Last weekend I attended a friend’s wedding ceremony. Being an introvert at a public event, I do what introverts do best. Sit in one corner with the few people that I know, make small conversations when necessary and spend the rest of the time observing everyone else. From my table, my eyes caught sight of a young man manning the “Kambing Bakar Station” at the buffet line. If you’ve attended enough Malay weddings, you’d know how the “Kambing Bakar” section is always the most famous and sought after station.
And somehow, the young man who was serving the queuing guests caught my attention.
People would perhaps think one of two things, “Aren’t you the bold one, checking out other men.” OR “Lower your gaze, sister.”
But I was observing him not because his looks. It was something else. Outwardly, what you would see is a man whose half of his body and face had burnt scars all over it.
And perhaps by then, people would turn away; to not appear rude and impolite for gawking and staring or because people are generally uncomfortable with abnormality – in this case, when the person doesn’t adhere to the socially accepted standard of physical beauty.
But what I was observing was his mannerism, the way he was when serving the queueing guests, and how he talked to the elderly man who was assisting him at the food station.
It was captivating. Even based on just a surface level of observation, the way he carried himself was truly pleasant to watch. He was patient in serving each guest. He was polite and spoke kindly to the elderly man. He worked calmly, not sluggishly, and methodically, not haphazardly.
And all those innate qualities are beautiful. But you could only witness all that if you choose to not judge him based solely on his physical looks. If you take a step back and choose to see beyond what your eyes can physically see.
And it got me thinking of another thing. That even though it is already 2018 and women all over the world are proudly proclaiming that they aspire to be progressive, empowered women that educate men who still have the sexist mentality be it in workplace or in personal lives, in reality though, one woman is almost always, another woman’s worst critique and feared enemy.
Why do I say this? Because it is based on what I see on television and what I encountered in real life.
In media, women are conditioned to be physically attractive. From all the advertisements of skin care products that promises flawless complexion within one week, to billboards displaying the significant weight loss of a woman post-pregnancy in slimming centres.
In real life, a woman cannot meet her friend without sighing and exclaiming, “I’ve gained weight”. Weight will always be amongst the favourite topic of discussion. Either you are discussing about your own weight or commenting about other people’s weight – from friends to celebrities who just had babies, because typically, that is when you see a difference in a woman’s body shape.
In real life, a woman thinks it’s okay to make light, harmful fun of another woman’s shape of body. You’re probably thinking, “No, good women don’t do such a thing.” But in truth, I’ve witnessed two instances where good women were actually poking fun of other women’s bodies. In a kenduri ceremony, a daughter who was sitting next to her mother poked the bulge that appeared at her mother’s waist because her mother chose to wear a Kebaya. She was probably teasing her mother in her own affectionate way but what is concerning to me is the hidden message behind her poking gesture.
In a class during a lecture, a young woman jokingly poke fun of her friend’s arm which she thinks has gone big and flabby. They were probably close friends that the young woman feels comfortable enough to crack such jokes with her friend but again, what does that say about the message behind her gesture?
And her friend, the one whose body shape was “lightly” made fun of? Well, she could only laugh nervously and hope the hurt does not show on her face.
And there were many more instances that happened in real life, always by a woman to another woman, whose topic always revolve around the shape of the body and physical beauty. And these things are said and done freely, carelessly and insensitively, without considering the feelings of the one on the receiving end; without knowing the struggles she goes through in private to be socially accepted in public by the people around her.
I feel I have to say that I have nothing against men or women who choose to take good care of their physical body and appearance. In fact, in Islam it is encouraged that we take good care of our health – both the physical body and mental wellbeing. I am always inspired by other people’s stories of their weight loss journey and clean eating regimen. I too love watching other people dress nicely and suit up sharply. We love pretty things and there is no harm in taking care of our own selves. What is harmful is doing all of the above to obtain approval, acceptance and appreciation from other people. That you do all of the above to please other people. That you see only the physicality of another person and blatantly ignore other internal traits that makes a person beautiful on the inside.
Is it not difficult enough already that women have to fight sexism by men and objectification by the media? Shouldn’t we as women in 2018, evolved and empowered as we claim to be, support other women as well? Shouldn’t we, as women, see the beauty within the souls of other women, beyond just the physicality? Why aren’t we celebrating inner beauty such as strength and resilience in facing adversities, courage, determination in overcoming challenges,our sense of humour, a compassionate heart, a generous heart?
Why is it that we still struggle in choosing substance over superficiality? Does women empowerment mean we fight men (bad men, not the good ones) who belittle us and hold sexist views towards us but hey, if we’re the ones who are doing the critiquing or talking about other women’s physicality, then it’s okay?
I’ll end with Shailene Woodley’s interview excerpt that I find to be so profound. When asked, Woodley has repeatedly asserted that she does not consider herself a feminist: “No because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance. My biggest thing is really sisterhood more than feminism. I don’t know how we as women expect men to respect us because we don’t seem to respect each other.”