I'm not sure how many times I've told a woman that she is beautiful, resulting in a smile appearing on the woman's face. On my part, stating that a woman or a girl is beautiful or a man or boy is handsome is intended as a compliment. However, I don't often tell a man that he is handsome, after all, men don't say this about other men. I've been thinking about how commenting on physical beauty reinforces gender stereotypes, something seemingly considered to have societal importance, leading to a very superficial understanding of and connection with others. I question though what really is beauty and why should it take on so much importance, especially when it comes to how we view women?
In my eyes, my daughter is very beautiful, slim, tall, lovely facial features, but her depth goes well beyond her appearance as she is an actor, dancer, musician, writer, director and singer. Beyond her physical features, she is smart, sensitive and has a depth of personality which makes her very interesting. She doesn't change her Facebook profile picture, which is anyway, usually not her face, very often and although she cares about her appearance, isn't hung up on this, a quality that I've found to be highly unusual, especially among young women.
We may harm our children, especially our daughters and other female members of our families by continually describing them as being beautiful , a comment that if not followed up with an equal statement of you are, e.g. smart, on some level means that females may not be taken seriously . (Would we only say to boys that they are very handsome without also stating that they are also, e.g. good athletes or smart?) Reminding a girl or a woman that they are beautiful maintains a need for attention, a striving to look like the celebrities who are so very prominently "displayed" in our daily lives. On the other hand, when we see someone who looks "different" or is considered "ugly" we tend to shy away, make unkind comments or see the person as "invisible". A judgment is made and possibly even a dismissal based upon how we perceive someone's outer beauty.
Breaking down gender stereotypes, i.e. how one is supposed to look, act or dress is a difficult task and requires broadening our thinking, and in our male dominated societies, treating women as equals. Recently I saw a number of women wearing green and yellow bangles and mehndi painted on their hands. I decided to have a neighbor paint a pattern on my left hand, something which I had done twice while living in India. The comments of this experiment ranged the gamut from "not suitable" to smiles to seemingly it is ok because he is a Badeshi (foreigner). Did wearing mehndi mean in people's minds, especially those of other men, that I should be treated differently?
I understand the differences in dress between men and women, how clothes might be designed to highlight a person's body. But who is this for? In Kathmandu I haven't seen many men in short shorts, or low cut shirts exposing their chests. It is a person's right to choose how they dress and express their individuality, I would never argue with this, but does the person feel empowered or does this only serve to reinforce society's views of the differences between men and women, including how someone is viewed by others? If a women is to be truly powerful and taken seriously, must she wear a business suit and have the "toughness of a man, i.e. must women conform to "men's dress" in order to change men's attitudes? Are women, in general, considered too fragile by men to not be tough enough to take on difficult corporate and political assignments?
One method for creating further equality is through legislation, but then one might question who is the implementer and is the legislation being properly implemented. Can having reservations for women or for that matter anybody, e.g. in politics, really help or is it more about having strong advocates running for political office and breaking down barriers? Does this issue really come down to those holding power, whether they be part of a caste, gender or political group, creating an enabling environment for the sharing of power?
Women in the land rights movement seem to be able to avail themselves of power, but this might have more to do with the fact, that in the views of society, the landless and land-poor men of Nepal, hold little power. Never-the-less this is a major shift in how Nepali men view their wives or daughters enabling a more equitable distribution in power sharing and decision making. As more women and men share land certificates, at least, part of society may change their gender views. But will this translate into further equity throughout all of society?
Continuing to think about and make small changes in gender equality issues is vital for societal health. I try to do this on the basketball court when I'm conducting trainings for young men and women. Whenever I see the children self- segregate, which also may be a function of their age, I immediately ask them to integrate. At first this is somewhat of a "chore", but over the course of the training gender differences seem to disappear. I explain to the children that on the court there is no gender, only teammates.
We all look for beauty in the natural world as if somehow finding this leads to more happiness. But if this is all that we aspire to, we miss out on the many shades of diversity and what this brings to our lives. It is up to us to recognize how beauty is more than skin deep. Once we change our perceptions, and lead by example, in the longer-term society will also change to become more equitable.