By Salini Vineeth
I am a typical millennial who grew up reading magazines and watching movies that portrayed ‘the ideal woman’. This ideal woman was beautiful, meek, super-efficient and nothing less than a domestic goddess. Her skin always glowed, and she juggled work and home with ease; her nails were manicured even when she ground curry powders for her family. The younger version of myself thought, ‘This is how a good woman should be. This is the essence of a woman.’ I wanted to be that woman when I grew up.
As I reached my late teens, I realized I was a far cry from that ideal woman. My skin and body never conformed to the ongoing beauty standards. I wore fluorescent green and orange clothes my mother picked for me and saw nothing wrong with them except when my classmates asked why I wore such colours. I loved to talk, crack jokes and howl with laughter without bothering about elegance or grace.
When I was home on vacations, I realized I had no interest in anything remotely domestic. I didn’t try to learn cooking or gardening. Instead, I would be curled up in a corner with a book in my hand – reading, writing and dreaming. From time to time, that image of the ideal woman surfaced in my mind, and I would be disappointed in myself. I would try to salvage my pimple ridden face, acquire some fashion sense, try to be meek and elegant – at least for a short while.
As I turned into an adult, I still held onto some parts of that ideal woman image in my head. So, I kept on a mask (not the beauty type) and tried to play the role of a perfect woman. I would try hard to keep the house in order, shop for stylish clothes, learn new cooking techniques, and grow a few plants (in vain). I would juggle work and home like a pro trying to emulate the 10-handed warrior goddess. But, from time to time, my mask would fall off. My house would turn messy, and my cooking sloppy. And then, I would feel guilty and try to overcompensate for it.
As I grew a little older and probably wiser, I realized this ‘ideal woman’ part I played didn’t give me happiness. Instead, it put pressure on me to be someone I wasn’t. Around this time, I travelled across the country. It opened me up to new experiences and I met other globetrotting women.
My unlearning had begun. Gradually, I realized that the notion of an ideal woman was a hoax, and I was a victim of it. I started letting go of the image of that ideal woman, piece by piece. It was tough to shed years of conditioning. I was scared that my world would come crumbling down if I slipped in my ‘responsibilities’ as a woman. I was afraid my family would be disappointed if I changed, yet I tried. Yes, there were minor clashes and miscommunications, but none of my fears materialized. My family was receptive to my experiments much more than I had expected.
I started letting more of my original self into my day-to-day life – the one who talked and laughed out loud, the one who loved to engage in long philosophical discussions and forgot to cook lunch, the one who didn’t wear makeup or didn’t want to spend time on choosing fashionable outfits, the one who didn’t want to do interior decoration or gardening. I spent more time reading and writing. I finally accepted that I didn’t like my engineering job and took up writing as my full-time career at the risk of becoming a failure.
Over the past three years, I’ve finally made peace with my traits, tantrums, dreams, and emotions. I no longer blame myself for the messy house or heaps of unwashed clothes. I have stopped making myself jump through the hoop. Instead, I try not to feel guilty for being myself. I let myself meltdown, get angry and speak my mind.
I realized life is much easier when I don’t have to pretend to be someone else. I realized there is no shame in letting my husband take the lead in domestic activities like cooking or cleaning. He turned out to be a great cook and baker. I marvel at his keen interest in exploring new cuisines. He makes meal plans and grocery lists, and has taught me a lot of new tricks that save our time in the kitchen.
Writing helped me connect with other women as never before. I marvelled at how diverse they were. Some of them found pleasure in housekeeping, while the others went for solo trips across the country. Some of them wore makeup, and others didn’t. Some of them cooked gourmet meals, and others were happy with cup noodles. But they all had one thing in common: they were authentic. Their authenticity enriched their lives and added value to the lives around them.
These authentic women are inspiring, each in their own way. None of them fit into the mould of the ‘ideal woman’ that I grew up with. And I’ve finally accepted that no standards can define who a woman is.
Sadly, that mould of an ideal woman is still prevalent in our society, and many women try hard to fit into it, even though it’s as painful as fitting one’s foot into a wrong-sized shoe. What we need is the undoing of all such standards, the dismantling of all such frameworks that tell a woman who she needs to be and what she needs to do. Instead, we need to normalize the diversity of women’s personalities and interests.
We need a world that doesn’t judge a woman by what she wears or what duties she performs. We need to create a world where women can be authentic without feeling guilty.
Salini Vineeth is a Bengaluru-based author of four books and freelance writer. Her short stories have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies