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For My Mother, I Was Too Large While My Sister Was Too Tiny

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As I wondered what my next essay would be about, the answer came to me in a most unexpected, even unpleasant manner.

As she leafed through a photo album full of pictures of me as a baby, my mother made an extremely hurtful comment, albeit not one she hadn’t made previously: that I, who used to be adorable, have gotten “uglier” because I “don’t look after myself“.

The latter, being a criticism of my lack of interest in enhancing my physical appearance through makeup, and of my body which, though healthy, isn’t rail thin. Over 30 hours have passed, and her words still hurt.

Mothers are partly responsible for imposing normative beauty standards onto their daughters. Representational image. Photo credit: PixaHive.

She appears to have forgotten all about the incident, but I can’t seem to stop replaying it in my head. Each time I replay it in my head, I am left feeling a little smaller, a little less valid, a little uglier… All in all, like a colossal disappointment.

Living Up To Eurocentric Beauty Standards

Unfortunately, however, I’m not the only girl to inherit such a toxic legacy from her mother. Over the years, I have noticed that this vicious pattern repeats itself in every household where mothers and daughters coexist.

In her feminist masterpiece titled The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes that after a relatively large number of women won the vote, the right to choose their partners, and a degree of financial independence, the patriarchy, in a last ditch effort to maintain the hierarchy that is so integral to its very survival, assaulted us with unrealistic, mostly Eurocentric beauty standards.

And it has been splendidly successful in this sinister undertaking: every woman I know or know of is, to put it mildly, desperate to meet these standards.

All women, from Manhattan’s wealthiest socialites to young girls from villages in third world countries, aspire to emulate this mythical ideal, and often push themselves to unhealthy extremes to achieve it.

From crash diets and over exercise to using potentially carcinogenic skin lightening products, no measure is deemed too extreme.

What’s even more sickening is the fact that our mothers, who ought to be our safe spaces in a world that is fundamentally against us, are often ruthless in their criticism of our physical appearances, and push us to be taller, thinner, and fairer—by hook or by crook!

While it can be argued, and not unreasonably, that they are themselves victims of the Beauty Myth as perpetrated by patriarchal industries and institutions, and resort to projecting their own insecurities as a coping mechanism, I find it hard to be forgiving.

Having established that the rot is systemic, I also cannot deny that my experiences have been real and painful… Really painful.

“My Mother Did The Dirty Work Of Patriarchy”

Although an empowered woman by all standards—a successful, high paying career, and all the independence that comes with it—my mother, like most mothers, lacks independence of the mind.

Having long established herself in the traditionally masculine role of her daughters’ protector against the big bad world, despite her best intentions, she has failed to protect us from the insidious Beauty Myth.

Women end up internalising toxic, beauty standards at the cost of their own mental health. Representational Image. Photo credit: Rahul Sahoo, Flickr.

On more occasions than I can count, she has herself done the dirty work of the patriarchy. My sister was adjudged too “tiny” and I, too “large”. Our facial features, far from perfect. Our skin, blemished.

Both of us abject failures at occupying the perfect amount of space, and by extension, at life itself.

Despite being an affectionate and supportive parent, she has left painful, enduring scars on my psyche, and done lasting damage to my sense of self worth… Damage that even a potent combination of feminist literature, appreciative peers, and therapy sessions has been unable to repair in its entirety.

Say No To Shaming Your Daughters

Although an expression of pent up hurt and a profound sense of injustice, this essay is not an attempt to defame my mother. It is, however, an expression of the anguish well meaning mothers often inflict on their own daughters.

I suspect that mothers do this out of an urgent, albeit twisted, sense of protectiveness towards their young. Far too many mothers do it, to far too many daughters.

Having been shamed for their own appearances all their lives, mothers try their hardest to protect their daughters from the pain, humiliation and ostracism that almost invariably comes with womanhood.

The purpose of this essay is to make them introspect, and to let them know that their efforts, though earnest, are horribly misguided.

Their earnest but misguided efforts to be protectors of their daughters, do little more than turn them into the very tormentors girls need protection from.

I don’t intend to perpetuate the cycle of shame and judgement that is, unfortunately, alive and kicking. What I do hope to do is show my readers, particularly mothers of daughters, the mirror so that they can see the error of their ways and themselves become active participants in ending it.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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