Last week I had the opportunity to take part in the BBC’s #100women project, with a group of South Asian female bloggers. To say that it was an honour and a privilege, is a massive understatement, as I was surrounded by a group of particularly powerful women who inspire me.
We dissected a variety of topics from women in leadership roles, social and cultural standards on what it means to be a ‘good girl’ to whether women need to exercise apathy/ruthlessness in order to get ahead in their careers and the age old issue of body image.
I’m choosing to focus on the latter, because it something which continues to irk me – and probably – thousands of women from all walks of life and industries.
An illuminating observation, which has stayed in the forefront of my mind, was made by Aina: “The metamorphosis of Hilary Clinton, from frumpy First Lady to classy Secretary of State, is proof of how much significance is placed on image.”
In a world where more and more women are entering positions of power and influence, it is unsurprising (and disheartening) to see that they are still removed from such posts and picked apart based on their physical appearance. Hilary Clinton, Cristina Kirchner, Angela Merkel, Condoleeza Rice, Michelle Obama are just a few names which instantly spring to mind – regardless of their standing, their qualifications and expertise, they are critiqued for how they look, rather than how they think or the policies that they enact.
When I think about how such women are instantly stripped off power and authority, it doesn’t surprise me that so many girls and women will not participate in such conversations or enter such careers.
“Beautiful women in public roles face the added pressure of looking good all the time.” ~ Ruchi Hajela
On one hand, we desperately need more women in STEM careers, corporates and politics, but on the other hand we are vilified if we obtain power. Is it a safer bet to soften our voices? To lessen our inner potential so that we don’t come off as intimidating or a threat to others? Feeling confused? I don’t blame you because it feels like many women today – including myself – are living in a social Chinese wall.
Don’t get me wrong: personal hygiene and looking presentable are important, but to shoot a woman in power down based on how physically attractive she is, is a reality that many women (on an everyday level) continue to face. It stuns me that, in this day and age, we have to put up with being fat shamed, called ‘sluts’ and ‘ugly’ – even if we are financially independent, highly educated and/or wield influence.
And that, in case you were wondering, is how you go about derailing a woman with power. There is a clear difference between an empowered woman and a woman with power. I personally define empowerment as realising one’s inner abilities, strengths and potential with an unshakeable sense of conviction. Having power doesn’t necessarily come with that sense of conviction.
Recently, I’ve found myself surrounded by two generations of South Asian women who are both empowered and wield power. Both of these experiences were, two of the most inspiring moments of my life so far, but I couldn’t help but feel disgruntled when people only commented on how good we all looked.
It felt like their comments, despite coming from a place of sincerity, went against the very purpose of what we were doing and trying to show. Women, with/without opinions and power, are more than the clothes we choose to wear and the make-up we choose to wear/not wear.
“Metamorphosis of Hilary Clinton, from frumpy First Lady to classy Secretary of State, is proof of how much significance is placed on image.” ~ Aina Khan
As a woman of South Asian descent, who was born and raised in the West, many women like me were brought up to be highly educated, achieve financial independence and still maintain our cultures. Our lives, today, are very different to that of our mothers and grandmothers – my own grandmother constantly tells me to be as independent as I can possibly be so that I don’t end up living a life that was similar to hers.
Here’s where it gets annoyingly complicated; we can be educated and independent but within moderation (this usually means in line with cultural beliefs). This shift in what it means to live life as a Western-born South Asian woman has not translated into our cultural and social beliefs despite the length of time that the South Asian Diaspora has been in the West. Of course, there are pockets of liberal and progressive South Asian communities, but the point I’m making is that their ways of thinking are not widespread enough.
If I think about it, there really is no ‘better’ way to derail and unhinge a woman (with and without power) by picking apart her physical appearance. As someone who was fat shamed and humiliated for how she looked (by my own mother), I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel self conscious every single time I talk about entrepreneurship in schools, participate in media panel discussions or make video content for Avid Scribbler.
I’m all too aware of the crippling sense of shame, rage and inadequacy every time someone labels me as being too “aggressive,” “a fat b*tch” or an embarrassment to my culture. I’m even more aware of the nasty caricatures that women with ambition and the will to succeed in their industries are drafted into, without their consent, because it’s happened to myself and too many South Asian women that I know and work with.
Does it quash my ambition? Does it chip away at my confidence and self esteem?
The answer to that changes on a daily basis; sometimes it doesn’t bother me and I fiercely fight back to stand my ground. But other days, I am emotionally exhausted from having to defend myself or deal with such comments/people (they come at all angles these days) through a fixed smile.
Does it make me feel ashamed to have ambition? Will it stop me from achieving what I have set out to accomplish?
No and I am hell bent on making this a point to women of all backgrounds, but particularly to South Asian women. I have learnt – the hard way – that if you have a burning desire to better yourself and to succeed it will overpower small minded people and their snarky comments.