Re­claim­ing women’s bod­ies and re­defin­ing the ‘per­fect daugh­ter-in-law’


Eleven years old. That was the age at which I first looked down at my hands and felt un­happy about my skin color.

This dis­sat­is­fac­tion soon evolved into full blown in­se­cu­rity, the first among many. As the var­i­ous mes­sages about beauty stan­dards Pak­istani women are ex­pected to meet started to sink in, my crit­i­cal gaze took in var­i­ous as­pects of my ap­pear­ance and found them lack­ing.

I was not tall enough, nor slim enough. My nose was not thin enough, my eye­lashes weren’t long enough. If I could see it, I didn’t like it.

The young women grow­ing up around me, friends, cousins, neigh­bors, were all go­ing through the same thing.

Our con­ver­sa­tions in­cluded long ses­sions with lists of all the things about our­selves we wished to change.

It took the end of my teenage years and a jour­ney along the road of self-ac­cep­tance for me to like and ac­cept my­self for who I am and what I look like.

My friends, too, all em­barked on the same jour­ney in their own ways.

We have come out on the other side feel­ing bet­ter about our­selves and feel­ing an­gry at all the pres­sures ex­erted on us to turn into cookie-cut­ter ver­sions of the per­fect fe­male that we could never have be­come — not un­less we some­how man­age to graft our brains into life-size ver­sions of Bar­bie.

Barely does this epiphany dawn on most young women (if it dawns at all), then they find them­selves un­der more in­tense scru­tiny than ever be­fore; early 20s in the life of most young Pak­istani women is marked by end­less tea serv­ing pa­rades in front of rishta- ( mar­riage pro­posal) hunt­ing aun­ties.

In their mission to find the per­fect daugh­ter-in-law they end up stomp­ing all over self-es­teems and leave be­hind young women de­jected at be­ing re­jected once again, just be­cause they are not tall enough, slim enough or white­skinned enough.

Ev­ery young woman who has been through the rishta mill has her own hor­ror sto­ries to tell.

In what other sit­u­a­tions would a per­fect stranger turns to you over his cup of tea and throws this ca- sual re­mark deemed to be a com­pli­ment: “You are so much fairer than your pho­to­graph. You looked so dark in the pic­ture, we al­most de­cided not to come.”

For a so­ci­ety which prides it­self on pro­tect­ing women from ob­jecti- fi­ca­tion through up­hold­ing Is­lamic val­ues like pur­dah, we are ex­tremely ob­sessed with the fe­male form and how it should be.

There are very spe­cific de­mands re­gard­ing ev­ery as­pect of the fe­male body and thanks to them, an enor­mous ar­ray of pills, creams, gad­gets and herbal reme­dies has been made avail­able to help young women turn into pretty porce­lain dolls.

That while build­ing an en­tire beauty in­dus­try which re­volves around skin color we still man­age to claim su­pe­ri­or­ity over “west­ern­ized” so­ci­eties which ob­jec­tify women shows the depth of our delu­sions.

Women’s bod­ies and their ap­pear­ances are not in their own con­trol. They are con­trolled by the ad­ver­tise­ments for the hair­less and fair skinned; by the nov­els and TV dra­mas with their tall, wil­lowy, im­pos­si­bly good look­ing heroines; by the rishta aun­ties and their scru­ti­niz­ing gazes.

All th­ese voices join to form that cease­less, uber-crit­i­cal cho­rus in our heads that keeps re­mind­ing us how fat, dark and un-pretty we are; the voice that tells us to wax and pluck, to slather on creams and lo­tions, to head to the near­est sa­lon for a whiten­ing fa­cial, to put down the choco­late and climb onto the sta­tion­ary bike.

Women usu­ally do all of this, not be­cause it makes us feel bet­ter about our ap­pear­ance or be­cause it has any pos­i­tive ef­fects on our health, but to sim­ply muf­fle that de­monic voice in our heads, if noth­ing else; the voice keeps say­ing “you’re not good enough.”

How can things be any other way when we are be­ing bom­barded by mes­sages to that ef­fect from ev­ery sin­gle di­rec­tion?

I look back at all the times my friends and I and all the other young women like us, stood in front of mir­rors, judg­ing our­selves; all the hours we spent wish­ing we looked dif­fer­ent; all our at­tempts to change our bod­ies — all in vain.

And I won­der how much more we could have done with our lives if we could re­claim that time and use it to dream other dreams and to pur­sue other goals.

How much hap­pier we could have been with our­selves, had we been taught from an early age not to trust the fake beauty on TV and the fevered imag­i­na­tions of novel writ­ers.

How much bet­ter our lives could still be if we re­claimed our bod­ies, ate healthily, ex­er­cised and dressed up for our own sake?

If the so­ci­ety will not be kind to us, then surely, we can be kind to our­selves.

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