The class is getting restless after about 45 minutes of lecturing. I’m tired of it, too. So, I tell them we’ll play a game. I'll say one word, and they should write down the immediate word that comes to mind on hearing it. In the middle of many generic words like ‘mother,’ ‘Bangalore,’ ‘pharmacy,’ ‘father’ and so on, I slip in my name, too. No, I’m not narcissistic – there’s a purpose behind this word association name. After I’m done with my list of about 10 words, we discuss what each one wrote in response and they understand the concept of word association.
I ask what they wrote against my name and they come out with certain adjectives. Like I said already, I’m not interested in singing my own praises, so I’ll pass the question of what those adjectives were. We run through them and I point out that none of them said ‘short’ ‘long hair’ ‘saree’ ‘fair’ etc. I use this example to help them understand how it shows that it’s some quality in me that came to mind. This means we respond to the vibe we catch from someone rather than their physical appearance. Otherwise, how could they ignore my lack of beauty to come up with these words?
At this point, there’s some XYZ, who, secure in the anonymity provided by the back benches, blurts out, “But Ma’am, you’re beautiful,” and in response, I quip, “Wow – thank you, five marks extra for XYZ in the next exam.” We all laugh. Both they and I know I can say that for precisely the reason that it’s farthest from the truth of how I operate.
During this discussion, they open up about how what I’m telling them is totally the opposite of what they face in their peer group or family circles. So we go on to talk more about it, and I try to give them examples of well-known achievers who reached where they did based solely on their ability and not their looks.
From their responses, it’s obvious that they are vulnerable to what people comment about their looks. I know, I know, they must know better – but if you recollect the diffidence of your youth, it’s not difficult to empathize with these young ones and their pain.
Which is why I get upset with advertisements like the new ad of Fogg deodorant for men. There’s this guy who’s getting ready and wants to know if he will be found acceptable – and going by the usual premise of these deo advertisements – probably by a girl. His friends says he’s only 50% ready until he uses Fogg and the voiceover doles out this gyaan – “To be liked by someone, it’s important to not just look good, but also smell good.” Which, I feel, is ridiculous because while the last part of this sentence reduces the entire exercise of “liking” someone to an animalistic level, the first part propagates false stereotypes.
Of course, we know advertisers do what it takes to sell their product. Getting into a tizzy over potentially-damaging ideas they convey to their target audience is not what they get paid for. Besides, isn’t it the consumers’ job to not get swayed by the inappropriate messaging? Right, it is – except that in the kind of society we live in, with its emphasis on fair skin, medium build, tall, slender, good looking individuals, the have-nots (the ones who don’t have these attributes) get marginalized to such an extent that they lose confidence in their abilities which, any day, are a far bigger measure of them as people than mere external appearance.
I talk about this low self-esteem stemming from negative body image out of my considerable experience with youngsters. I’ve had students who’ve been really good at something but hesitant to showcase it or step into the limelight because they think they don’t look good enough. There are others who get discouraged from pursuing something they’re good at because they’ve had experiences where their abilities have been brushed aside in favor of someone who’s better-looking. And in this, along with adults, the youth are sometimes the enemies of their own peers.
By talking to my students of these things, I try to bolster their self-belief. It may be a tiny drop in the ocean; but then, isn’t it true that many a drop an ocean make? Hopefully, someday when they feel hurt by callous comments, they will take heart by remembering my encouraging words.