Navigating life as a woman is complicated. We have to shatter glass ceilings, worm our way up patriarchal structures, all the while maintaining our sanity and self-worth. And while we are busy doing this, we have to deal with people offering us never ending wisdom, whether we want it or not.
It is not uncommon for women to receive advice without asking for it, and when they least expect it. Whether we are out in public spaces, or in the sanctity of our own homes, parents, relatives, neighbours and strangers seem to think that we desperately want their opinions and approval. The advice and comments we receive can be obvious, unwanted, or downright offensive.
it is easy to disguise judgement and misogyny as benevolent concern.
This advice is different from mansplaining, which is also a frustrating experience. While mansplaining is about questioning a woman’s knowledge or ability, unsolicited advice is based on a woman’s being or existence, often focusing on appearance, clothes, and choices. Jayati’s boyfriend tells her “Don’t wear sleeveless tops”, because she has gained some weight. What makes it even more frustrating, is its utter uselessness. In school, Riya was told by a male teacher on Saree Day that she should have worn a red saree instead of the black one she had chosen to wear. “It would look better on your dark skin”, he said.
It is also different because unsolicited advice can often emerge from women. Let’s not even count the number of women who have nudged me and silently told me to hide my peeking bra strap or pull my low-neck top up. This culture of women policing other women is a symptom of internalized misogyny, which turns them flag bearers of patriarchy. Shivani’s mother reminds her once a week that she needs to lose weight. On being told that she is perfectly happy with the way she looks, her mother says “But you’d look even prettier if you were thin!”
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Unsolicited advisors often hide behind the line “Tumhare bhalai ke liye bol rahe hai” (We’re saying this for your own good). In a culture that believes that ‘the elders know best’, it is easy to disguise judgement and misogyny as benevolent concern, especially when the advisors are related to us in some way. I had an uncle who was upset with my sister because she didn’t smile enough, despite his advice. My friend Priyanka was told by her parents to avoid swimming because it would darken her complexion.
While we are used to this from parents, relatives or even neighbourhood aunties (not that this normalisation is a good thing), it can be quite rattling when the advisers are complete strangers. Aparna loves green spaces, and often visits a park near her house. During a casual stroll, she stopped and asked a group of old men about the time, and was bestowed with a “You should walk a little faster”.
These incidents aren’t always funny, or harmless. I was walking to class one day, when I was stopped by a male professor. I had never been in his class, but had spoken to him a couple of times on campus. “You need to watch what you eat”, he told me, “You’ve gained some weight in the last month”. I was disturbed, not so much by the remark itself, but by the fact that he had been noticing my body, and by his need to come and express his ‘concern’ for me. Wanting to diffuse an awkward situation, I smiled and hurried off to class.
How does one respond to situations like these? Do we laugh these incidents off every single time? Do we ignore the adviser and walk away? Or do we express our displeasure and call them out on their misogynist and invasive remarks?
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Often, confrontation also doesn’t lead to anything. Supriya, a research student, had decided to join a co-working space. The manager, an older woman, was overtly friendly and inquisitive, asking about her age, marital status, etc. In the middle of the tour, on finding out that Supriya had been married for several years, the manager reprimanded her, “Why are you wasting time on your career? You should be focusing on your family and having kids.” Needless to say, she left the space fuming. A heavily worded email to the owner of the establishment yielded no response; neither an apology nor an explanation for the manager’s behaviour.
The advice seems like a weird form of policing, meant to make women better at being women
These incidents seem small by themselves, but together they reveal a pattern. Although no gender is exempt from this invasive culture, the kind of comments women receive are often disturbing. The comments reveal stereotypes of what women should consider important, such as body, clothes or family. They also reveal a culture of entitlement, where people find it normal to counsel women on extremely personal topics and issues.
There is an underlying implication that women do not know what’s best for them, and society must take up the responsibility of educating us about our own selves. Taking into account the fact that women face this on a daily basis, the advice seems like a weird form of policing, meant to make women better at being women. And so they are bombarded with advice on how they should live, walk, look, smile, and breathe.
In a time when women have just started to reclaim their space in a gendered society, and feel comfortable in their own skin, such unsolicited advice can leave them feeling exposed, self-conscious and uncomfortable. There is a need for establishing body and choice autonomy, to combat this discourse of ‘well-intentioned’ misogyny.
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