 2013, the British creative industry created over one million jobs

Even when I was studying at university, I was one of a handful of Asians who were doing the same degree as me, and it was funny (and quite sad) to see how similar our family experiences were. I remember the embarrassment that my family felt whenever someone asked them about my degree and what kind of job I’d end up in. I remember the anger I felt when I said that I didn’t want to become a lawyer. I remember the snide comments made by my extended family who said that I’d never have a ‘proper job in the City.’ And I remember the shame my family felt when I decided to become a journalist and the confusion when I became an entreprener. But I will always remember the support that they gave me regardless of whatever I chose to become.

In all honesty, the arts and creativity are not renowned for producing CEOs and thought leaders who will implement change on a large scale in the way that tech products do. Despite this, in 2013, the British creative industry was responsible for creating over one million jobs and exported £17.9 billion’s worth of services across the world. Now, I don’t know about you, but that is a heck of a lot of jobs and money being generated which stems solely from creative people who have supplemented their talents with technical knowledge.

Artists, musicians, writers and those who work within creative fields are given bad press – cutting off ears, being alcoholics, hooked on drugs and generally not being mega successful in their lifetime. The shroud surrounding creative South Asians is one which has been consistently hemmed and re-adjusted in favour of careers with money and prestige attached to them. For practical reasons, I can understand why more people (regardless of race) are sucked into careers which will make them big money fast – after all we live in a society which works hard, plays harder and lives fast. And in order for us to maintain such a lifestyle, we need sacks of money.

“I come from a part of the world where
Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Pritam
and Anish Kapoor
Started life and
Sowed seeds of creativity,
So that we could see see the beauty of life in their work.

I live in a part of the world where
I wonder why we have no modern-day Pritams,
Tagores and Rumis.
I sit and for the life of me
Can’t work out why.” ~ Avid Scribbler; Chayya Syal

It is borderline hurtful to see various South Asians (of different generations) dismiss creativity as a folly and something which is not important. Have we truly forgotten some of the most distinguished South Asian writers and artists whose work changed the hearts and minds of people across the globe and throughout time?

I believe that in our haste to hit it big time, we have let something inside of us wither away and die – we hail from a piece of land mass which produced Amrita Pritam, Rabindranath Tagore, Anish Kapoor and other incredibly talented South Asian creatives. That talent continues to run in our families, our communities and through our veins as we make our lives in the Diaspora and various motherlands. Creativity is as natural as breathing, yet, we behave as though it were a strait jacket depriving us of life and constricting us from being free to express our inner thoughts and feelings.