By Nayana Chakrabarti, Parenting and Education Editor
Dear Young Person,
I’m 35. Soon to be 36. At 15 – when I was just keen on surviving – I couldn’t even see 35. It seemed like a silly number – not real, occupied by those who were well past it. Ah, the arrogance of youth, eh? If someone was 35, then they were officially an ‘aunty’, in my eyes they virtually ceased to be a person, they were in their socks-stuffed-into-sandals prime and let’s face it, they were scary.
Well, I am an aunty now and I’ve decided that I’m going to own it. I’ve railed against this appellation long enough. Part of me still judders at being called Aunty Nayana or Nayana Aunty, I know I’ll get over it. There are many hills that I will die on, but being called an ‘aunty’ is not one. You can call me ‘aunty’; I promise not to melt.
But why, I have to ask myself, do I feel so uneasy at this address? Is it just the socks-stuffed-into-sandals thing? No. If I honest with myself – it’s because I’ve always dreaded what the word ‘aunty’ entailed, what it meant and yet here I am, an ‘aunty’, inhabiting my ‘aunty body’ with increasing pride and confidence.
For me, as a brown-skin girl of Indian origin, an audience with an aunty meant agreeing to hours upon hours of uninvited and unsolicited critique. Not one single thing about my personhood could pass without comment.
And later. Marriage. Children. Breastfeeding. Children’s skin colour/ height/ weight/ shape etc….It never stops. The ‘Aunty’ is a vehicle for societal judgement, on a mission to let you know that you have been measured, you have been inspected and that you have been found wanting.
As a child and as a teenager, I would prepare for a meeting with an aunty by slathering my skin in cream that promised to make me ‘fair’ and by not eating. There wasn’t much I could do about my height but I did take pills to help me grow one memorable summer. News flash: they didn’t work.
I read essays by these brave and beautiful women these days who called out these aunties, who rebelled early on. I was never a rebel. If anything, I was complicit. I listened and didn’t challenge when aunties would comment on someone else’s body hair, or their teeth, or their lack of femininity because they were not interested in having children. I was too young to participate in these conversations but I still listened, feeling like I was gleaning from them the secrets of the universe…Thinking that if I could just get ‘this one thing right’, I’d finally win their stamp of approval.
It wasn’t later, much later, when I was well into my 30s that I began to realise the full extent of the damage that eavesdropping on those conversations had done. My inner voice spoke in the same tones of concerned critique.
I will never understand what made my global battalion of aunties feel the need to critically appraise every single young person they trained their eyes on. I think and I believe that their hearts were in the right place, I think they believed that they spoke from a place of concern and empathy. They had seen the world and they wanted to tell us about how we should survive it, their critique was a how-to manual, a trouble-shooting guide, they were presenting us with problems that we then had to fix.
But it didn’t work that way, right? Well, at least it didn’t for me. So now that I’m an aunty, I’ll do things differently. Oh believe me, I have a lot to say but nothing that I say will be to do with how you look and how you identify. Instead, I want to tell you this…
1. Remember that failing is good and that failure is a lesson. Learn from it, move on.
2. Don’t let friendships and relationships define you. At the end of each day, you are your own person. Walk away from toxic friendships and relationships.
3. An oldie but a goldie: treat others like you wish to be treated.
4. There are no ‘girl’ jobs and ‘boy’ jobs. Break those glass ceilings and don’t look back. Alternatively, don’t break glass ceilings. Find joy and contentment your own way because you get to define your own path.
5. In a society obsessed by beauty, it is vital to remember than beauty has little to do with what you look like. Beauty lies in warmth, passion, kindness, love.
6. Making you feel ‘less than’ is a global industry worth billions. Stretch marks, softness, cellulite, body hair – this is the story of every body. There is nothing wrong with you.
7. Exercise. But exercise because you love yourself, not because you want to punish yourself. Wear make-up. Wear make-up because you want to creatively express yourself, not because you are flawed. You’re not. You are flawless.
8. No subject, no branch of academia is inherently worth more than another. We need science, we need maths and engineering but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is this: we need art, music and stories too. No career is worth more than another. We need everyone.
9. Civil liberties are important. Stand up for your rights. Ensure that you use your privilege and your platform to support others and create inclusive spaces; strive for equity along with equality.
10. Ask for help. Learn to recognise your triggers. Stay and ask for help. It is available and people want to help.
I’ll be adding to the list from time to time, and when I do, you will be the first to know.
Love from your friendly, neighborhood Auntybody
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