Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On Looking Good

Appearance, concepts like ugliness, and beauty; should these make any difference to how we relate to other human beings?

Given that for a person with functioning eyesight, most often the very first contact that we make with another person is visual, that 'first impression' certainly must have an impact. Is the person tall, short, lean, fat, fair, dark, handsome, ugly, having some unusual or outstanding feature...? We register these impressions almost subconsciously, and they stay with us. We associate this set of physical attributes with that person.

I've had the same sort of experience while talking to people on the phone. Folks that I have never met respond to things like the quality of one's voice, pronunciation/accent, and how articulate one is. I remember a classical music host on our university FM station that I used to call to make requests to when working the midnight shift at the blood bank. It got so that we became good phone friends and one night she had broadcast an appeal for blood just before I called her with a request. She wanted to know how acute the crisis was, and it was a bit of a crunch, in the dead of winter and after some bad snowfalls the trickle of donors had pretty much dried up. Then she asked me whether I had a vehicle and whether I could give her a ride the next morning so that she could donate. I was quite amazed at her confidence and lack of fear! I asked her later how she had had the courage to trust a 'caller-in' stranger, and she just said, "it's your voice". I then had a long talk with her about NEVER doing that again.

When sexuality and finding a mate get thrown into the mix, the questions become more acute, easier to answer, but harder to deal with. Dating is not a very common practice in India. Here the culture is still dominated by Families (with a capital F, see my earlier post here) and particularly so when marriage and mate matching is in view. Families here tend not to look too much at physical beauty, and are perhaps even a bit suspicious of it, but they will not consider people with physical handicaps (especially girls) and will dig deeply into a lot of other things including the other family's caste background, antecedents (is it a 'good' family?), health history, whether the boy is taller/girl shorter, and strangely enough, especially for girls, whether they are fair - i.e. light skinned!

After getting past the critical step of matching horoscopes, the investigation of a potential match can take months, with involvement by much of the extended family and input coming from all sides. One negative opinion freely expressed can spell doom!

With the dowry system also stubbornly hanging around, it is possible that the 'detected deficiencies' on the part of the girl can be compensated by the girl's parents by suitably 'enhancing' the pot. On the boy's side, if there are problems, the opposite occurs, and the amount demanded will be suitably reduced!

In such an environment, Families are terrified of having any hint of controversy surrounding them or attaching to them even from a distance. Any nonconformity is anathema. The usual sexual discrimination is also obvious, for 'boys will be boys' and are allowed to get themselves into a certain amount of hot water, but for the girls, never.

Western culture though, seems keen to let their youth figure out for themselves whom they will make life commitments to, and nowadays, even whether they will permanently settle down with one particular 'significant other'. The role of physical appearance therefore is very prominent. Popularity seems to be first and foremost governed by how good one looks. The other questions, initially at least, take a back seat. If you like someones looks, you are more likely to go out with them when invited. You are much more likely to invite someone out whom you think looks good. Being popular and looking good seem to have more than a casual connection.

Corollaries to this are that everyone is very concerned about their appearance. One should certainly try to look as good as one can! The amount of angst and therefore outflows of money are directly proportional to the tremendous anxiety generated all round. Also, The beautiful and the handsome, are much more likely to pair up with others who are 'beautiful and handsome' and subsequently be envied by all those who do not fit into these categories.

In a youth and young adult fellowship group that I once frequented* about 60% were girls. Out of about 200 people attending, my guess would be that there were about 15 really 'popular' girls ( judging from their calenders) with another 30 or so who generally had a date at least once a week. The rest (roughly 80) pretty much languished in a sea of envy and pretended nonchalance! The unintended but very real cruelty of this system didn't seem to unduly worry anyone. It was a very Darwinian sort of thing to find in a Christian fellowship group: The popular will survive!

In both systems the rules of engagement seem to relax somewhat when 'just friendship' is envisaged. But even here, for some folks, the idea that handsome is as handsome does is not acceptable. The company one keeps should also be from and of the 'beautiful people'.

Pragmatically, either system (Eastern or Western) does seem to 'work'. The respective cultures also do not seem to feel any great discomfort with how their system works and in both cultures, the advertising community finds a rich storehouse of stuff with which to manipulate demand. One can't blame them, for the resulting ideas are powerful as well as seductive!

Being rich, being famous, being beautiful, and their opposites are all factors that we seem to take for granted should make a difference in how we relate to others.

But, I find it horrifying that we take it all as a matter of course. 'That's just the way it is, and that's just the way it always has been'! I'm sorry, but however strongly these ideas are embedded in our cultures, it doesn't make them right. Our ethic must challenge both of these contrasting but nasty systems.
The question is not "does it work?" but is "is it right?".

*quite some ways back so I could be needing correction on this if these trends have changed...


john doyle said...

You suggest that urban kids with a bit of Western influence are more likely to opt out of the traditional system. Would you say that the ones most likely to pursue a love match are those who are most likely to meet the Western criteria for popularity -- pretty/handsome, well-educated, outgoing -- or the ones at the bottom of the existing social hierarchy who have the least to lose?

Unknown said...

Our urban kids are still somewhat in-between culture wise. The worst of the dating culture hasn't yet penetrated and in many of the TV serials and movies that are very popular here one actually sees the reflection of something a little less materialistic-hedonistic, and i'm thinking of series like "Friends" and movies like "Shrek".

It would be true that those most Westernised and those most educated are more likely to try to step out of the traditional ways. Also, it's much tougher for girls to buck the system than for the boys, though both sides still do face quite a lot of difficulties.

College education in particular is playing a very powerful liberalising role while also helping to promote the financial independence that is needed to survive without a Family's support.


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