Here’s how a conversation between me and 5-year-old Kashmala, my niece, went a few weeks ago.
Kashmala, as we were face-timing: Let’s watch Youtube songs! Can you pleeeeeeeeeeeeease put on that song “Beautiful”? It’s my faaaaaaveeerite!
Me [knowing which songs she’s talking about because she listens to it a lot]: The one where the guy goes, “You don’t know that you are beautiful. That’s what makes you beautiful!”?
Me: Okay, but before I show it to you, I wanna say something. Why does he tell the girl that she’s beautiful just because she doesn’t know she’s beautiful? That’s not okay. She’s beautiful, and even if she knows she’s beautiful, she’s still beautiful. I mean, look at me – I love myself. I think I’m beautiful. In fact, I’m gorgeous!
Kashmala [giggling shyly, slowly looking around if anyone heard me]: You silly! You can’t call yourself beautiful! [giggles a little more]
Me: What? Really? Why not, janana?
Kashmala: Because that’s what other people are supposed to say. Other people are supposed to tell you you’re beautiful; you can’t think that yourself.
Me: But why? What if I know I’m beautiful? I can’t say that out loud?”
Kashmala [getting a little uncomfortable]: Of COURSE you can say that out loud. That’s what I tell people, too!
LOL. She’s precious. Click here to hear and see her singing “Let It Go!” from Frozen 🙂
But this conversation disheartened me. For the longest time, I’ve been trying to show Kashmala that it is perfectly all right to love yourself. This is pretty sad, actually, because I shouldn’t be needing to send her this message at all. This should already be a given. But since it’s not, and I can’t jump to, “It’s important to love yourself,” I’ve to first say, “It’s okay to love yourself.” As if you shouldn’t love yourself if it weren’t okay to do it. While One Direction might be telling a girl that what makes her beautiful is that she doesn’t know she’s beautiful — i.e., that she doesn’t recognize her beauty, that she denies it like a good girl raised in patriarchy is supposed to, that her beauty is only for others to appreciate and comment on, not for her own self — we need to understand that, no, our bodies and our looks and our beauty are all ours and are available to us for our own commentary – and only for our own commentary, not anyone else’s.
Kashmala wasn’t always like this. She used to love herself up until she started nearing the age of five; she’d even look in the mirror and go “tf, tf, mashaAllah” (tf tf = light spitting), what we do when we see something beautiful and admirable (it’s a cultural thing). I remember telling her, when she was much younger while my sisters would be putting on make-up, that she “doesn’t need” make-up. I know, I know – this is a terrible thing to say to a child, but I didn’t realize this then. After a few times of saying this, I realized that the message she was getting was: My sisters need make-up, and that’s why they wear it; that some girls, who are not pretty and need make-up to make them pretty, need make-up; that make-up has any relationship to beauty at all. Again, I neither like make-up, nor wear it, nor want to wear it, nor believe that I need it to emphasize or highlight my own existent beauty. And it’s not that I don’t want Kashmala to wear it because I want to control her and her decisions. It’s that she’s too young to understand the patriarchy involved here. Anyway, so I eventually started telling her that it’s not that she doesn’t need make-up and women who do wear it do need it so they can look beautiful. I started telling her about patriarchy (I’ve used the word with her a couple of times so she’s exposed to it, but I explain to her the general idea of patriarchy without using the word.) Still, it didn’t work, and she started saying: “I’m not pretty so I NEED make-up, okay!!” Last summer, she got a pimple, a tiny wee bit pimple, and she goes: “Oh my God, Shanu! I have a PIMPLE! I can never face the world again!!!” And I held her face and said, “Janana? I can’t see that you have a pimple because it’s really small, but even if it were big, you will still face the world because pimples are totally natural. Everyone gets them all the time, and you don’t have to hide them and be ashamed of them.” Nope. Didn’t work. She sighed miserably–and this is while she’s four years old, not even five yet–“Great. I now look even more ugly.” She and I were watching Barbie’s Dreamhoue so go figure … (I will not tolerate any lectures on the harms of this; I’m fully aware, and I’m working on introducing her to less harmful kids’/girls’ shows.)
I’m heartbroken that a young girl is picking up this patriarchal attitude of modesty and, really, self-hate at the age of five. I don’t want her to think that all she has got or all that matters for a woman is her looks, and so I try not to focus on her looks; I try not to instill the idea in her that she’s beautiful and that that’s all that matters. I don’t want to say anything about her looks when I’m with her. But it is so hard to avoid doing. Self-loathing is all around her, and I feel compelled to remind her that she’s beautiful in every way and does not need to do anything to change that. In other words, it’s hard raising a young girl into someone who’ll love herself. I want her to be crazy about herself. I want her to rely on no one to remind her she’s beautiful or important or worthy of love and admiration. (I know, I know – life doesn’t work that way all the time, and I, too, feel down at times and pick on myself, but under normal circumstances, I’m beyond crazy about myself. I am absolutely and completely in love with myself.)
Then there’s the problem of make-up. (Note: Needles to say, I support women’s and everyone else’s choice to wear or not wear make-up, however they like it. What I don’t like is our patriarchal society and media telling women that they need make-up to make them feel beautiful.) So, my sisters love make-up; I don’t. Kashmala has picked it up from my sisters and loves it, too. She, unfortunately, associates make-up with beauty, like most people do, like patriarchy does. And so when I’m with her, one way that we spend time together is by playing make-up. Despite it all, I give in, I enjoy with her, we laugh, we make fun of each other; my favoritest moment is when, after finishing my eye make-up, she wets a tiny portion of her pinkie with her spit and fixes whatever parts that need to be fixed. And she ends with the words that melt me all over: “Shanu, you look gorge!!!” And I’m like, RIP, English, but then I remember that 1) there’s no such thing as “one proper” English, 2) each generation speaks and deals with language differently than the others, and 3) abbreviated words are becoming the norm, and I’ve gotta respect the fact that she’s partially a part of her environment, and I can’t isolate her from that. I don’t want her to be socially awkward – because that can be mentally and emotionally unhealthy – or to not know how to interact with people around her just because she is being raised to kill patriarchy.
Anyway, so, as the above conversation showed, I love myself ❤ I have no reason not to, and even if I did, I’d fight against any (most likely patriarchal) reasons for me to not love myself. I love looking in the mirror, despite the many changes my body and I have gone through in the last several years, and I dream of having a house with mirrors on every wall; I lightly spit on myself when I see my reflection anywhere, and I say MashaAllah, mashaAllah, nazara na sham (Pashto for “may the evil eye not strike me!”). If this makes you uncomfortable to hear, I urge you to stop reading – and ask yourself why you’re uncomfortable hearing a woman talk about how much she loves herself. I should also say that it’s not my looks here that I want to highlight. (lolz #likeforexample, I have a long nose and it’s not conventionally beautiful. But who cares! I love all of me.) I’m not inviting women to love themselves for their looks. Love all of you, including your looks and your whole body. This is because your society is telling you that your body and your looks have to be photoshopped in order to be beautiful; that, essentially, a woman can NEVER be beautiful – she must be created by a man, digitized, changed completely in order to be considered beautiful. So, yes, looks are important here because once you recognize and embrace your looks as beautiful and not in need of morphing by anyone, you’re a step ahead in this fight against self-hate that the media promotes by celebrating women (models, actresses) who actually are not real, who don’t exist, who can never exist in real life but only post-photoshop and on TV and in magazines.
Because self-love is extremely important, especially for women, because not loving yourself can destroy your self-esteem, which has several sorts of unhealthy impacts on you. We’ve got patriarchal, misogynist forces shouting at us left and right and front and back and from every other side telling us that we’re not pretty, that we’re not beautiful, that we’re flawed, that we need to be pretty/prettier, that we’re not enough, that we’re lacking in this and that. Much of it is for marketing purposes – so that we’ll buy the products that will make us “prettier.” And ends up pushing women into an abyss of self-hate and unnecessary, unhealthy, and useless self-criticism. Patriarchy tells us we’re not beautiful enough no matter how hard we try so that we’ll waste time focusing our attention on our looks instead of doing something more purposeful, such as contributing to the eradication of patriarchy and to the building of a more egalitarian human civilization.
So, self love, women and girls and all other people out there who have ever been shamed into loving themselves. I do it all the time — no, you shouldn’t do it just because I do it, but in case you need support, in case you need a reminder that it’s okay to do it, that you don’t have to accept the negative reaction you get from people — this is for you: First of all, you don’t owe it to anyone that you have to be beautiful a certain way; do not allow yourself or anyone else to reduce beauty and your own self to your looks or your body form. You are much more than that. Not only does/should it not matter whether you’re beautiful or not, it’s also perfectly all right to say openly that you find yourself beautiful and are in love with yourself. Just remember that, if this classifies as arrogance, 1) so what? and 2) it’s better to be arrogant than to drown in self-loathing. And lastly, throw out of your life anyone who 1) tells you you’re being arrogant, weird, selfish for admitting your own beauty, 2) has nothing positive to say about and to you ever but is always the first to criticize everything about you in a non-constructive way.
Now, I know removing people from your life isn’t an easy thing to do, especially because it is the people we love most who are quick to hurt us, so please don’t be like, “You’re coming from a place of privilege if you can just shun people like this from your life.” No, I don’t come from a place of privilege where this is easy for me to do; I’ve been living the consequences of having removed many people from my life because of unnecessary, unhelpful, and unhealthy criticism that was not contributing to my growth, to self-love, to confidence. I have cut people out of my life when they focused on petty things about me and never had anything positive to say to me about me. I’ve called them out on it, and I’ve told them I’m done with them and am much happier without them. Do I feel guilty? Yes, a little bit. But honestly, my emotional and mental health is more important than the feelings of people around me who are unwilling to stop bringing negative energy my way. The consequences have not been easy, but I’m okay with that. I want no one in my life who is not going to bring love and light my way. At least not at where I am in my life right now – but hopefully never in the future, either. I welcome constructive criticism, but when it has to do with looks or body, I’ve told multiple people to take that with them to hell and to never return (this happens almost every single time I’m in the company of traditional Pashtun and South Asian community members).
So go ahead – love yourself. I dare you to love yourself, to think highly of yourself, to believe in yourself, to stand up for yourself. Stand up for yourself against anyone who tries to bring you down, to put you down, to make you feel like you’re less than they or that you’re not good enough or pretty enough. Trust, love, respect no one who tells you that you’re being selfish, arrogant, vain, weird, unacceptable, out-of-line for loving yourself, for acting like you love yourself, for showing that you love yourself. BELIEVE you’re beautiful (if that’s important to you), and shun anyone who tells you otherwise.
And contrary to what 5-year-old Kashmala believes currently, no, other people don’t have to tell you you’re beautiful in order for it to be true. Instead, do what the younger Kashmala used to do: stare at yourself in the mirror as much as you as you want, smile at yourself, and admire your looks while spitting lightly on your mirror image to ward off the evil eye ❤