Let’s hear (read) it for mindless, multi-tasked exercise

One of those funny things about exercise (at least for me), is how, no matter how much time I might have whiled away in stuff I can’t remember, I’m usually pretty sure that my falling back on my to-do list is correlated to the few minutes I spared for meaningful exercise.

Now don’t get me wrong; I love exercise, at least in theory. I’d love to do it if I had the time. There was even a time (long, long ago) when I enjoyed the sense of wellbeing that stretches and weights brought me, that feeling of a body that works. I did mention that it was long ago, right? Well…

Of course not all exercise is exercise. Walking, for me, is not exercise. It is pleasure. I can do it for hours, and never think of the to-do list lengthening with every minute I spend away from it. But walking is not all the body allegedly needs. There is flexibility, strength-training, balance, jog-on-spot, and every minute on any of these takes a toll on my ability to handle my to-do list. Heck, I never said I was rational, did I?

For some years now, I’ve been trying to persuade myself that ten minutes of daily flexibility is surely worth it. Add another ten for jog-on-spot. And another for isometric hand grips. And so on. And in my mind there is a picture of a mountain that grows taller and taller by piling mustard seeds, and these are large and unpleasant mustard seeds.

I’ve tried to solve my problem through mindfulness, experiencing my body with every small exercise action, something that is alleged to be very pleasurable. I’m sure it works for some persons, but all I can remain mindful about as I exercise is how my time is getting frittered away as I jog without going anywhere or jump like a monkey for no rhyme or reason except feeling heroically self-torturing.

So I’ve finally switched to something that seems to fit into my resentful-of-time mode of exercise. I now use a mindless, multitasked mode. Here’s what I do. I place a small plastic stool on my table to convert it to a standing desk, start off some video I want to see (introduction to genetics, for example, or a talk on some book I’m considering buying, or a youtube video, whatever), and stand in front of it. Then, without bothering to notice what I am doing, without exercise in mind, I jog and jump and stretch before the video. Converting a normal desk to a standing desk takes barely a few seconds; it’s a lightweight stool, doesn’t take much space or need any effort to place under the laptop. Entertainment videos work very well for such instant addition of an exercise component, but even instructional videos aren’t too bad if they are not very intense. After some time, when the video comes to an end, I realize I’ve bunged in fifteen minutes of activity when earlier I would have agonized over just three minutes of it. And my to-do list has two ticks on it instead of one 🙂

Okay, so this goes against the grain of much advice given, but I don’t use it for elaborate yoga postures that need careful, well, posing and positioning. I do exercises that basically need movement of some sort. Paradoxically, the busier the day, the more opportunities I have for such sneaked-in exercise.

Of course, any self-improvement attempts must be justified by mapping it to the way our ancestors lived. We should not eat burgers and fries because ancient hunter-gatherers did not. We should eat raw food, because they did. Or meat. Or not eat meat. We should not be stressed because apparently they never were (and apparently no other species gets stressed). There is never any pucca proof, but statements like these are much the norm to justify choices.

I must admit this convention had me stymied. I can’t justify my approach using ancestors because I’ve not seen any cave painting with laptops placed on stools on tables to create standing desks. Nor did the revered ancestors multitask videos with jog-on-spot, or pump hand-weights using stick-thin arms while watching Mr. Bean clips on youtube. They didn’t even have youtube…imagine the horror of it all!

But yesterday, as I was puffing along (the aerobic exercise variety, not the nicotine variety) and watching an introduction to Hadoop, it struck me that there was an excellent justification based on my understanding of our hunter-gatherer foremothers and forefathers. See, they didn’t exercise as such, did they? They remained fit (so we think) because of what they did in their line of work. When a tiger was chasing them, they weren’t watching the belly rise up and down as they raced for their lives. Nor did they watch their breath when rushing with a spear in hand after a deer to be speared. And they didn’t jog on spot after or before “work” to stay fit. Physical activity was woven into the tasks they needed to do all day long.

Weight-lifting in front of a standing desk playing a video on GIMP is quite in the same spirit, right? I am open to proof that our ancestors would have chosen otherwise if they had Internet and laptops but in the absence of such proof, I shall stand by my mindless multitasking exercise approach. Or rather, I shall jog by it in front of that standing desk…

[Disclaimer: Anyone choosing to remain mindless does so at his or her own risk. It may be easier for those who never mind things anyway…]

Using my procrastination mood to create a book trailer video

July beginning. There were heaps of things I should have been doing, but they were all large projects, and I just couldn’t get the energy to plan and get started on them, so I kept nibbling at smaller to-dos. But though I did nibble a few millimetres off my to-do list that spans several pages, I felt dissatisfied. What I wanted was to do something that I found fun, that made me feel productive(even if I wasn’t being productive in a productive way, if you know what I mean). I wanted to make something.

So, though creating this video was nowhere in my active and overflowing to-do list, and merely a small item at the bottom of my huge wishlist, I spent a few days creating it:

(you can see the video directly on youtube, too, at: this link.

Ah well, the sketches were fun to make, and I did learn some stuff about Powerpoint transitions, though I can’t think of anyplace else where I will use that knowledge 🙂

And perhaps this post is another example of productive procrastination 🙂

Editing to add: The book, Aligning Ferret: How an Organization Meets Extraordinary Challenges, (for which I created the book trailer above) is available as a Kindle eBook at Amazon.com and also at Amazon.in.

Quick announcement for new ebooks I have published

I was updating the site to add details about an ebook I published a few days ago when and realized I had not made any blog entries even about my earlier ebook 🙂

I’ll probably do a detailed entry on related stuff later, but here’s the basic data: In the last few months, I’ve published two Kindle ebooks on Amazon as part of my professional work. Both have been co-authored with Rajesh Naik.


Image forQuiz Book on CMMI- SVC (v1.3)
My latest book is Quiz Book on CMMI® – SVC (v1.3) (Authors and ). It is a Kindle eBook with 3 quizzes on CMMI® – SVC (v1.3), each with 35 questions, and suitable for self-assessment by process/ QA professionals and CMMI specialists and is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.in. This book is part of a set of products created for CMMI® – SVC (v1.3). Information on these products can be seen here.


Image forAligning Ferret: How an Organization Meets Extraordinary Challenges

My other ebook, my personal favourite, is a business novel, Aligning Ferret: How an Organization Meets Extraordinary Challenges, which centers around concepts of strategy, alignment, and performance management. The story uses a crisis in a fictional organization to explore concepts of strategy and performance management systems for organization-wide alignment. This was first published as a paperback, and is now available as a Kindle eBook at Amazon.com (and on Amazon.in). More information on the book, such as concepts covered and suggested resources, can be seen here.


®: CMMI is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by Carnegie Mellon University.

Year 2013 so far: movies I enjoyed – Kai Po Che, Special 26

I usually watch movies comfortably at home, using DVDs. But I venture out to halls sometimes, and this year I’ve seen two movies in cine multiplexes. Luckily I enjoyed both: Kai Po Che! and Special 26. I even bought the DVD of Special 26 so that I could see it again and again 🙂

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Special 26(Wikipedia page here).
Actors: Anupam Kher, Akshay Kumar, Manoj Bajpayee, Jimmy Shergill.

Special 26 is a movie about a heist, inspired by a real-life heist on March 19, 1987 at Opera House, Mumbai. The movie is packed with stars. It has received very good reviews.

I found the movie scripted very well, and the acting superb, and, but for a marriage/ song section that I found slow, the pacing was also great. Which is why, when I realized the movie was available as a DVD, I bought it and saw it again. I enjoyed it even more the second time around–there’s fun in seeing a heist movie again, anticipating and chuckling at the twists and turns of the plot.

Check out Special 26 at Flipkart.com


Image for Kai Po Che

Kai Po Che (Wikipedia page here): This is a movie of friendship set in a turbulent era of Guajarat, and has received very good reviews in India but mediocre ones outside India. It is supposed to be based on a Chetan Bhagat book I have not read (The Three Mistakes of my Life), and apparently the movie is much clearer than the book.
Having read Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone and seen Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots, I am more than ready to believe that Bhagat’s books are better as movies than as books :).

I found the movie clear and touching and the acting very good, and remained engrossed right till the end, and walked out of the movie hall in a slight daze.

Check out Kai Po Che at Flipkart.com

And the book I have not read yet (and may never read, having seen the movie): Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes of My Life (at Flipkart.com)

Revisiting favorite books: On the Beach, Nevil Shute

On the Beach (Nevil Shute): A classic. A gentle and uplifting story set in a world where everyone is doomed to die as the aftermath of nuclear war. Leaves readers with a sense of quiet dignity and hope in spite of the depressing scenario. Read the full post here: Revisiting favorite books: On the Beach, Nevil Shute

Image forOn the Beach

Title: On the Beach
Author:
Genre: Science fiction

Reviewer:
Rating:       (Reviewed on August 28, 2013 )
Brief comments: A classic. A gentle and uplifting story set in a world where everyone is doomed to die as the aftermath of nuclear war. Leaves readers with a sense of quiet dignity and hope in spite of the depressing scenario.


Get the book : EBook available at . Paperback available in India as at


I first “met” Nevil Shute in my college library. I think I ended up reading all his books there; most of them left me with a warm and fuzzy feeling. I finished college, and I assumed I’d never get to see the books again. I was no longer a member of an easy-to-access library that had old books, and to read an old favourite I had to hunt it down and buy it. I got a pleasant surprise some years ago when I saw a shelf full of freshly printed Nevil Shutes in a bookshop, along with many other books I’d given up on. I got myself some sparkling new copies of old favorites, including On the Beach.

On the Beach , a story placed in Australia, describes a world where several nuclear bombs were dropped in the Northern hemisphere in wars that went horribly wrong, and the radioactivity is drifting slowly to the Southern Hemisphere, to Australia (which was uninvolved in the war). Everyone will die. With that premise and setting, Nevil Shute has crafted a book that is gentle and dignified in an unusual way. One would think that a book where everyone is doomed to die has to be a down-and-out depressing book, but that’s not how I experienced it. The book left me sad in some ways, but also gave me hope that perhaps a society can handle inevitable death with dignity.

The book is considered a classic. When I first read the book, I had gobbled the story hungrily. When I bought it years later and re-read it, I savored it in a more relaxed way. Our world is full of conflict. The possibility of out-of-control wars and annihilation is not so low as to be ignored. I wondered, as I re-read this book, how humanity will cope in a situation similar to what Shute has shown. I suspected we would have conflict, anger, enmity, and that was a dismaying thought. How would people cope with a doom (not of their making) that they cannot evade? I thought of the world Shute had shown, and wondered if maybe we would be able to show the same gentleness as he depicted. Make the most of what remains. It was an interesting thought. Good books make one think, and that’s what this book did for me.

On the Beach is not for readers who like fast-paced works. It was written several decades ago, and many readers, accustomed (addicted?) to thrillers, are likely to find it slow or boring or defeatist. The use of English old-fashioned. The way characters interact is based on an older time, and probably very different from how relationships work now, so the younger readers may find the characters and their interactions implausible. Also, most novels on the aftermath of an all-out nuclear war (or any other major world-destroying event) depict struggling survivors, warring groups, bitterness, people driven underground, people driven into hiding by out-of-control robots, people who are desperate and angry and would do anything to survive (or die trying). But in On the Beach the characters know they cannot survive, accept this inevitability, and deal with it at a personal level. There are no major upheavals or the sort of things we find in most modern thrillers and novels. Of course, it is possible that some younger readers may enjoy the change of style and pace, though, just for variety.

Me, I re-read it again recently and found that I still like the book. It still gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. It still makes me ponder. I guess I’m partly old-fashioned; though I love modern thrillers, too–I enjoy a spread with variety when it comes to reading. It gets somewhat monotonous to see the same sort of overactive characters novel after novel, all cued to action and rage and doing things even when action cannot help, those fight scenes, escape scenes, guns, torture, extreme injuries. I find it refreshing to read a book without villains and evil characters one is supposed to hate. I like to see a book that approaches the inevitable aftermath in a different way, where where people accept (at least at some level) the end is coming and value the time left.

Anyway, so I discovered some days back that the book is also available as an ebook from Amazon (and no, you do *not* need a Kindle to read a Kindle ebook; you can read it on your laptop or Android device, too). Below are some links in case this was an old favourite of yours and you want to read it again, or if you have never read it and are wondering whether to try it out.

Hunting for post boxes in this send-by-courier era

My father worked in the postal department; for me, as a child, red meant post-box red. Letters were everywhere. Sitting in a post office, waiting for my father to complete work, I’d see postmen hefting sacks of letters, or pouring out the contents on a table/ the floor. I’d see letters sorted expertly into piles, then bagged and put in vans. The smell of paper, of gum (that thick sort they used), pervaded the air. Once, when I had to go somewhere, I sat behind a postman’s cycle instead of a sack of letters.

When courier services started, I don’t remember imagining that they would ever become so big and so cheap that they would impact the postal service. But somewhere down the line, I started seeing courier services as more reliable than the postal service, and began switching to it for more important documents.

My changed approach hit me one day when I needed to send a very important document to a senior official at Dak Bhawan, Sansad Marg, the building that houses the senior-most officials of the Department of Posts. That is also the building where the head post office is, and where letters are sorted. I remember hesitating somewhat at the strangeness of my choice, but I finally used a courier service to send the document instead of posting it. My father had passed away by then, and I did pause to think of how he’d have seen my action–a betrayal? an amused smile at the change in the world?

post-box-in-front-of-post-office.jpg

Anyway, so a few days back I wanted to send a letter. A simple postal letter, not a courier, not an email. An old-fashioned letter in an envelope and with a stamp on it.

I thought I knew where the nearest post-box was. I walked to it. It was missing. I asked some street vendors around, young boys. They frowned at me. I asked some older men in shops. They thought for a few moments and could not recall when they’d last seen the post-box. I asked them whether there was another post-box nearby. They couldn’t remember. Go to the post-office, they told me. But it was far away so I walked to the next location where I had seen a post-box some years ago. That was missing, too. However, I saw many “collection centers” of courier services as I walked.

I finally ended up reaching the post-office (at least the post office was still there) and using the post-box there.

Since that day, I’ve been scanning my surroundings for post-boxes. I’ve not found any, except at post-offices. I don’t claim to have looked hard enough, and I’m sure there are still post-boxes around, just fewer of them, and less noticed by people. I guess times change…

(do kids today even know what a postal stamp is?)

Learning vector graphics using Inkscape

In the past few years, because of the websites and videos I was creating, I often needed to create graphics or edit sound or video files, and so I’d look around for some free but reliable software and pick up just enough skill to get my work done. For graphics, after some looking around, I mainly used GIMP and some amount of Microsoft Powerpoint, and I used these always used these packages with some specific end-product in mind.

Recently, though, I decided to try out a vector graphics package just for the fun of it, and I chose Inkscape, a free vector graphics editor. Inkscape is open source (Wikipedia page in Inkscape here) and the software can be downloaded at their site here.

One reason I wanted to try out Inkscape is that it is a vector drawing software, which means that the graphic remains okay on resizing. And Inkscape, while not as well known (and probably not as full of features) as professional packages like the Adobe products, does allow relevant imports and exports, and I thought it would be a good way to get an idea about vector illustrations without making major investment just to satisfy that curiosity.

The fun part of drawing using computers nowadays is that graphics packages are full of “tools” that draw for you. Want a rectangle or square? Or a circle or oval? Or even a star with spokes? Pick the tool and just drag out the figure you want. Not quite the way you want it? No problem; just edit it 🙂

It doesn’t end there. Even for “drawing” of figures, one doesn’t really need good control over the “pen”. All you need is a reasonable degree of control, and you can then refine the lines using edit tools. There’s some solid mathematics behind the tool used for such drawing, but fortunately one need not know the math to use the tool. If you are the grateful sort, just send some mental thanks to Pierre Bezier, the man behind Bezier curves, included as a tool in graphic packages. (Wikipedia page on Bezier curves) The tool is a boon for drawing (and “tracing” an existing picture).

Graphics packages make the life of a user even simpler by providing other tools and filters. For example, tools to add gradients to figures. Tools to perform operations like “subtracting” one figure from another, or finding an “intersection”, and all such stuff that makes life interesting. Filters to add effects like “oilify” or “fuzzy borders” or “canvas print” and all that, just at the click of an option.

Here are some of my initial attempts at using Inkscape. One is a picture I found on a napkin and “traced” using Bezier curves; one is a “button”, and one is a sticky note with part of it turned. These took very little time and were far easier than I thought they would be. I’m not sure how much I want to continue learning Inkscape–any skill takes time and energy–but at least I now have some idea of the range of things possible, and next time I want to make a graphic, I’ll consider Inkscape first (instead of GIMP, which I was using earlier).

buddha traceyellow buttonfolded sticky

Mangalore museum, Gandhi letters

On a mini vacation to Mangalore, hubby and I decided to visit the museum there. The Shreemanti Bai Memorial Government Museum is located on a hill at Bejai in Mangalore, in a two-storied bungalow built by Colonel V R Mirajkar.

The autorickshaw driver said he knew where the Bejai museum was (he often got fares for it), but he didn’t know a museum actually existed there (he thought it was just a name) 🙂 The first thing we noticed was a canon gun in front of a colonial style building, but the place seemed peaceful and inviting. There were no cars or buses in sight, no students jostling in queues for entrance.

mangalore museum ticketsA small entrance room, one desk, no one seated there to greet visitors or demand fees. We stood there and looked around, and a woman emerged and smiled at us somewhat uncertainly. She confirmed the museum was open, and looked slightly shaky as she took out a ticket book. Finally, after calling out to some man inside the building, she handed us tickets and took money, and for a princely sum of Rupees two per head (given as four tickets of rupees one each), hubby and I were officially eligible to enter.

The museum hall was unlit. A man rushed ahead of us and put on the lights and fans and we entered to start admiring the exhibits.

I’m never quite sure how to think about my experience of museums. Some exhibits induce gasps, some an expansive sense of awe and wonder, and some seem, well, like exhibits from any and every other museum. Why does one particular painting make me halt, while other similar ones don’t? I have no idea. I’ve been to museums as a child, then as a mother ferrying her son, and later as a emptied-nest mother, and it’s always unpredictable whether I’ll like a museum or a particular displayed item or walk past disinterested.

The other thing is, a few days after the visit, I usually cannot remember any of the exhibits in detail, but sometimes I carry a sense of wonder about a few of them. That fizzles out in a month or two, confirming my impression that history, culture and art are lost on me.

But the experience of walking through this museum was itself strange. We’d enter a hall, the man scooting ahead of us to put on the lights and fans, then dashing back to the hall we’d just left to close the lights and fans there. As we walked around and examined the pieces displayed, our electricity-switch-handling-guide would stay out of sight so as not to seem to hurry us. Like we were honored guests. It made me savor the experience much more 🙂

And then, we entered a room that looked different: a room with some documents and pictures. Under a tired-looking glass cover, lay archived letters of Gandhi.

I’ve seen Gandhi museums in the past. I remember some of them, at least I remember visiting Old Birla House on Tees January Marg as a child; this house, where Gandhi was assassinated, has been converted into a “Gandhi smriti” where you can see his “personal effects” and the path he took on the day he died, and also see collections of books and letters and many other things. As a child I don’t think I hung around to actually read the displayed letters 🙂 But this time, maybe because I’m older, or maybe it was the lazy time of the day/ my mood, whatever, I started reading the letters in this Mangalore museum. They were typewritten copies, some with stamps to indicate authenticity.

My first reaction was a sense of nostlagia–I remembered those days when there were no photocopiers and this is how we made copies: type out a letter, then get someone to certify that it was a genuine copy. As I read through them, I realized I did not know many of the names mentioned.

Till I found a letter written by Gandhi to Hitler, dated July 1939.

I read that letter one, once, twice, thrice. One isn’t supposed to take pictures inside a museum. I guess I could have jotted down the contents at the back of some bill in my purse; instead, I memorized the letter. It was a short one.

I carried the memory with me later, feeling I’d seen something important, historic. I should have noted down the contents later, but I remembered them perfectly and saw no need to. I was sure I’d never forget them.

Three weeks later, I suddenly thought of the letter and could not remember the contents. I had a sense of what they’d been, and of the date, but the specifics were forgotten.

Strangely, I experienced a great sense of loss. I even went through a five minute phase when I wondered when we’d next go to Mangalore and promising myself that this time I’d note it down.

But this is the day and age of the Internet, so no loss is permanent if it can be archived. Here’s a collection, which includes the letter I’d seen: click here for an archive.

I must admit, though, that reading a letter on the Internet was nowhere as awe-inspiring as seeing it laid flat in that somewhat dusty glass case in that old-world-style museum in Mangalore.

The plastic magnet tree

I was taking my morning walk at a very scenic place where the air was fresh, trees flanked the road, and birds flitted here and there. There was an overall sense of peace. Of vastness, of nature at its gentlest, relaxed. Here are some pictures.

I was taking my morning walk at a very scenic place where the air was fresh, trees flanked the road, and birds flitted here and there. There was an overall sense of peace. Of vastness, of nature at its gentlest, relaxed. Here are some pictures.

nice morning walk scenenice morning walk scenenice morning walk scene

And then, I spotted a tree that looked different.

From a distance, I thought some sort of unusual fruit was hanging off the branches. Then I went closer and realized those weren’t large fruit, nor were they nests; they were plastic bags. Apparently people had flung garbage (tied in plastic bags). Why target this tree? Was there something special about it? I stood there for a while, but found nothing different about that tree, in terms of its type, size, or location. No religious symbols nearby, that could imply these were plastic wrapped offerings to the gods. No sign saying, “please throw your waste here.” The tree looked like the trees near it, except for the plastic bags hanging off it.

tree with plastic bagstree with plastic bags

A few months later, passing by the same route, I noticed a few more plastic bags hanging on the tree, and also some plastic bags hanging off the lower branches of a neighboring tree.

This is what I suspect: someone flung the first plastic bag, or maybe a bunch of them, maybe from a bus or car or while walking past. And now, once in a while, when people who have seen this tree are walking nearby and they have a bag they want to dispose, they throw it here because the tree has already been “marked.”

I call this the plastic magnet tree.

There is, of course, no garbage bin around. Not needed, I guess, because there is this tree.

On the convention that women should be (called) beautiful…

Everyone likes to look at beautiful things, and most people (men and women) assume that the best compliment to give to a woman is that she is beautiful. Other than when a person is downright-unbeautiful, people give such compliments. I consider this norm not just irrelevant but also somewhat shallow when given unsincerely, as a sort of knee-jerk reaction. It rarely involves noting the person’s expression or mood or character or actions. It’s just a token.

As a child I was distinctly unbeautiful (as per the ruling conventions). (Still am, but it no longer matters to me).

Persons who wanted to compliment me (on my looks, because when it comes to girls, that is what matters), would be stumped about what to say. They would, instead, dole out advice on how I could become beautiful. Daily facepacks with gram flour and cream and lemon? Avoid the sun? Clean the face with milk every night? Get multani mitti and rosewater? And since they couldn’t say I was beautiful (there’s a limit to believable lies), they twisted their compliments to imply that my beautiful persona was just around the corner if I kept rubbing lemons on the face a few more decades, please. She’s fairer now, they’d tell my mother after squinting to inspect me. She’s getting fairer.

Beauty = success = opportunities is deeply ingrained in all strata. It emerges at strange moments at unexpected quarters. When in my final year of MBA (at IIM Ahmedabad), just before job placements, we were sitting in the dining hall, a group of girls from our batch, chatting about jobs, when one of them suddenly turned to me, deep concern in her voice. “But what will you do, Swapna! Where will you get a job! You are not beautiful!” The other girls laughed in an embarrassed way, but it was clear that the classmate who had blurted out the sentence genuinely saw my lack of beauty as a major handicap. She considered herself beautiful, and though my grades were well ahead of hers, she pitied me and genuinely worried about poor little me, doomed because unbeautiful. I don’t think our male classmates had similar exchanges/ episodes/ concerns.

Complimenting a woman on her beauty is considered the right thing to do. Not being able to call a woman beautiful makes interactions clumsy. Even social media abounds with such conventions. When a woman posts a picture, “friends” rush to gush there with a “like” and a “You look beautiful”, or even “You’ve always been beautiful” or “You were the most beautiful girl in school and you haven’t changed a bit.” (Of course, there may be some implied return “like” or compliment math involved).

I think calling someone beautiful, is a bit of a short-cut to giving a compliment that seems socially required. The trite “you look beautiful” can possibly be typed without looking, it is so standard a phrase. “Friends” may even have keyboard shortcuts to paste that whenever they see a new photograph (of a female) posted online. I can think of many other words that show a higher degree of observation/ personalized attention: happy, joyous, radiant, energetic, determined, active. There may be descriptive phrases–your smile warmed my heart, your eyes are sparkling with energy. Sound mushy, eh? But perhaps “you look beautiful” is so desensitized (and socially empty) it no longer sounds mushy.

Anyway, there is a limit to what one can say of a person based on a photograph that shows a mug-shot, no action, no context, just a camera-facing pose.

When we write stories, a standard writing-craft instruction is to avoid words like this. Focus on characteristics that actually tell us about a person rather than use sweeping and common words like beautiful, we are told. Tell us about their expression, their mood, their actions. Calling someone nice or beautiful tell the readers nothing about what matters to the person, say the books. Even describing their complexion or hair does not help readers feel involved with the character. I think the advice is relevant even in interactions.

I’ve noticed that some people who give compliments on beauty mention seeing the person’s inner beauty in a photo, but the only word they use again is “beauty.” That really puzzles me. What is inner beauty? Is it more in someone who is fair, has a straighter nose? Is it more visible when you wear an expensive Kanjeevaram saree? When you dye your hair or get them set by a stylist? Is it less in people beyond the help of better lighting and Photoshop filters and airbrushing? Is it less if you have wrinkles? Or, if you are working in the elder care sector, is it more if you have wrinkles?

And here I was, naive me, assuming that inner beauty was about character and ability to love and feel for others, and about behavior and how a person responds to situations and persons 🙁

More important, should the non- beautiful persons to be considered undesirable/ bad/ lacking inner beauty?

This equating/ correlating of beauty with goodness is recognized as a root for peer pressure, isolation, bullying, inferiority complexes, disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Yet even persons who talk against environments of objectification or pressure often resort to (probably without realizing it) the knee-jerk “you are beautiful” response when they feel it is expected/ wanted.

This post got triggered by the fact that yesterday, I saw the “every woman must see these” Dove ads on “Real Beauty Sketches” and I was extremely uncomfortable. Everyone seemed to go gaga over the video, as if watching it would liberate every woman who had not known how beautiful she was.

I agree it can’t be nice to think you look bad, but surely the answer is to see that looks are not so important an aspect as to get you down? Is it really liberating and empowering to know that your nose is straighter than you thought it was?

Fact is, howsover they are packaged, these are advertisements, folks, by a company making beauty products– naturally they perpetrate the impression that a woman must think of herself (or “know” herself) as beautiful. I was relieved to see I was not alone in my discomfort when I chanced upon this post Why Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry.

Methinks that this social focus on beauty is a gone-awry mechanism. Evolution-wise, we are designed to note wholeness and symmetry and some other characteristics as desirable because they are usually indicative of better health and hence, better survival. But hey folks, we are far beyond those caveman survival days. In our times and context, we don’t need to evaluate everyone as a potential mate who will bear us healthy offspring that can outrun the tiger or hunt the dear or climb trees or till the lands all day long.

Here’s my suggestion: Next time, before you call someone beautiful, or before you want to be called beautiful, please pause. See if you are forgetting to notice the person as a person. See if you are looking at relevant characteristic/ skills for the context at hand. Consider whether your “compliment” can hurt/ put pressure on other persons who feel inferior because they don’t fit. And then check if you still want to comment on beauty, or whether you are ready to find something more individualistic to compliment them on.

And while you are at it, here’s another thought: would you rather spend three hours in a café with a beautiful person whose sole claim to compliments is their beauty? Or would you rather spend time with someone interesting, warm, genuine, energetic, cheerful or whatever, even if their nose is crooked and chin weak and they have a few warts under their eyes?

Maybe calling someone beautiful is not a compliment after all. Maybe there are better compliments to consider.

[Edited to add: I created this post to share my concern at how women and beauty and being good are too tightly interwoven in many social interactions, and how we can consider separating them. The post was written as a reaction, and in a hurry, and in retrospect I see some points I would argue differently if I rewrote it. I’d also probably have focused more on the consequences of this overemphasis on “beauty” on increasing number of persons with body image challenges, an aspect I mentioned but did not pursue. But there are enough articles and posts on such topics, anyway. ]