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Throughout Childhood, My Parents Kept Telling Me Not To Smile

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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

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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