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Mirror, mirror on the wall
Do you believe it's ever okay to describe or refer to someone based on their appearance?
When was the last time you looked at a photograph of yourself and thought you looked good in it? What about in the mirror?
All of us see flaws and imperfections in our pictures and reflections—most of which only we notice about ourselves. But what happens if others reinforce these imperfections, or worse, made you feel conscious about something entirely else that you never thought you needed to change or pay attention to?
A lot of us, I’m sure, have grown up hearing people make comments such as these (if you haven’t, count yourself blessed)—
Did you know that Lady Amitabh got married? Her husband must feel like a Lilliput in front of her. (Referring to her height)
“Our neighbour’s younger son got into a Master’s program.” “Which one is he?” “The one with the colour guarantee.” (Referring to his dark skin)
The watchman’s wife was telling me that Mrs X goes for an hour-long walk every morning, then comes home and munches on a handful of cashew nuts.
She has such short hair, she looks more like a boy!
Then there are the backhanded compliments—
I like how confident you are in wearing this sleeveless shirt.
You carry it off so well.
Wow, I would never be able to post a picture like that. She’s so brave.
I could never go out without wearing make-up. You’re so brave.
She’s so proudly flaunting her greys and crow’s feet. I wish I had the courage.
And then there are the references to people made based on their appearances—
“the buck-toothed one”
“the one with the big butt”
“the one with the flat butt”
“Chinky” (Referring to North-East Indians)
“the fair-skinned one”
“the one whose hair looks like Aparichutudu” (Referring to long, messy hair on a male)
…and so on.
I’ve had a long time to think about this—clearly, some of this is not malicious intent. Sometimes, some of these appearance-related traits become, for better or worse, a person’s identifier. So, where is it okay to use and where is it not?
It’s best to avoid all appearance-based descriptions and references, but at the very least, any description or reference based on judgement is totally uncool.
Often the people who are at the receiving end of these comments may not be able to speak up for themselves or may fear confrontation or escalation, and bystanders stepping in to stand up for them could make all the difference.
If someone you know uses such references or descriptions, check in with them about their intent, then try to have a calm yet firm conversation with them about why such words can be hurtful or unnecessary, and what other alternatives they can use.
If you have been bothered by other’s comments on your appearance or whether you’re a bystander, here are some resources for you: dealing with negative comments and coping with questions and comments when there’s a visible difference such as burns or scars.
Appearance is shallow. It is the least of what makes one’s personality or character.
Let us not reduce people to a few adjectives.