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Actress, Sheetal Sheth, on Addressing Gender and Ethnic Bias in her First Children’s Book

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"May our littles always feel mighty," writes Sheetal Sheth as the introductory dedication to her first children's book, “Always Anjali."


The picture book was a product of Sheth's own findings, or lack thereof when she was pregnant with her first child. As she prepared to welcome her daughter into the world, an Indian-American, she searched for picture books that offered characters of culture, who would introduce her child to inclusivity at a young age. "I would go into the bookstore and see, 'here's the shelf of diversity,'" shares Sheth. “That's the epitome of marginalization. Why isn't that book, with the lead character who is someone of color, placed with all the others?"

In addition to her full-time role as an actor and mother, Sheth comes from a background in both children's literacy and gender equality, working at organizations such as AmeriCorps, Equality Now, and Representation Project. Sheth remembers a constant interest in contributing to both genres in a larger way. Therefore, when she recognized the lack of characters of color in children's books, she took action to create her own series, with “Always Anjali" as her starting point.

"I thought of everything I dealt with growing up and with acting, and I channeled it into this idea of having a picture book series, with a little, Indian-American girl dealing with things from her perspective, but also just living life," says Sheth. “For someone to feel like they are fully accepted into society, then we need to have stories about the mundane."

Always Anjali portrays the mundane as the lead character, Anjali, celebrates her seventh birthday and receives a bicycle, like all the other kids at school. When she gets her bicycle, she joins her best friends in looking for matching license plates, but she isn't able to find her name. “Anyone with a name that isn't common has experienced this," says Sheth, noting Anjali's friends, Mary and Courtney, find their names right away.

From this experience to being teased by classmates, the reader follows Anjali's journey to accepting her unique name, something that Sheth came to understand herself as she entered the acting world. "I've been in rooms where I was up for big parts, and the casting director looked me right in the eye and said, listen, they love you for this, but the producer is uncomfortable with someone of your name playing this part. It's appalling, really," says Sheth.

Even though Sheth considered changing her name as a child, she never did as she matured in her auditions, choosing to turn down roles rather than change her name. "All of those things were rushing back to me when I was writing. You think we've grown up, but then you think about hate crimes, and the racism, and the bullying, and the big truth that's happening ten-fold more in the last few years," says Sheth.

"I kept thinking for a kid to feel less than who they are is unacceptable. So, this series is an attempt to put something positive in the world and hopefully start a conversation in a way that's accessible to kids. I don't think you're too young to talk about anything--as long as it's done the right way-- and there's no better way to do that than in the lap of someone who loves you."

Aside from addressing racism and bullying, Sheth also subtly touches on gender roles as she worked with the illustrator, Jessica Blank, to create images that flip gender biases. “You see Anjali's dad with the towel on his shoulder in the kitchen, taking more of the domestic role," she says. It's subtleties like this that she hopes parents and educators can “unpack" together with her parent-teacher guide.

Within this guide, Sheth poses the question of individuality and dissects what it means to have a unique trait, and that it's okay to embrace it, saying, "The thing that makes you special is generally what makes you stand out when you're older. It's your superhero quality." Sheth also encourages children to think about how they would treat Anjali, adding, “I want kids to be engaged and have empathy. To not just be allies, but accomplices in these moments."

Since Sheth published “Always Anjali" last May, she has seen an overwhelming response from educators, parents, and children sending videos of their love for Anjali. Of the positive response, boys are relating to Anjali, which Sheth couldn't be happier about, as she further explains, “I never like labeling a book, or anything for that matter, a 'girl' book or a 'boy' book. I like to let them make their own choices without shame."

This ties back to Sheth's overall mission to create constructive conversation around inclusivity, concluding, “If we're going to live in a society where everyone relates to each other, it's important to talk about it."

Purchase your own copy here.

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Lifestyle

Going Makeupless To The Office May Be Costing You More Than Just Money

Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.


Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.

Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.

As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.

Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.

So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.

Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.

For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."