Throughout Childhood, My Parents Kept Telling Me Not To Smile

Posted by Tamoghna Ghosh in Mental Health, Society
December 20, 2016

Everyone loves to look at photos of their childhood. For the ’90s kids, one of those long-cherished memories used to be family trips, where we were asked to pose with a smile on our faces while the family photographer, mostly our dad or uncles would click polaroids or coloured photographs. When I think about my childhood, I remember my mom telling me before every pose, “Beta, don’t open your mouth and smile. Beta, don’t flash your teeth.” The reason: I have big front teeth. The result: In half of all my childhood pictures, I look like I was constipated or forced to smile.

I remember looking at the mirror every morning while brushing my teeth, wondering why my teeth were so big. In my childhood innocence, I never understood, what was so wrong with having big front teeth or flashing them in public. But I did realise that if I did, people would point and laugh. And since my parents and elders, forbade me to, there must be a reason, right? After all, they are adults and must know better! Then my parents started looking for correctional measures, braces, operations and the likes. And after a while, I started following their advice, and that resulted in a childhood that continued till even a few days back when I posed for my college farewell. I ended up smiling that tight-lipped smile of mine. Only what was out of self-consciousness before, had turned into a full-time habit, later, I would perhaps have looked better if I had smiled to my heart’s content.

Looking back, I realise that was probably the starting point of me being body dysmorphic. Before I ramble on, let me pause for a while to acquaint you with the term. Body dysmorphia has been clinically recognised as a psychological disorder with more than 14% of the population (adults, adolescents and children alike) suffering from it. And queer it may seem to some; this disorder isn’t gender-biased. Ever felt sorry for yourself when looking at the mirror? Ever spent hours standing in front of the mirror, fretting over acne or your limp hair? Ever compared your body to the quintessential ‘Sharma Ji’s kid’, wondering why you’re not as ‘good-looking’ as them? Ever splurged on cosmetics trying to find the right product that would hide your pimples, or would make your face less puffy?

Now, it’s only natural to fret over our looks. Human beings, after all, are vain creatures. But when this turns into a full-blown obsession, the warning bells are rung. Many may say, that the fault is not theirs. Society has set specific norms of beauty to which one must adhere to. Girls are supposed to be ‘gori-chitti’, have a nice pair of boobs and ass, all the while retaining a 24-inch waistline. Boys are supposed to be lean/muscular, with a chiselled jawline (preferably with a moustache or a beard) and oh yes, strong! These stereotypes created by the society and encouraged by the likes of Bollywood have been ingrained in the minds of children while they were growing up.

Everyone is chasing perfection these days. Plastic surgery, fairness creams, Botox, cosmetics and the likes, bear witness to the alarming growth of dissatisfaction amongst today’s generation.

Unfortunately, not just societal stereotypes, sometimes it’s our near and dear ones who aid in making us body dysmorphic without realising it. I once brought home a guy, who was dark-skinned and owing to some illness, very thin. The best thing about him, though, was that he was quite at ease with these ‘flaws’ of his, and cared two hoots about conformity. While my family chose to be most polite in front of my friends, their reaction, later on, what was I was ashamed of. Some commented on his lack of good health; one even went as far as to suggest that he should use some ‘fairness’ cream otherwise girls may not like him. Similarly, I have seen (and experienced), people smirking or passing snide comments at girls/boys who are too thin or somebody who was overweight. Even when in jest, these comments do not fail to hide the condescending and judgmental attitude of the perpetrator. I wonder what gives people the idea that they have the right to judge others. I wouldn’t be too surprised if such reactions more often than not trigger insecurities in a person and reduce them to dummies spending hours in front of the mirror.

However, serious body dysmorphia is a disorder that’s sadly overlooked in most cases. Most people suffering from it may not even know since the symptoms can be easily confused with a childish obsession. If you’re someone who obsesses a lot over a perceived flaw in your appearance, if you find yourself in front of the mirror about 10 or so times a day, if you constantly seek reassurances from your peers about your looks, then it’s high time to acknowledge that you have BDD and try some correctional measures. Ask yourself, why do you want a 10/10 from society about how you look? Societal acceptance shouldn’t be the reason. In the long term, no one will remember you for your pouty lips, perfect nose or slim waistline, but for your friendship, kindness and personality, as clichéd as that may sound. Instead of setting standards of beauty that are in accordance with what the society has dictated, compare yourself with who you were before and the kind of person you are now.

I would also like to remind parents and elders that when a baby is born, you never say, “Oh it’s dark-skinned” or “It’s so bald”. You admire the beauty of the baby because it’s precious. So what changes as the kid grows up? Why not assure your kid that their ‘flaws’ are not flaws but what makes them unique and boost their self-confidence? Would it not benefit us all, if we can forget for once about societal conformity and raise our children to be secure and confident individuals?

Photo credit: mattcameasarat via / CC BY