On youthful good looks and such things

One day as I looked out of the bus window, I saw an obituary poster. It was announcing the death of a newly married couple. There was a kitchen fire and the husband had tried to rescue the wife and both had died in the flames. They had been married for about a month. Quite saddened, I looked at the photo in the poster and thought, “So sad, she is so beautiful.” The next moment I could have kicked myself. What did the woman’s good looks have to do with anything? Death is death and hurts just as much whatever your face looks like. The poster had specifically mentioned that the man could have survived if he had not attempted to rescue his wife. If only one of the two should be mourned, it is his noble nature that I should have pondered upon. I should mention here that they were a particularly mismatched couple looks-wise.  She was really pretty and he was very much normal-looking. That was a sort of epiphany for me. I saw that looks can change the way we live our lives as it changes the way people look at us AND treat us.

Why I took this personal epiphany pretty strongly is because it was in the back of my mind for another reason. My daughter was 6 months old and I had a small doubt that she may grow up to be slightly squint-eyed. When she was crying or was sleepy, it was obvious that both her eyeballs did not move in the same direction. I re-lived my life until then imagining myself as a squint-eyed Rahini. I imagined men looking away and women giving sympathetic friendly smiles. I imagined being ridiculed and avoided. I imagined the veiled jokes and sniggering. It seemed terrible. My hatred towards looks-bias is because of something very self-centered. I was afraid my daughter was going to be a victim.

Eventually a doctor prescribed glasses and admitted she needed a bit of eye-exercise. But he said something else that put my mind at complete ease. He said I was squint-eyed too. He had made her sit on my lap and as we both moved our eyes following his finger, he was able to see that my eyes did not move in perfect synchrony with each other either. That is all I needed. Perfect synchrony or not, my eyes were never ridiculed. She was going to be alright. My daughter may not become a pageant winning beauty, but she was not going to become a comic-relief either. This had been a false alarm.

But my wariness with good looks continued. I got to see the school photographs of my brother and realized that while the good lookers remained in my mind vaguely and the others did not seem familiar at all. There are some people who I see on the road and immediately think “Isn’t that guy’s name ABC?” That guy would have been in the same company some three years back and that too not in my team. And then there would be someone else who introduces themselves as from the same company and their face will not be familiar at all. I simply remembered the good lookers better. And it is not just me, everyone I know is like that. We wait for them to smile and acknowledge our presence. We stop the elevator for a few seconds more so that we get to be the same elevator for a few seconds. Most of us do this.

This can be a huge advantage to the good lookers and they supposedly move up the corporate scale faster as they fare well in interviews, they get more dates and they get more chances in the performing arts. But it can be a problem as well. My friend M and I would be walking down the path and a quite a few hostel-mates will throw a smile and a greeting and while they always seemed to know her name, she invariably didn’t use their name when wishing them. She told me that she was reasonably good with names but she really didn’t know everyone who was being nice to her. She knew that admitting that she didn’t know their name will actually hurt them. It was her belief that they would not take it lightly if their names were forgotten. I agree with her.

I met another bubbly young thing a few years back and every man in the vicinity seemed to have a crush on her. I witnessed the devotion and the help they used to keep offering her. I also saw that there was anger in so many male eyes that he wasn’t the only one she was being nice to and was spending time with. She was not dating anyone but the air was thick with speculations. It was that bubbly girl who planted the doubt if it was a good thing to be a good looker or a marked disadvantage.

Also, is it true that women are jealous of good-looking women? Do they find it difficult to introduce their husbands to their better looking friends? I asked a few friends I personally considered very good looking and none of the pretty women felt that the other women were treating them badly JUST because of their looks. A few admitted that some of the compliments did not sound very sincere.

This is actually a dangerous thing. When I turned to Google with this topic I stumbled upon this article that talks about a woman who committed suicide as she was always treated as a beauty and middle age scared her. The author seems to admire her. Then I heard about something called Pro-Ana. It is sickening. Women “help” each other not eat food by saying disgusting things to each other. Are we like these women too? Do we take the looks of the people around us and our own selves too seriously?

I know that the reason I bother to go walking and do workouts is to look good. “Being Healthy” is just an excuse. I just tell myself that I owe myself some honesty. I also owe myself good health. So I try to make the two goals go hand in hand. But as I read articles about fitness and see videos, one thing is clear. “Fitness” is almost always a euphemism to look good. This is what we are – obsessed with youthful good looks and flat tummies and firm butts.

I often see attempts that I don’t approve of, attempts with laxatives, attempts with the GM diet etc. I keep persuading people away from such shortcuts. But people are so obsessed with the deadlines these diets/fads come with. Is there a way out? Is it possible to see fitness as fitness and not a return ticket to youth? Is it possible to stop judging people by their looks? I keep wondering.

Favourite Things – 1 to 25

I have been changing my Whatsapp Images on a daily basis for the past 25 days and plan to continue as long as I can.

The reason I started this is simple. My blog posts are basically rants and rants by their very nature are negative. All the popular posts, whether the mensturation rant or the loosu ponnu rant, are just a bunch of complaints. So what are the things I like? I may not be effusive, but I like a lot of things and people.

Here is a list. You can hover over the images for a short description.

The World of Nature Documentaries

When everyone was comparing the new Jungle Book and the old one, I kept thinking of one thing.  I love nature documentaries more than I like any movie and I love books on evolution more than I like fiction. Jungle Book made me feel nostalgic about all the Nature shows I used to watch. I lost a lot of MP3 and videos when an external hard drive got corrupted.  I can recreate my music collection any time since my brother has a very similar collection and my movie collection is virtually the same as that of a good friend.  But I have no choice but to download the high resolution Nature Documentaries all over again.  I already have Life and Life in the Undergrowth in my DVD collection, but that is just two series.

We all have our share of unique obsessions. When everyone else is talking about Ajith and Vijay movies, someone may be mighty pleased that they prefer Korean movies to these masala movies. When everyone else is discussing ARR’s latest award, there is bound to be someone proud of their own preference for Carnatic music. It appears that what is common to all of us is our need to find a passion that other people around us would find too boring, nerdy or wacky and start specializing in it in our own way, even if it only means collecting MP4 files that aren’t trending. I know people who collect country music and Arabic music in this way. There is a pride in knowing a good song none of your peers have even heard of. It makes you feel like a super special snowflake.  My love for nature documentaries started like that.  I simply did it because watching Discovery Channel* made me feel super nerdy.  Right from when I was a child, I had disliked superstitious beliefs and delighted in clear scientific explanations.

I eventually found that answers were available to those who looked for them and that there were real answers beyond “That is God’s Perfect Plan.” Take a simple question. Why does sex exist? Why weren’t asexual species more successful than sexual species? There must be a clear reason why, right? With most people, I get answers like, “A man and a woman uniting in Holy Matrimony is God’s Perfect Plan.” There must be a reason for the evolution of sex that doesn’t revolve around humans and their paltry concerns. It is impossible to convince them that the Earth revolves around the Sun because of the gravitational pull exerted by the Sun. No! They are sure that it is God’s perfect plan that we humans should be given warmth and light during the day and coolness and rest during the night. Most of these answers seem so self-centered to me. The universe doesn’t exist just because humans can live in it. It is the other way around.

Many people see nature enthusiasts like me as creepy whackos who love seeing snakes eat other snakes. But, in my opinion, there are more delicate emotions depicted in a nature show than in a regular TV reality show or soap or movie. Humans and their behavior get into perspective when we watch spiders and peacocks exhibit behavior that we usually consider very human.

The video that first attracted me to Nature documentaries was the story of a female giraffe.** The pregnant female walked out of the herd to a lonely spot to give birth. She nudged the baby giraffe to stand on his feet and start walking. But the young one could not get up. He had weak legs that could not support him.  The mother kept nudging him and persuading him to get up.  A hyena was waiting for the young one to die.  By daybreak, the calf had died.  The mother now had to leave and allow the hyena to take up his meal.  She did walk away and the hyena closed in on the carcass.  But somehow she was not able to allow it.  She ran back to her dead son’s body and fended off the hyena.  She knew that her son was dead. There was nothing more now.  She kept trying to walk away and yet her love for her dead son would not permit it.  For a few more hours, she mourned his death, unable to let the hyena scavenge the carcass.  Eventually, she had to give in completely.  There are no dignified funerals in the lives of wild animals. I remember I cried that day.

Later on, I got to the grittier versions of life and death in these stories. The story is not plot-driven; it is driven by real fate. Sure, sometimes the stories are edited to give them the soap-opera touch. This is especially true of the Serengeti stories of wildebeests, lions and hyenas. They are mammals with behavior that humans may quite identify with.

But the stories of ants, spiders, praying mantises and a plethora of other insects can be even more exciting. Ants and bees farm for food and think ahead. Ants invade other colonies to steal the eggs and make the newborn ants their slaves. They use chemicals to brainwash each other. They milk aphids like humans milk cattle.  Stories that happen in the deep ocean can be so confusing that they sound like horror stories. And any worthwhile nature documentary can interest, amuse or elevate greatly.

A friend asked if Avatar is a huge favorite of mine as I do have a thing for nature and it is a movie about respecting nature. Well, far from it. Avatar is a movie that happens ostensibly in another planet. Well, I do understand the concept of convergent evolution, but why is that planet so much like earth? The biped sentient creatures are given so much respect by the protagonist, but another creature that resembles a dog is killed without much ado and a creature that resembles a rhinoceros  is not treated much better either. Avatar is not REALLY a movie about respecting other creatures but about respecting other human cultures. They just paint the humans blue and give them fancy noses.

Real nature is raw. But then again, what else can we expect nature to be? It is certainly not benevolent. Real nature reminds us that we, in our air-conditioned bedrooms and sanitized bathrooms, are the royalty of the living world. Some creatures fly from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle and back again each year. Most species have infant mortality rates so high that it hurts our tame sensibilities.

If you have always viewed these videos with suspicion and believed that they are either too boring or too yucky, I request you to give it a shot. Nature is spectacular and BBC and National Geographic nature series are made with remarkable taste and technical expertise. Please check some of them out. I have a feeling you will not regret it. Well, ok. I admit you will regret it if you are too faint-hearted, so I have put the tamer videos first.

* Before the advent of Animal Planet

** I watched this more than 20 years ago and don’t have footage of this wonderful video.

Walking the Parenting Tightrope

Sometimes, if an acquaintance asks me how I spend time with my daughter, I get that weird feeling—that some judgmental lecture on parenting is brewing. Do I talk to her and know what is happening to her? Do I spend one-on-one quality time with her? Does she get physical activity? Does she watch too much TV? How many sweets does she eat? These are a few of the questions people of similar age quiz us on in the name of concern. These interviews invariably leave me exhausted.

Often, people keep saying that the childhood of today does not measure up to childhood in the 80s. The children, of course, seem to be enjoying themselves. I find that if I mention that I routinely use YouTube videos to show her the metamorphosis of butterflies, someone will rant about the evils of YouTube and if I use Google Image Search to show her pictures of Kathakali, someone will want to rant about that too. If she likes a cartoon character, someone else frowns about the evils of merchandising. I wonder if these people enjoy parenting and relish the joys of being a parent at all. They seem to be concentrating on what is wrong with today’s world so much that they completely forget what is right in today’s world. Does the pressure of parenting often eclipse the pleasure of being a parent?

A friend of mine has banned TV, sugar, cheese and noodles from his home. He seems super-proud of himself. But he seems completely unwilling to read or tell stories to his son. A childhood parched of new exciting stories? No chocolate cake? No pizzas? It just seems so sad to me. Though I know that life without TV and sugar and noodles is supposedly great, I would want my daughter to grow up to be a person who does reach out and relish food other than the small bracket of items prepared at home. It is super difficult to travel extensively if you are finicky about what you eat and what you are prepared to eat is determined by what you ate as a child. So the ability to grab a cheese-and-egg sandwich and catch a bus to your next dream is not an unimportant trait. I am not talking about giving my daughter pizzas every weekend or chocolates every day. I am talking about her being a person who does not starve herself if only pizzas are available.

Similarly, I am not talking about letting her watch TV all the time. But the assumption that just because she knows Chotta Bheem’s love interest is Chutki, her childhood is spoilt and relatively worthless as compared to some other child who was riding a bicycle in the meantime or was attending a Hindi class? I don’t think knowing that Popeye’s love interest was Olive Oyl spoilt my childhood and I don’t see why this should be vastly different. I don’t like the Chotta Bheem – Chutki dynamics but that is different. I am talking about sheltering children from the fun parts of today’s world and deeming all of these things evil.

But most of all, there is this attitude that makes people frown upon the parenting styles of everyone other than their own selves. Even I am unwittingly judgmental of someone whose parenting is different from mine. I don’t like to see children being deprived of TV completely when their parents use YouTube in the dead of night to catch a late-night show. I tell myself that I have no right to judge people other than if they use physical violence on the child or do sexually abusive things. Other than that all parenting is good parenting, or so I tell myself. It is the intention that matters. But I admit it is hard. Recently a friend was talking about a competition that he was training his son for. A few minutes into the conversation, I could not stop feeling that the pressure to win the competition was too high. Participation and enjoyment and friendships and goofiness should be more important. That is what my parents taught me. The world is not filled with just one type of parenting. And it is exhausting me.

The Likability Index

Sometimes someone tells me, “I don’t like him. Some people we just don’t like and can’t know the reason, right? Have you felt that?” and I say “Well, I am that to many people. There are those who hate the sight of me and my presence infuriates them no end.”  I don’t say it sounding very bitter; I just say it as a matter of fact, but when I say that the person who I am talking to looks sheepish. For now I have basically shown this person that he/she is a bully.

We associate the term ‘bully’ with a person who is bigger than us and throws his/her weight about in a playground and though some of us did face such bullies, the worst bully of them all is that person who will dislike you when you have not given him/her sufficient reason to dislike you.  It may be that they are against the personality or demographic you seem to represent.  So you may be hated for wearing tight jeans or for looking like a maami (or both at the same time) or looking religious or intellectual or flirtatious or something.  There is no end to this.  Serious-minded people look down on people who seem chatty and those chatty catty people have a thing or two to say about morose-looking people too.

I personally don’t bother with these people who don’t like me. I classify them under “Tasteless idiots” and move on.  But there was one person who I could not ignore.  She was a lecturer.  She hated me. I never knew why.  I wasn’t a ‘good student’ in her subject.  That is because she was not a ‘good teacher’ in my opinion.  She was my Severus Snape*. It was impossible to be a good student when your teacher was out to get you.  She looked sad if I did my work right and her face lit up when I did something wrong. She looked like she wanted to say ‘Gotcha!’  I stopped trying.  I remember actively wanting to fail.  I remember not giving a damn either way.

Fast forward to the present time and I see many people who say they will not watch any movie with a particular hero or heroine because they can’t stand the hero or heroine. I don’t mean people who avoid movies starring a particular actor as they know that he usually stars in movies of a particular genre or has bad taste in his choice of stories.  I mean people who say, ‘I would have loved to watch the movie Neerja but now that they cast Sonam, I can’t watch it.  I hate her nose.’  You hate her nose? That is your reason? People don’t seem to feel any embarrassment when they say this. They sound like they have a perfect right to hate anyone whose nose is sharp.  I deduct about 25 likability points from my estimation of people who say this and a few people I know now have a likability index so low that it is in the negative!

But no one actually starts with a likability index of zero or lower with me. They start with a good 100 points and over time I give or reduce points.  Does appearance not play a part at all?  Sure it does.  A person who is over 30 and seems to have a well-maintained body does get plus points. Tastefulness in clothes gets plus points too.  But the appearance-related plus points are not as high as the behaviour-related or attitude-related plus points that I am lavish about. If I like someone and you walk up to me and ask what I like about them, I can answer you.  I can give you a clear list.  If I dislike someone and you ask me why, there is no way I am going to give an answer as frivolous as “Forehead is too small.”  I will know exactly what made me push that person’s likability index down to zero or lower.

But here is the catch: Some people who go by these instincts do perform better than I do in estimating people at first glance.  They are able to predict temper and attitude and even intelligence levels of people by merely looking at them.  So maybe I should take a cue from them and start trying to judge people based on how they look? I throw my mind back to that dreaded classroom when my lecturer asked me Question No. 1 and Question No. 2 and frowned that she wasn’t able to pin me down.  I remember how she looked like a cat offered a plate of cream when I could not answer Question No. 3.  And then I knew.  It is never acceptable to judge someone based on criteria you can’t even pin down properly. Recognize your prejudices and work on them.  Don’t say everyone does that.  You are not everyone.

 

* Severus Snape is a character from the Harry Potter series. He was Harry’s teacher.

On Paying Compliments

Penny: What was all that about me trading sexual favours for material gain?

Sheldon: It was a compliment. I believe in giving credit where credit is due.

-Big Bang Theory

In the Disney Movie Zootopia, the protagonist-bunny Judy Hopps pays a few compliments to the fox Nick Wilde who would eventually become her partner in solving a huge case.  One of these adjectives is “articulate”.  I was a bit puzzled as he was not particularly articulate for a fox.*  Later in the movie, she is apologizing to him and she uses the word “articulate” again.  This time over, I really did not think it was a compliment at all.  The fox’s problem was that other animals did not think of him as trustworthy and were prejudiced against him. So the real compliment here is to tell him that he is reliable, trustworthy or dependable for he really is all this and more in this story.  Being articulate is a positive trait. But in this case, it works against him as a fox will not want to be known as overtly sweet-talking or glib.  Even if he is pretty articulate, the rabbit should choose her adjectives wisely when trying to make him feel better.

I later found that this is meant to be condescending.  A politician had called Barack Obama “articulate” and plenty of people had taken offence at this comment.  That is what they are highlighting here. Only, it is the exact opposite of what had made me uncomfortable. It appears that White people are known to pay  this compliment to Black students or colleagues and usually mean that they are more articulate than they would expect a Black person to be. It is the racist counterpart of the #DespiteBeingAWoman compliment Modi gave Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina.

In the same movie, Judy Hopps tells a Cheetah that only a rabbit can call another rabbit ‘cute’. This brings us to the topic of this post. Do you know to pay a proper compliment?  Do you know to receive compliments with grace?  It does not sound like Rocket Science and it isn’t. But we have all fallen into this trap.  We have done this and have had this done to us.  Let us explore a few variants of bad  compliments.

The “You are better than I would have expected you to be” Compliment

You look young for your age, you are articulate for a Black person, you are sensible for a woman, you are beautiful for a dark girl, ahhhhh. The list is endless.  People are usually fond of the demographic they fall under.  So it is not nice to say that they are an exception in a rather stinky group.

I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog that a guy once told me, “I want to be friends with you. I have never met intelligent women before.”  This is the same guy who thought that he was going to get somewhere with a “You are beautiful. Really! I am serious, I am not joking.  Believe me.” Did that damn thing sound even distantly like a compliment? Well, there are female misogynists, and in all probability some men do get away and further with compliments like that. I can well imagine Enid Blyton who later in life admitted that she modelled George Kirrin (who is basically a girl called Georgina) after her own childhood being mighty pleased with the compliment “as good as a boy.”

Do not pay compliments like giving a dog a bone

I had mentioned in another post that I prefer people who say “Beautiful for a dark girl” to those who say “Dark is more beautiful.”  So I want to clarify something.  Saying just “You are beautiful” is certainly better than either, and that is a given. The problem is this: Some people who want to advise you against wearing certain colours and those who want to recommend fairness creams sandwich their advice between two compliments.  That is more annoying than I care to elaborate.  Do not use compliments to sweeten blows.

Do not compliment just before you ask for a favour. That is plain disgusting.

Do not compliment instead of issuing a heartfelt apology or distract a person from the issue at hand. I know a man who raised a grievance and the senior just doused him in honeyed compliments and threw him away without bothering to address the grievance at all.

“Yippee, ABC is on time to work!!!” and “Hurray, you did not screw up today” are fine as jokes. We all say that to our friends and colleagues. But some people congratulate colleagues for not screwing up the situation and seem to do this in all seriousness.  Don’t be too good and inadvertently come across as rude.

It is an art. Learn it.

Here a few points I believe are crucial for a good compliment.

  1. It is about the other person. The only acceptable reason why you should pay compliments is because you think the recipient is awesome (or did something awesome recently). It is about them, not about how kind or sweet you are. There are a few people who pay compliments just because they took a new year’s resolution to pay at least 5 compliments a day or because they just saw a motivational image on WhatsApp. If that is what you are thinking, then the recipient will easily see through it.
  2. It is fine to mention that the recipient is a better singer or dancer or achiever than you are. But a friend of mine once mentioned that another girl often gave compliments that went “Wow! How beautiful you are. I am sure many guys will propose to you. I myself am not half as good looking as you are and no guy is ever going to look at me.” It was very embarrassing for my friend to accept this very weird compliment and the other girl was making a habit of it. I would have personally classified this under the heading ‘Nuisance’.
  3. Anyone who has cooked a meal knows that the best compliment they can have is to see that the food is being relished by those who taste it. Compliment with your actions, expressions and the time you spend with someone. Anyone can string a few flattering adjectives together. Actions always speak louder.
  4. Avoid using one-size-fits-all compliments like ‘hardworking,’ ‘beautiful’ and ‘nice’ and go for more specific compliments. Tailor the compliment to that particular person and that particular situation. It is always more flattering that someone paid attention to what you were doing or saying. It also pays to improve your vocabulary to make the compliments come alive.
  5. A good compliment’s effect is multiplied by the number of people who witness it. Try to say these nice things in front of other people. In fact, it is great to say good things about people who aren’t there. If you hear that people were actually gossiping flattering things about you behind your back, you feel mighty pleased.
  6. Pay abundant compliments to children. Children learn what is good and what is bad based on what you scold or appreciate them for. Some people laugh and make merry when children say horrible impolite stuff and scold them for asking innocent childlike questions. What is wrong with these people? Sometimes they make me want to find a sturdy wall and bang my head against it.
  7. Ah, the soft bigotry of low expectations. Say you expect to score 100% in math and your friend who is better than you in sports is expecting a 50% in the same exam. Say you get 97% and it breaks your heart and you cry but genuinely feel happy for your friend’s unexpected 65%. It is good to congratulate him/her for the achievement in what is not his/her strong point. But please do not make a song and dance about it. It kind of implies a certain sort of bigotry and can at times hurt a lot. In fact, I know people who deliberately overdo this as a form of stealth insult and jump up and down congratulating people for “unexpectedly” passing relatively easy exams. If you have something against someone and want to insult them, then have the guts to use  plain, straight insults rather than insults masquerading as compliments

Receive Compliments with Grace

Most people mean well even if there are missteps. So accept the “Wow, you look great in this picture. It does not look like you at all” brand of compliments with the same grace as the genuinely sweet-sounding ones.  If you have an inferiority complex and have problems accepting the real compliments too, then start working actively towards graceful acceptance of compliments.  It is an art too and not an unimportant one.

Some men use compliments as pickup lines and pickup lines as compliments. They don’t know any better. Let them be. Accept/Reject them based on whether you like the guy or not and based on whether you are unattached or not.  Pickup lines are a whole new topic. Maybe someday we can discuss them too.

Notes

* I know that foxes don’t talk. I mean to say that foxes are usually stand-ins for con-persons in anthropomorphic tales and con-people are chatty to a fault.

Edited by Iswarya