Vanitha magazine's advice on puberty smacks of an obsession with hiding breasts

While much of the article hints almost darkly at the changes that will soon be visited upon the growing child, it discusses them in a manner that impresses upon mothers the need to hide or control these changes.
Rep image of woman censored
Rep image of woman censored

On Tuesday, 5 October, in a section titled “Mummy & Me”, the ubiquitous Malayalam magazine Vanitha published an article perplexingly headlined “What will be her first change? When your child becomes a girl child: You may teach her…”. The entire article by Rakhi Das was based on professional advice of one Dr Hafeez Rahman, a consultant gynaecologist & laparoscopic surgeon and the head of obstetrics & gynaecology at Sunrise Hospital, Kochi.

Vanitha chose to share this article on their social media with the choicest excerpt as the caption: The excerpt shared on Facebook reads: “Mothers should be careful to dress [them] properly during the stage of breast growth. Thick-enough cotton slips or camisoles should be enough in the beginning. It would be nice to stitch slips with double layer yokes to dress [them] in."

I would like to state at the outset of this article that unlike Dr Hafeez Rahman, I am not a medical professional, and have certainly never been described as a “Miracle Doctor”. I am, however, a Malayali woman who underwent puberty myself, and have possessed breasts for a long time. I too am the daughter of a Vanitha-reader and would like to live in a world where young girls are not told by their mothers that they have to be careful to never let anyone even suspect that they may have developed breasts. 

Back to the article at hand. It begins with a pretty interesting headline. Given that the article is aimed at informing mothers about what they should teach girls when they reach puberty, the headline does an interesting but complicated balancing act in its framing. While first conceptually separating girls from the group of children in general as soon as they attain puberty, it still denotes them as  “girl-children”, not adolescents or adults, suggesting a uniquely gendered and sexualised category of childhood that still needs to be protected and controlled. Maybe they just forgot the Malayalam word for adolescent.

The article continues very much in the notional register of this headline. While much of the article hints almost darkly at the changes that will soon be visited upon the growing child, it discusses them in a manner that impresses upon mothers the need to hide or control these changes, instead of advocating healthy discussion and the sharing of some agency and responsibility between mothers and daughters.

Hafeez, speaking through Rakhi, states that when a girl is “blossoming like a flower”, she needs her mother with her at every single moment. He continues mystifyingly, “Of course when the daughter is approaching fifteen you can see that all eyes are on her”. He attributes this to her body becoming more feminine post puberty, a point he returns to later in his article.

In a section dealing with breasts and bras, he briefly mentions the ages at which girls tend to develop breasts. He then goes on to say, “Attention should be paid to children's clothing at an early age of physical development. Children need to be taught the need to look after their own body parts without being seen or touched by others. The courage and confidence of girls is the greatest defence against sexual harassment.”

This is a strange opinion to explicitly impress upon mothers of daughters. While attention should be paid to make sure that children of all genders are neatly and hygienically dressed at all stages of life, stating this opinion immediately before mentioning defences against sexual harassment makes it sound as though it is the duty of girls and women to dress a certain way in order to avoid sexual harassment, or that what someone is wearing has anything to do with their experience of sexual harassment, because it does not. While it is true that confidence and courage is essential to all humans, it is dangerous to suggest to girls that their clothing and ability to keep their bodies completely hidden should be their source of it.

All of his advice on bras seems to come firmly from the position of someone who cannot imagine being anything but horrified by breasts. He starts by warning that children are likely to bend their backs and thus cause themselves other physical problems, so that their new bodily changes go unnoticed by others.

In explaining why bras are worn, he says that it is essential for both “beauty and physical health”, without mentioning any of the few health, posture or lumbar benefits wearing a bra may have. He does not discuss allowing a girl to decide for herself whether she would like to wear a bra or not, or when she would like to start wearing one, nor does he have any advice on teaching them how to select the correct bra size for their bodies and needs.

Instead, he directs that mothers need to be vigilant and active in the project of hiding their girls’ breasts even before they begin developing. He divides girls lives’ into sections distinguished by when people begin looking at their breasts. “Mothers need to make sure that they are properly dressed before their breast growth gets noticed by others. Initially, thick cotton slips or camisole will suffice. It is also advisable to wear a slip with a double layered yoke.”

He instructs mothers to clothe their girls in “bralettes or beginner’s bras at the time when breast development is likely to attract the attention of others”. Such bras are for the sole purpose of “keeping the breasts from moving and the nipples from sticking out of the clothes while running, jumping and walking”. As Mathrubhumi columnist Dr Nelson Joseph pointed out on social media, this advice seems to come more from a deeply-rooted Malayali belief in how essential addakkam and othukkam (stillness/self-containment and modesty) are to girls and women than any actual medical expertise. The article also goes on to specify that “at the age when a normal bra can be worn, a bra with a thin padding is best”. Why? Just.

Given that 'one of the best' gynecologists seems to hold such prude and irritating beliefs about women's breasts and bodies, is it any wonder that there are so many articles on how difficult it is to find a non-judgmental gynec in this country, and that women have had to turn to crowd-sourced lists sharing personal experiences with the rare good ones? 

The Vanitha article continues by warning mothers about the dangers of waxing, hair-removal creams and shaving (possible itchiness, skin darkening or ingrown hairs). He suggests trimming underarm hair with a pair of sharp scissors, which I am not going to say anything about, or laser hair removal in extreme cases, which is of course expensive and not an easily accessible option for many of us, in addition to being permanent. 

When asking mothers whether they have noticed a wetness in their child’s panties, which is a question that reads even more alarmingly in the original Malayalam, he states that a lubricating wetness is natural in ten-year-old girls. He assures mothers that it is not caused by sexual arousal, as though such an idea is inconceivable, and that at around this age, the slippery lubricating fluid is “pure” as water. 

Nowhere in the article does he discuss or encourage healthy mother-daughter conversations on the arrival of new feelings or questions about sex, desire, sexuality, or gender identity. Despite there being statistical evidence of 20,995 teen births in Kerala in 2019, and his own article taking the time to warn mothers to teach children to take care of their bodies without being “seen”, he has absolutely no advice to offer on contraception, consent or safe sexual practices. 

He does, however, take the time to answer a question that one can only imagine a slightly deranged tharavadu elder shrieking at his confused family members: Evidinne kitti avallke idhevare ilyaathe bhangy?! (Where did she obtain this hitherto-missing beauty?!). In an answer that seems to reveal more about the mental processes of those behind the article than any beauty-robbing teenagers, it once again states “when a girl approaches 15 you can see all eyes on her”. It explains how “soft skin is a good change for girls ages 15 or 16”, and the skin is “at its most beautiful period” in these years, a strange assertion that many a teenage acne sufferer can deny. 

He also says that “the voice becomes more sweet”, and “lips and breasts are swollen” at this time. While correctly stating that breasts enlarge and the waist may become more compact, he nauseatingly suggests that “the change of body makes walking and movements more beautiful”. 

While boys also undergo changes to their voices and the enlargement of lips during puberty, you’d be hard-pressed to find an article by a doctor on puberty advice for boys stating that these changes are “sweet” or contribute to the child’s new-found beauty, or likening male puberty to the blossoming of a flower. The entire article seems to posit young women as an inherently sexual and incredibly desirable category, living in a dark, violent and scary world obsessed with their breasts, where their only recourse is pretending they don't have them.

Unfortunately, Hafeez really isn’t alone in his beliefs about girls and their adolescence. I’m sure many a Malayali mother would take his opinion to heart, and many do approach their daughters’ changing bodies with the attitudes of soldiers guarding a fortress against an advancing army of breast-fetishists. 

But at a time when discussions in India around women’s safety are slowly but surely shifting from the attitude of “what was she wearing” to “teach boys not to rape”, and many women are hoping to raise a generation that’s comfortable in, not ashamed of, their bodies and sexualities, this article and its attitude towards young girls carried by the most widely read regional magazine in the country, feels like a solid step backwards. In advising women on the myriad ways to hide their daughters' changing bodies, presumably under the guise of old-fashioned primness or a misguided concern for their safety, the article shifts the responsibility for women's safety squarely onto mothers and daughters, and implicitly conveys the message that there's something shameful about female puberty. While Vanitha magazine may be, according to its own tagline, vanithakkalke vazhi-kaattune suhurtha (a friend who shows women the way), it’s disappointing that the way it's showing women is right back to the past.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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