“And what will you say when he asks since when you’ve been unwell?”
“Since yesterday afternoon.”
“And when he asks if you’ve taken any medication?”
“I took some cough syrup.”
At this point, a grin would spread across his face. This scene has been played out so many times in our home that I know what is coming. My fever-parched throat readies itself to whine, call out to my mother.
“And what will you say when the doctor asks when you’re getting married?”
“Mommy!” I shout out to her to let her know of my irritation that has nothing to do with my illness.
Mommy comes over, smiling at my father’s “dreams” of his daughter’s far-off wedding day. Dreams he has begun to have when the daughter in question is seven.
“Your daddy’s just teasing. But one day you’ll have to go.” Her smile turns wistful. The father of the future bride barks out a laugh.
My brother was never teased this way. His fevers and coughs were just fevers and coughs. His visits to the doctor did not have prospective alliances looming over them, brides lurking around in their trousseau. His doctors were never equated to matchmakers waiting for eligible bachelors to fall ill.
Parents, armed with their bedtime fairy tales and their “good-natured ribbing”, are essentially salespeople. And good ones at that. Fairy tales tell you the damsel met her prince and they lived happily ever after. That is the height of your heroine’s aspirations. The ceiling, the sky. For instance, in my dad’s hypothetical scenario, never once does the doctor ask if I maybe wanted to become a doctor myself. Or anything, other than “Would you like a groom with your prescription?”
This height of aspirations, not seeing beyond the “happily ever after”, was perfectly summarized in another conversation from my childhood. The youngest one in our group loved (and I mean LOVED!) to play the bride in our games. Just the bride, mind you. She was quite young, a kindergartner at the time if I remember correctly. Our neighbor’s daughter, who was in college, often came over to pinch our cheeks when she saw us playing. One day, she asked the little one why she liked playing the role of the bride. She whispered something into the older girl’s ear, whereupon her eyes widened theatrically and she exclaimed, “Haaye main marr jaawaan!” This roused our curiosity, and after we demanded, “Didi, usne kya kaha? What did she say?!” a few times, Didi revealed to us that, “Use sajne ka shauk hai. She loves to dress up.”
That is honestly all that’s sold to us. And that is enough. It leads to a lifetime of insecurities and doubts on self-worth, creating scared little girls whose only ambition is to be a bride someday. (Note how I say “bride” and not “wife”) And why? Because it’s nice to dress up? Play a bedecked and bejewelled centrepiece as a linear continuation of our childhood games?
Now you could argue that this limit on women’s aspirations is a thing of the past. After all, both the examples above are from my childhood. And that now, girls are encouraged to choose other, better ambitions than settling down unwillingly into someone else’s life and getting lost in it. If you believe this, then I’m here to shatter those beliefs (as much as I wish you were right)
These magazine covers are from September 2016.
This is just the beginning of a certain kind of conditioning that states your main aim is to look pretty. That’s your ladder. It starts at a young age and something we carry into adulthood. An unmarried woman past a certain age is automatically labeled a failure, even if she’s the CEO of a company. She’s labeled “angry”, “aggressive”, “frustrated”. Never “successful”. Never “fulfilled” or “happy”. The world cannot compute even the possibility. The world has not taught the woman to aspire to this happiness, this success. How dare she?
Then there are some of those (I’m struggling to not use expletives here) who complain, “But if women really could do better than they are now, why are all the famous scientists men?” These people need to be high-fived. In the face. With Thor’s hammer. (Then they would probably ask why Thor is male, but that’s just not an argument that’s worth getting into.)
When girls as young as eight are taught that their whole worth depends on their “swimsuit bodies”, it teaches them that their priorities are different. There are others who do not even have the advantage of a decent education. There are definitely those who go against their conditioning and against these obstacles. But the ones who’ve just been hit with the hammer have never heard of them. Cherry picking exists everywhere.
As for the “happily ever after”, if there’s a more guilt ridden position than “wife”, I’ll be happy to hear it. If you work, you’re guilty. If you don’t, you still are. If you have friends and a social life, you’re guilty. If you don’t, you still are. There’s guilt anywhere you turn, because you are always expected to be a certain way and somehow, you are always failing to meet those expectations. To use my own example, I’ve lost count of the hints that have been dropped around me that it’s now “time to quit my job and take care of the household”. Ridiculous as it sounds, it appears that I’m a rebel of sorts just because I go for work.
It’s taken me years, but I’m finally learning to let go of the “wife guilt”. Letting go of it one wedding bangle at a time. It’s taken me even more years, but I’m unlearning my “Cinderella Complex”. My “Snow White Complex”. My “Hell-literally-any-fairy-tale-with-a-prince-and-damsel-in-distress Complex”. I won’t deny that I suffered from it – it was a part of my upbringing. It is all I heard every time I fell ill, every time I changed schools, every time a family friend came to visit. Every time I was reminded that I was a cumbersome responsibility that my parents had to shed. All of these expectations that didn’t even lead to a cute dress up party, as my little friend claimed a long time ago, but a disappointing, underwhelming experience (which I wrote about here).
When I wrote the above-linked post, in his comments, Marty Rubin pointed out that women give up so much of their freedom when they get married. It occurred to me that though we all know this to be true in most cases, we still go ahead without a second thought because it never crosses our minds to negotiate better for our future. We put a lid on our dreams because of the fears that have been instilled in us. We don’t even realize it at the time, because our minds have been warped into believing that we’re meeting the ambition that was set for us from childhood.
Why are we doing this to little girls?