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     Volume 7 Issue 32 | August 8, 2008 |

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Food for Thought

Superficiality as an
Art Form

Part II

Farah Ghuznavi

The issue of style over substance (or in this case, looks over all else!) has, for some time, been evident as a global trend. But one of the most alarming aspects of this in South Asia has been the emergence of a growing preoccupation among both affluent parents and their children with matters that were previously the preserve of adults. In extreme cases, this includes cosmetic surgery for “beautification” (rather than therapeutic purposes) on teenage children, most of whom want a nose or lips “just like” their favourite movie star! These unhealthy obsessions are presented with a number of justifications, both by the parents involved and by some members of the medical profession.

For example, the mushrooming of gyms for children includes some which have equipment similar to those used by gyms catering to adults, with the argument that children should get used to the idea of fitness “so that when they grow up fitness becomes second nature”. But child specialists object to the use of exercise aids such as dumbbells, however light. According to one orthopaedic surgeon, because young bones are tender and skeletal growth may be inhibited as a result of being subjected to the wrong kind of exercise, it should be borne in mind that “a young child's body is not ready to take on changes that exercise can cause. It could lead to muscle damage and injuries.” Whatever happened to the idea of regular play as a form of healthy exercise?

Another peculiarity observed has been the shift from the idea of spas and salons providing relief for overstressed professionals, to a situation where most spas in India claim that nearly a fifth of their clients are pre-teens and teenagers! According to the magazine India Today, one medical spa in Calcutta has an ayurvedic package that is especially recommended to teens, costing Rs. 3,000 a day! In some cases, the spas are up-front about targeting teenagers as a way of building customer loyalty. Hence, they initially provide free vouchers to parents, so that eventually the children start to come in for paid treatments, including special discounts and package treatments during the summer holidays.

While the motives of commercial establishments and private clinics are fairly straightforward, it is rather more difficult to understand why parents participate in this madness. And madness it is, when surgical side effects are ignored and “popular procedures” include silicon implants for boys aged 14-18, to make the male chest look “puffed up and muscular” (at a cost of a mere Rs. 1 lakh!); “rhinoplasty” which involves inserting cartilage or bone into the nose to change its shape (Rs. 35,000-60,000); as well as breast implants (Rs. 1 lakh plus), liposuction and that eternal South Asian favourite, skin lightening.

Many surgical procedures involve an element of risk. But these risks are much higher in the case of children, where bone and muscle are still developing, and skin is not mature enough for exposure to treatments of this kind. Obviously, medical professionals can shift the responsibility for such decisions to the parents of children who undergo these procedures. But it is hard not to see a self-serving tone in the statement by the president of the Indian Medical Association in Maharashtra, who says, “In a democracy, it is the patient's choice to look good… If we have the consent of parents in case of minors and the doctor is confident of the surgery, it is absolutely ethical to operate”! One cannot help wondering what this has to do with “democracy” as opposed to simply wanting (in the case of doctors) or (in the case of patients) having more money than is good for you…

And yet even parents who do not go to the extreme of encouraging or allowing their children to have cosmetic surgery are unapologetic about their excessive preoccupation with grooming. One mother in Chandigarh justifies an expenditure of Rs. 4,500 a month on sending her 14-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter to a beauty salon and spa, because according to her, “They are developing a look-good and feel-good outlook” (presumably the other side of this particular coin implies that those who are not conventionally attractive have no business feeling good about themselves!).

Nor is this phenomenon limited by any means to our neighbouring behemoth: a look around some of Dhaka's more exclusive beauty salons reveals an increasingly worrying trend of younger and younger children being taken along not to accompany their parents, but to receive services from the beauty technicians. My mother commented on how shocked she was to see, during a recent haircut, that a large group of women and girls present included a number of young adolescents and five to seven-year-olds having manicures, pedicures and mehendi applied. While it may undoubtedly be fun for young kids to have mehendi put on, it might be worth questioning whether taking them to an upmarket salon to have it done is really necessary! As for manicures and pedicures, the less said the better.

Kids at the parlour. Do they really need to start so early?

It is clear that child psychologists do not agree with this approach, with one expert in Chandigarh stating that children and teenagers “are not cognitively mature enough for beauty-enhancing treatments. It interferes with the child's development, fostering narcissism at a young age, which makes children emotionally vulnerable.” The president of the Bombay Psychiatric Society emphasised that when children grow up too quickly, they may “reach the age of 40 or 45, want to go back to the childhood they've missed and start behaving in an immature manner”.

Teachers are also warning of the impact on educational progress and personality development that these trends towards consumerism and obsessive superficiality may have. All of this fits in well with the observation of western psychologists who have noted that children who are exposed to and preoccupied with branded goods often tend to be more prone to unhappiness and general dissatisfaction with life.

Anyone who has any doubts about all this should take heed of the observations by a Bombay based psychiatrist who has come across a 6-year-old who counts calories and has a secret ambition to be Miss Universe, and a couple of 9-year-olds who were overheard discussing whether they were looking fat and how they should start exercising. As she points out, in many cases it is the parents who are the driving force behind their childrens' obsession with their looks and weight. Many parents do not realise the damage they do to a young child's mind by emphasising how fat or slim he or she is; it is not surprising that anorexia and bulimia are on the rise in urban India, when it is more important to be beautiful and “look good” than it is to be smart, intelligent or nice. It is possible that “shining India” is encouraging the development of adults who may look good but lack self-confidence once they have been stripped of their brands and their beauty treatments. Nor is much attention paid to those who do not succeed in achieving such unrealistic standards of beauty, and the depression and despair that result from that failure.

These are clear lessons to be learnt here for Bangladesh as well. While adolescence is a phase when it is natural to some extent to be preoccupied with looks, this should not be allowed to develop into self-obsession that results in anxiety and irrational dissatisfaction with looks and appearance. In the face of media hype, societal influences and peer pressure, it is important that parents help their children retain a sense of perspective and a healthy outlook on life. They can do so by not using negative statements about issues such as the gender, colour, height or weight of their child, and by encouraging healthy eating habits and self-esteem that derives from a variety of sources rather than focusing on superficial good looks. Until parents decide to actively take such an approach, they risk being part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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