Puberty photography: Are we sexualising our young girls?

CYBER CRIME AGAINST WOMEN BY DEBARATI HALDER

Menstruation is a phase that every woman has to undergo no matter whether it gives her pleasant or unpleasant experiences.  For most Indian girls who are in periods, the experience may not be pleasant one. Even though it is actually a biological purification of reproduction system, socially the girl in puberty may be considered as un-pure.  She may be treated like a secluded dirty living creature. I would not have believed this until the day I saw a woman in her 30’s standing in her own portico in a hot summer afternoon. When asked as why she was standing in the hot sun, her answer was, ‘I have my periods’.  Against such social taboos, several activists have taken out vigorous campaigns, amongst which #HappyToBleed is foremost which was created to spread awareness about menstrual hygiene and also a protest against  restrictions on menstruating women to enter specific  temples . While I support such move towards creation of awareness regarding menstruation, my concern lies with a separate issue. Some societies in India celebrate the puberty of girls in special ways. Most mentionable of this is the south Indian culture of celebrating puberty. Several sociologists may provide explanations as why this particular occasion is celebrated with such pomp and gaiety.  The common ritual that is followed throughout the day ( a specific day is fixed after the girl ends her very first 4 days of menstruation), involves special pujas and  showering the girl with gifts , bathing of the girl with water mixed with herbs, feeding the girl with nutritious meals including fresh vegetables and fruits, adorning her with new clothes and ornaments which may symbolise that she is no more a little girl, but has “attended age” for reproduction, followed by a feast for relatives and friends. When I was invited for a puberty function for the first time, I was confused as what to gift; I carefully chose a Whisper packet and wrapped it in a gift pack, thinking this would be an ideal gift for the girl who has started her menstrual cycle for the very first time. But later, I was told that the right gift would be a  simple flower “gajra” for decorating her hair and a box of sweets. Stuffs like a pack of sanitary napkins or awareness materials including books or CDs on menstrual hygiene are not included as parts of gifts from women invitees except when the woman concerned is the girl’s mother or own aunt (but this may be a rare occasion).   Strangely enough, many families pay very less attention to make the girl as well as other female children aware of menstrual hygiene, even though this occasion could very well be used for this.  Some even call this as “pre-wedding ceremony” since in earlier times such ceremony would involve an implied announcement that the girl is ready for marriage. Some families lavishly spend for these ceremonies. However, notably, while this is a common cultural practice in south India, celebrating puberty in such a fashion would not be seen in some other parts of India including eastern India or northern India.  This puberty function is necessarily accompanied with something called “puberty function photography”. Some families, who can afford to hire professional photographers, document the whole ceremony. Several families have also created YouTube videos of these ceremonies.
While this is a completely  family affair and may be this could be taken as a positive note against menstruation taboo, one must also consider the other side of the coin. Many girls may not like the whole ceremony of publicising their biological developments. Some may not even like to be photographed as the “puberty girl”.  Some of the girls with whom I had interacted on this issue, told me that they felt extremely awkward because they felt that they were being sexually objectified. That is because the occasion is not a birthday or a wedding reception, but something which is “privately hers”.  What is most embarrassing for most of these girls is being photographed as a “puberty girl” by young boys who may be brothers or brother’s friends. These boys who may be in their pre adolescent age or in adolescence, may not have awareness about puberty. But the ceremony may only make them understand that the girl is ‘sexually ready’. I felt really sad when I saw a young girl in the midst of her puberty ceremony pleading with her brother and cousins to stop objectifying her and   shut the camera off. It was clear: may be the boys were clicking her to make their own albums of “puberty girl” to be shared later with family and friends, the girl could definitely understand that  she was being marked for her biological, rather sexual changes and she did not wish to be photographed for that particular occasion.
Does such photography have really anything to do with sexually objectifying a young girl? I have two contradictory opinions: if awareness campaigns like the #HappyToBleed campaign can create positive awareness about menstruation and can get good response from men, then why not publicise puberty photography? This can be used to spread awareness about puberty and reproduction among children in a very child-friendly way. But at the same time, I must say, our society is still not ready to handle progressive thoughts about menstruation of women and girls. There are umpteen examples of online harassment of women and girls by misusing their photographs. Amateur puberty photography of young girls (especially on occasions of ceremonial bath in their wet clothes) may attract unwanted attention from harassers who may make unethical use of such images.  The photographs or video clippings may also attract sexist comments from strangers if the said photographs or videos are made open for public viewing.  In such situations, instead of happy memories for a special occasion, the images may bring  huge trauma to the girl in question. Added with it, if the parents and family members of the victim are not aware of cyber ethics, the girl may face great hardships even for socialising with her friends through digital communication mediums or even for continuing her studies because no one would like to lodge a police complaint on these images . Even if some one does, he/she may have to face upheal task to make the concerned  police officer (in case he/she is unaware of the nuances of online victimisation, sexually objectifying remarks and laws regarding this) understand  what makes the offence and why.
I feel instead of encouraging the children to have a hand on amateur photography during the puberty ceremony, the families should consider teaching the children about menstrual hygiene and  role of puberty in every one’s life. Then comes the issue of teaching cyber etiquettes as what should be photographed, how the girl should be photographed and why it is necessary to take her consent before clicking her and also before uploading her images as “puberty girl”.  If the puberty function is arranged in this manner, I am sure, children may not only be made aware of reproduction, menstrual hygiene and sexuality through the unique learning method, they may also become crusaders against online victimisation of women and girls.
Please Note: Do not violate copyright of this blog. If you would like to use informations provided in this blog for your own assignment/writeup/project/blog/article, please cite it as “Halder D. (2016), “Puberty photography: are we sexualising our girls?6th June, 2016, published in http://debaraticyberspace.blogspot.com/

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