There's something broken about a society that requires a famous father to clarify to the media that his 14-year-old daughter was, indeed, wearing shorts under her dress after she gets mercilessly trolled and leered at by grown men on the Internet. In January, Nysa, the school-going daughter of Bollywood actors Kajol and Ajay Devgn, was photographed outside the airport. Her legs were visible in the snap. Naturally, this was considered by many men as an open invitation to rush to their keyboards to let the world know exactly how they felt about the offending skin-to-fabric ratio.
A young girl " even if she's just a child " can't be allowed to traipse around town, oblivious to the effect that her choice of clothing might have on the psyches and libidos of the male adults in her vicinity. In the grand democratic tradition of the Internet, where every voice, no matter how filthy, finds a sympathetic ear, Nysa's photographs were met with a disturbing mix of racist, sexist, objectifying, and lustful comments.
The incessant trolling obviously had some impact, given that three months later, her father pointedly addressed the matter and spoke about how children, at the very least, need to be spared the paparazzi's scrutiny and be allowed to move around freely.
Trolling a 14-year-old might be a new low, but it's certainly not the first time that the sight of an underage star kid's limbs has sent Indian Internet into a tizzy. For several years now, Shah Rukh Khan's daughter, Suhana, now 18, has found herself at the receiving end of lascivious, body-shaming comments for wearing swimsuits at beaches, short clothes "in front of elders", angling her body in an "immodest" manner while posing for pictures¦ The kind of stuff that would leave most people scratching their heads in confusion. Khushi Kapoor, Sridevi and Boney Kapoor's younger
daughter, too was just 17 when she faced brutal online harassment for her "revealing" dress. Women on the Internet (or in the real world) are no strangers to being shamed for their sexuality, their clothes being policed, or their bodies being treated as receptacles for depraved, lust-filled fantasies of strangers. But Nysa, Suhana and Khushi's ages are central to this horrifying new chapter in the cultural dehumanisation of women.
When girls as young as 14 find themselves occupying headlines with feverish discussions about the length of their hemlines or the depth of their necklines, we're forcing them to think of their bodies through the prism of sexual desirability. Sixteen is an age to be in the throes of an adolescent crush, not terrified by men old enough to be their fathers describing their rape fantasies. At 17, you're supposed to be excited about turning old enough to vote and drive soon, not panic about becoming fodder for grandpas on the prowl for May-December romances.
Sexual objectification of women is almost always couched in messaging that is violent, graphic, and demeaning. And it can have a lasting psychological impact on women. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, it can lead to depression, eating disorders, and low self-confidence. The same study says that self-objectification disrupted mental capacity in women, ostensibly because of the anxiety, shame and disgust associated with it. One can only imagine that the effects are felt even more acutely when it is impressionable teenagers at the receiving end of these appalling messages we're bombarding them with. To make matters worse, multiple studies " at Princeton in the US, the University of Kent in UK, and University of Padova in Italy " have found that sexualised women are perceived as less intelligent, more "animal-like", and less worthy of concern for physical and mental well-being than those that aren't by society.
It's a depressing double whammy. First, by looking at teenage girls as sex objects, we force them to develop an external locus of identity that hinges almost entirely on their physical appeal. And when they take this lesson to heart, we punish them for being "vain" and "obsessed with looks" by stripping them of their humanity.
Last year, while speaking at a Women's March as part of the Time's Up initiative by influential women in Hollywood, Natalie Portman gave a powerful speech about hearing, at 13, film reviewers discussing her "budding breasts" on several occasions; a local radio starting a countdown to her 18th birthday, when she would finally be old enough to legally sleep with; and receiving fan mail with rape fantasies. She said that it changed the trajectory of her career, making her pick roles depending on how she would be perceived in them. Portman also branded the environment she was forced to grow up in a form of "sexual terrorism", forcing her to alter her behaviour so she could feel safe.
It's a tale as old as time, and sexual terrorism controls all women's behaviour and choices in big and imperceptible ways, all around the world, every day.
We were pre-pubescent children, when a friend and I were stalked and terrorised by a middle-aged man who took visible delight in rubbing his penis against our bodies and dry-humping our rear ends after sneaking up behind us in overcrowded buses on the way to school and back. It took us a fortnight to work up the courage to complain to an adult. And it was the beginning of a lifelong journey of looking around, weighing risks, and existing in a suspended fight-or-flight mode that can be activated at the slightest provocation.
Policing women's clothes and saddling them with the exhausting, soul-sucking task of always having to assess what "message" a couple of "extra" inches of skin might be giving out is just one more link in the industrial-strength shackles that keep us from staking a claim to physical spaces and participating in society with the same abandon as men.
Discovering one's self as a sexual being is a rite of passage. Unfurling of one's sexuality and sexual awareness is a deeply personal affair. It's cruel to force it on anyone, least of all children, no matter who their parents are, or what they are choosing to wear.
Sonali Kokra is a journalist and author from Mumbai. She writes on women's issues, pop culture, and the intersection of the two