No nail polish, ’No short skirts,’ ‘white bras only,’ were some of the things I grew up hearing as a female student in India. Much of my integral developmental years were spent when there was no online activism, no Slut Walk, no scrapping of Article 377. I am sure my 13-year-old self must be quivering right now, because of all the ‘forbidden’ things I have mentioned.
I grew up in a small town in India’s Northeast and my days weren’t spent idyllically amidst siestas by the banana grove and paddy fields, unlike what mainstream media is often prone to portraying. Instead, they were spent amidst educational anxieties and familial drama and petty frenemy-ships and one-sided crushes, basically everything and nothing that engulfs the one-woman show that is a young child’s world.
One of the primary things I remember from these formative years is that I was somewhere trying to be the ‘good’ kid, or at least show the world that I was one. I studied and even focused on extracurriculars activities. No accessories, no non-white bras, no above-the-knee skirts. There was of course absolutely no concept of applying makeup to school, not even that Vaseline-like lip gloss. No mehendi or ‘jetuka’, the traditional Assamese version of the same, not even for intimate family functions. Do not even get me started on relationships. Forget relationships, I couldn’t even have a one-on-one conversation with my male classmates without a lot of stuttering and awkward pauses.
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It wasn’t even that I was trying to please my parents or my teachers. My parents, though conservative in their own way, were quite liberal in general. As a teen, I had learnt through observations and experiences that no one liked the teachers’ pets, not even teachers themselves. It wasn’t academic excellence that swooped teachers off their feet. It did make them happy, but did it make them awestruck? No. You needed a particular kind of personality to achieve that particular feat. And I, with several glorious years’ of institutional conditioning, definitely did not possess one.
So, I wonder now, why did I live my school life the way I did? There is no clear answer. Perhaps I was unconsciously seeking some kind of twisted social validation, that of being the ‘good’ kid. Not only would I inculcate all those obsolete values within myself, but I would silently monitor them in others too. I did judge classmates for having a boyfriend/girlfriend or for even getting highlights on their hair. Notice how most of these things are related to various manifestations of patriarchy? I did too, only much later. I am reminded of what one of my personal idols, Simone de Beauvoir, wrote, “Women are not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Perhaps one of the rare advantages of growing up an introvert is that you eventually reach a stage where you begin to do some soul-searching. You ditch your goody two shoes books, first, for fluffy novels and Wattpad smuts, but then, eventually for stories, of loss and grief and institutionalised oppression and revolution and little joys and whatever else you can get your hands on. And with all the personal metamorphosis, comes the obvious change in the meaning of the word ‘good’ for you.
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Now, being ‘good’ is no longer internally judging all the ‘cool’ girls while also wishing you could be like them; it is about understanding that every girl is unique in her own self and that we need to support each other. It is no longer about keeping mum with that sick feeling in your stomach while the people sitting behind you ridicule your effeminate bench partner, it is about pledging your support for the LGBTQ+ community publicly. It is about understanding that short skirts are okay, that it isn’t even ethical in the first place for minor girls to cover up for the sake of male teachers.
It isn’t all right for your neighbourhood aunty to make comments about what big girls should and shouldn’t wear while going out at night. Being ‘good’ now also pertains to questioning various forms of body-shaming, right from that grandma who recommended fairness cream to a 10-year-old boy, to the kids who made fun of that sweet, plus-sized classmate after PE class and that woman who fretted about her kid’s short height in front of them.
It is about objecting to the tutor’s use of the r-slur when your classmate can’t solve math sums. It is about standing up to your classmates who used homophobic slurs. It is about opposing anti-reservation and, by extension, thinly veiled casteist rhetorics shared on WhatsApp groups by your supposedly more educated school seniors. It is about standing up to religion-based communal “dank memes”. It is about fighting for climate mitigation. I want to tell my former self, if at all, that this is what being ‘good’ entails.
The author is a student at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. Views are personal