Temporality: Parenting in Neoliberal India

Bringing up our daughters in the early twenty-first century comes with its own set of peculiarities and it is worthwhile briefly dwelling on these temporal peculiarities. Processes of globalisation have transformed visions of both beauty and the body in India. The 1990s marked a more global vision of both what it meant to be beautiful and what was considered a desirable body shape. In 1994, two Indian women won the Miss Universe and Miss World beauty contest titles. In 1996, Cosmopolitan magazine launched its Indian edition. These might seem to be insignificant markers but they signalled the beginning of a transformation in how both beauty and bodies were envisioned in India. (John 1998; Oza 2001; Phadke 2005; Sangari 2004). Post-globalisation India has created an increase in the aesthetic labour that women are expected to perform on their bodies. It is no longer enough to be virtuous, one must also be sexually desirable—defined in increasingly narrow ways in body shapes and clothing—and even as one is expected to be articulate and ‘modern’, one must nevertheless not be feminist for that is undesirably strident (Phadke 2005).[1]

Many of my interviewees have to varying degrees reflected on patriarchal body-focussed cultures in relation to our own adult bodies but find that contemplating the impact of these on our daughters is very different. Being a girl or a young woman in the early twenty-first century is very different than when I or indeed my interviewees were growing up in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, respectively. For us, the opening of the economy is something that happened when we were children or adolescents or young adults. We grew up in an economy where there was considerably less available in terms of consumer choices. Many of us also grew up in a political context that was articulated as socialist and so any kind of overt consumption, usually referred to as ‘conspicuous consumption’, was suspect. There was one state-run television channel.

In contrast, we are bringing up our daughters in a world saturated with images—images we cannot possibly hide from our daughters. Simultaneously, we live in a time that is demanding more images from our girls, images they are in many ways delighted to provide. Kyla laughs as she describes taking her daughter out to a meal with her friends: ‘The phone camera was the extra person at the table—always present, with the girls all taking pictures of themselves and each other’. There’s something performative about this moment—a performance that must be recorded for posterity. In the twenty-first century, these circulating images bring ever more scrutiny into the lives of young women, who must then submit to the circumscribing gaze, engaging in continuous aesthetic labour to produce ‘perfect’ selves. As Meera puts it:

For me and my friends—those who had daughters who grew up in the 1990s—the first generation of post-liberalisation children. And our questions really were: ‘What is it that we want to pass on? What do we not want to pass on?’ This is not to suggest that we’ve reached the gold standard— but just to ask what is important to us, as feminists?

Tara agrees:

I don’t want to say ‘in our time’, but ... it was different. I find it easy to be a feminist mother, I have so many friends who are, but I wonder, will my daughter find it easy to be a feminist as she grows up?

What we are engaging with then is both parenting in a particular time but also, simultaneously, in a particular moment for feminism in this country and elsewhere. It is a time when feminism as a politics is increasingly derided in the mainstream and claiming feminism requires more gumption than it did two decades ago (Phadke 2015). Meera and Tara both unconsciously use the collective pronoun, ‘we’, and this is a sub-text that continued through my conversations with the women I interviewed. Even as women spoke about themselves, they spoke about what it meant to be part of a movement, to belong and to find oneself navigating the waters of feminists mothering both alone and with others.

  • [1] As Talukdar and Linders (2013) argue concerns about body shape and size are overwhelminglylocated among those women for whom liberalisation had opened up career and other opportunitiesand for which the symbolic value of a fit, often read as healthy and active body, were a distinctadvantage.
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