I’ve been curating conversations around various themes on Instagram via polls, questions & Lives. It’s been an eye-opener for the ideas that have come in from the discussions. I closed 2020 with the theme ‘Saritorially Yours’, wanting to explore the ways we tell our stories using our bodies as canvas. It became a journey into the language of bodies.
The policing of our bodies results in censorship of our dressing too. What colours we’re disallowed, what garments must languish only as sheepish dreams in our wardrobes – these speak our stories in deafening silence. And our dressing – the words of this language – become about what we’re hiding behind. Language is after all, also the art of concealing thought.
No wonder then that reclaiming our agency over our bodies so often goes with dressing in ways that are unexpected & unconventional. No wonder a haircut may be a good way to start healing from a breakup because it symbolises redrawing a boundary of self as different from the past & redefining it. Dressing can be empowering, can be healing.
Your body is a canvas, a blank page. The stories you write on it don’t have to be pretty or smart. They can also be fun, they can also be inspiration. They can also be battle cries, they can also be pain.
The only truly natural thing for any of us to wear is our own skins. Everything above that is a costume. Undergarments, shoes, clothes, accessories, makeup, jewellery, hair styling, gender norms, ‘age-appropriate’ styling. It’s all a performance. Why not make it drama? Enact the story of you on the stage that is your body.
If you’d like to watch the video of the Live discussion I had on this, with Ashwini Narayan, click here.
(This was written 2 months ago)
My hair is now in a shape that allows for two pigtails with a center parting. I discover the hair in the center part is not long enough to reach either pigtail and is too silky to stay pinned down. What sorcery is this?
Just hair? It’s tiny needles poking into the back of the neck when you’re trying to sleep . It’s straw poking into eyeballs when swabbing the floor & can’t put hand to eye. It’s wisps tickling the nose when buying veggies & trying not to sneeze & cause a panic.
I didn’t take scissors to hair through lockdown, weathering a hot summer in an east-facing room without air-conditioning. Because some part of me believed I’d come out of lockdown to get a real haircut. I don’t know anymore.
The lockdown is over but the pandemic seems here to stay. It does not feel safe to touch, to move. And it feels wrong to think about hair styling when people are suffering.
Last year, for the first time possibly ever, I had a hair accident – a cut gone wrong. It was deeply uncomfortable, made even more so by the realisation that it was my first ever feeling such unhappiness with my hair. I’ve been flexible with my stylists, open to all manner of experiments. And this made me realise how that was made easy because things had always turned out well.
I’ve struggled with body image issues over my skin colour, texture, body shape and teeth but never my hair. It has been as Jo March says in Little Women, ‘my one beauty’. My hair has invited in things into my life that I struggled to find and then accept – ease, softness, acceptance. It adapts well, falls easily and is healthy. I’ve taken it so much for granted. I realised this all, last year as it sat in a frump, seemingly apologetic for not being able to be its star self.
I’ve wanted to be kinder to myself on this too. And now I think I’d love it even if my home haircut turns out poorly.
But cutting my hair feels like surrendering hope. Is it hope to assume things will get better or is it selfish denial, leaving it to the outside world? Is it stubbornness to hold onto reminders of what is good or is it the life lesson I’m meant to learn?
I’m clutching my hair.
: DEVIL IN DISGUISE-Elvis Presley
I LOVED a haircut I had last year. This helped me tide over my uncertainty about a new stylist. When I went back for a trim, somehow things turned out differently. She was so upset, I didn’t get angry. I could see it was an honest mistake. It’s easy to forget styling is an art that you can’t mass produce identical results. Here’s what I learnt:
1. Things not going as per plan may not mean malice (usually not). They may not mean ineptitude (this happens more often than the first but not everytime). I was faced with the choice of poisoning this otherwise great relationship with upset or whatever other option there was. The hair stays the same regardless so why throw away people?
2. I often feel like the universe has been tough on me. But I miss the ways it’s also gentle on me. Hair is a vital part of my self-expression because I have some control over it (unlike skin colour or body type). It lends itself to easy alterations with big differences in results. I’ve been blase about this gift but life has gifted me nice hair. It’s silky, straight, shiny, strong, voluminous. It also grows quickly and is still black. Which means I can afford to indulge my affectation of not using product. Even this haircut gone wrong is starting to settle nicely. I don’t say thank you enough but really thank you for my crowning glory.
3. I’ve been careless in how I think of the connection between beauty & self-worth. With all my battles, I’m not at the forefront of attack for how I look. I forgot how much not feeling attractive eats into your self-esteem. This wasn’t even an attack, just a haircut that turned out different and I still felt incomplete. This was a reminder.
4. I’ve faked-it-till-I-made-it with performance & dressing (which is a kind of performance). This time, I let my dissonance show. People have ONLY been encouraging. That’s the lesson.
5. Today I felt right in my body. Maybe it was a good swim. Maybe it was time. Maybe it was because I let myself feel before speaking or labelling.
Peace within means beauty without.
I’m so glad for the lessons.
Last week, I was trolled about my looks. Some men friends said they liked how I look. The troll’s attack is based on the idea that a woman’s worth is in her looks and that anyone can boost/undermine it with words. My friends, however well-intentioned, were reinforcing that idea. Strangers like salespeople have felt entitled to comment on my dark skin and suggest ‘cures’. Romantic partners have been able to establish authority over me by calling me ugly, desperate and in need of their validation.
These were possible because my body has been seeded with fields of shame, ripe for whoever wants control over me. My nose shape, my bony frame, my foot size, my rounded tummy, my skin colour – these have been snatched from being my body organs/traits and turned into free access areas for other people to rule me. I say NO. My body, my rules.
My body image & self-esteem are not based on other people’s opinions. My body is mine, the only thing that truly is. It is my home, my vehicle, my canvas. It works in a way that enables me. It is beautiful because I say so. I refuse to let shame be a guest in this body. This is how I get to walk out of my home wearing bold lipsticks, sarees & hoodies, colours deemed too bright, hair considered too stylish, dresses called too slutty or young. My femininity, my beauty, my sexuality, my identity – these are not for anyone else to judge. They are what I say they are. Body Pride because it is my right.
When you feel shame over something that you can’t control (like your body), remember it is external. It’s a festering wound someone else inflicted on you. Wash that wound of foreign bodies like other people’s words. Clean it by distancing yourself from people who would wound you (deliberately or not). Tend it to it by remembering the ways your body serves you well. Heal by honoring all that you are and have, just as they are. Cauterize your vulnerability to other people’s opinions because yours is the only one that matters.
“To all girls who die for a ‘ZERO FIGURE’, Sweetie remember real men go for curves, only dogs go for bones.”
I looked it up and found a Facebook page even dedicated to this ’cause’. I don’t have a problem with the statement itself. I just think that it misses the point.
Size zero is the fashion-friendly euphemism for anorexia (or dangerous inclination to it). Certainly there are more women falling prey it to. What’s really alarming is that it’s going down the age ladder as well, with younger and younger girls grappling with body image issues at an age when their worries shouldn’t extend beyond crushes and marksheets.
Let’s examine this at its root. The impossible notion of beauty is being foisted on us by popular media, fashion gurus and the beauty industry. This includes fair skin, light-coloured hair and the bizarre size notions of barely-there waists, hips and thighs. It’s the cause for unhealthy diets, starving and purging (inducing vomitting after eating).
But you know something? It’s not physical. In order for a human being who is normally curvaceous to get to the hallowed size zero, the ideal has to have penetrated to a frenzied level, which takes it into the realm of the mind. The size zero issue is an issue of self-esteem, not one of body measurements. Victims of anorexia are known to have distorted perceptions of their bodies.
Now let’s look at that statement, in context. It may be true that men prefer curves to angles. First of all, that’s a fact that’s been parotted out for decades now and it still hasn’t stopped women from wanting thin bodies by dieting, exercising, surgery, drugs, smoking or purging. Secondly, even if it does have immediate impact on a size zero-obsessed woman, I fear that this is a superficial, if not foolhardy solution.
If a woman is starving herself to achieve an impossible notion of beauty, it is because she values what someone else tells her about her body over her own self. To tell her that a man actually likes her body another way is simply diverting that desperate need for outside validation from one source to another. Now, whether she gets her cues from Cosmopolitan or from the men in her life, isn’t it just as unhealthy?
Here’s another dimension to that above ’cause’. I’m a thin woman and fat doesn’t stick to me. I come from a lineage of lean people, male and female. I am a small eater but I’m medically fit and normal in my food habits. Does this mean that I should feel less than beautiful because I don’t have the curvaceous ideal that men desire? Should I feel like a second-class citizen because I’m a skinny woman in a land of well-endowed women? Any look can be disparaged and I’m sure the phrase, “She looks like a thirteen-year-old boy” isn’t unfamiliar.
I respect my body because it functions in every respect. I value my body because it is mine. I feel beautiful regardless of whether popular media or the men in my life think so. And you know something? When I believe it, the world does too. I know this because I’ve experienced body image issues too and I’ve come out of it on the other side – feeling beautiful and happy. That had nothing to do with measurements or validation and everything to do with looking into my mirror, thinking,
“Hey gorgeous, aren’t you lucky to be you?”
I have a friend who looks into every mirror, glass and reflective surface that he passes. The pater is best known to the dhobi as the source of endless lectures on the perfect way to iron a pair of trousers versus a pair of cordruoys. The boy thinks any suggestion towards a health regime is an insult to his body image.
It mayn’t be obvious, but these aren’t so different from what my gender has been accused of, for years. But since the men will have to take umbrage at this, let me give it another name. It’s Manity and it’s worse than vanity because its bearers believe that they possess no such flaw (errr…virtue? Since everything male has to be glorified and paraded around?).
Let the peacocks preen now.
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She tells me about her struggle with weight, coming to terms with it. And she quotes another friend who said that she had to stop obsessing over it, to stop making it the be-all or she’d never be happy. I point out that I said the same thing, a year ago. She pauses and in equal measures of honesty, vulnerability and courage, says,
“You are….a slim person.”
I know the unspoken words, I can complete them in my own head. How then, do I explain, how do I prove to her, that I really do understand? Let me tell stories, instead.
“Let’s play StarTrek. I’ll be captain. You be the pointy-ears guy.”
“Who’ll I be?”
“There’s only two women, one fair one and and one dark one.”
“I’ll be the fair one.”
“Yes, you can be the fair one. Let her be the dark one. She’s quite black anyway.”
“I don’t want to be the dark one.”
“Fine, go away. No one wants the dark one, anyway.”
“You are so black. And all these pimples….13…14…15”
“Don’t count them! I can’t help them.”
“Please stop. Please, please, please stop.”
“I’ll won’t be seeing you for six weeks. Get your face cleaned up by then.”
Two hours later
“Bye, I’ll call you once I get settled in.”
“I brought you a little bye-bye gift.”
“Eraser face cream?”
“My dad recommends it to all his patients. Be sure to apply it every night. I want to see your pretty face without having to count those scars.”
“You can’t wear that!”
“Why not? It’s a great print! I love tie-ups!”
“It hangs on you. Look, let me show you how it should look. You…you don’t have the figure for it.”
“Put your shoulders in a bit.”
“Why? That’s bad posture.”
“A decent woman doesn’t put her bust out to the world.”
“You walk with your boobs thrust out. It’s like carrying a signboard that says ‘I’m easy’.”
“You’re ugly. The only reason a guy would be nice to you is because you look easy.”
“You are so ugly.”
“My friends don’t think you are hot. So I don’t want them to know about us. Don’t talk to me when they’re around.”
“Don’t hold my hand. I don’t want to be seen with a black girl.”
At every age
“No, madam, we don’t stock that size in ladies wear. Your feet are too big.”
“Why do you have to wear those ugly army boots? You just like to scare people, don’t you? They make you look like you have polio.”
“What are those things on your legs?”
“My knees are like that!”
“They look funny. People like you should not wear tights.”
“Where are you? I lost my friend!”
“Ha ha. It’s a loose kurta, okay? It’s comfortable.”
“You look like the pole inside a tent. Seriously, girls like you should not wear loose clothes.”
Age 16 onwards
“Madam can I show you something for those scars on your face?”
“Dark people should not wear red.”
“What are those marks on your upper arms (pointing to stretch marks)?”
“Open pores. Blackheads. Acne. You need help.”
“Is that hair on your back? Don’t you wax?
“Bags under your eyes.”
Red is my favorite colour.
Most of my garments are sleeveless.
I buy facepacks and lotions and scrubs. The skin stays mostly the same, give or take a few spots.
The knees are generally concealed in denims or attention is diverted away by a bold neckline.
No amount of exercise or dieting or bleaching or creaming is going to change my skin. Well…it holds my organs in. I try not to think about it. And I cover my thin skin with a thick attitude.
Yes, love, I do understand. Really.
I went out with two women friends this weekend. As Dee who called me several times during the day put it, “Spent a lot of money? Bitched a lot about men?” Yes, yes, yes we did. For anyone who wonders what three women talk about….baaah…I hate the fact that three supposedly intelligent, attractive, single women meet and spend so much time talking about men! On the other hand, like the book I’m reading observes, women do talk about men, sometimes disparagingly but with a certain fondness. And who says two women (or even three) can’t stand each other? I had a rocking time! Read on for more…(I know I’m going back on what I said here, by spilling the secrets but…well, what the hell?)
The ‘Do not love me because I’m beautiful’ business
I wish I had your figure!
I wish I had your skin!
I wish I had your hair!
Yeah, if one of us had all three of this, she’d be every man’s dream
Arrrgghh…who gives a damn…who are these lousy men to dictate what we look like anyway?
A question of questionable taste
I remember the last blind date that you set me up for! He looked like he’d just stepped out of a facial, manicure, hair styling and personalized fashion session. I on the other hand was toting a jhola and walking around in flat-pancake sandals. I don’t like men who are so polished, I feel like I’m talking to a uniform, not a person.
Well, I don’t like the guy to look like a slob. I know I’m looking good, why shouldn’t he put in the effort too?
I didn’t say I liked slobs either. But not THIS much effort! I think I noticed my last boyfriend because of his dress sense. He was wearing red pants when I first saw him and I thought, “Oh wow, that takes some attitude to carry off!” And on our first date, he was wearing a tee-shirt and jeans and sneakers. And so was I. I felt comfortable talking to him and suggesting such silly things like a walk on the beach in the hot noonday sun. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with the other guy…I’d have been too intimidated and busy feeling like naughty little child.
Oh well, maybe its a good thing that the two of us never like the same guy.
Yes, ma’am…I, unlike you, do not have such questionable taste!
:p You’re just saying that because you didn’t like the guy in question.
Well I don’t like any of your boyfriends.
Because they are your boyfriends!
The eligible batchelor fantasy
I’m getting tired of this arranged marriage business.
Then give it up, na!
Can’t…you know what the pressure gets to be
Yeah I know…but I’m having fun with it now. First 20 years my parents try keeping me away from everything male and now they’re pushing them right into my life..my inbox, my message box, my mail and my calendar!
Arre…the other day I met a guy and he brought his mother along!
And I met one guy who said he liked shopping, especially for deodorants
Hmph….give it up, you’re never going to find a normal guy, there aren’t any!
That’s not true, I’ve been meeting loads of them
Yeah….where ever do you find them? You seem to have an unending stream of boyfriends
Blog! Party! Join the onliine networks! Make friends! They’re bound to have friends.
Well…I don’t subscribe to that point of view. None of your relationships have lasted.
Yes, that’s true, none of them were the ‘settling down’ type.
Well, I only want a man who wants to settle down.
I wish you luck then. You can either have interesting, ‘normal’ men or you can have the abnormal ones who actually do want to settle down.
I don’t think so.
Well, I hope not too, actually.
And I think you’re selling yourself short.
Yes, sometimes I think so too but other times I tell myself I’m just being realistic. Consider, I’m getting better, now!
See, I started off with neglectful, graduated to abusive and now I’m doing the non-committal route. I’m getting to understand men 🙂
Yeah, you get to know all the ways a man can be a jerk!
They all are!!!
The ‘Which-friend-ditching-situation-is-worse’ question:
She’s my best friend, my voice of reason, my rock of Gibralter
Haan, haan….best friend, my foot, the last time I was sick you were out with your boyfriend!
Arre…c’mon…we were meeting only on weekends.
Boyfriend more important that best friend, now?
Hmph…you should talk, you promised me a girl’s day out today and you had to run off to meet some guy you’ve never met, whom you don’t even like the sound off!
Well….you know I just had to, didn’t you?
Yeah, I do. But are you meeting him again?
I don’t know. His father wanted to know what clothes I wear.
Did you tell him…bikinis and shorts.
*dirty look* Hmph….we said salwar-kameezes and trousers to work.
I don’t believe this…you actually answered that?
Yeah….and then he wanted to know what I wear at home!!!
*disapproving look* I thought of saying….saree with a ghoonghat.
I never have that problem. According to my family, I’m a Mumbai girl and that means I’m wanton, reckless, possibly lesbian and likely to kick my ageing parents out into the street any day now, so I can move my useless, pot-smoking boyfriends in!
Well you probably will, you know….you don’t even care for your best friend.
That look doesn’t work with me, lady. I’m a Scorpio…I never forget.
Doesn’t work with me either….:-D
Yeah…it might work on some stupid man!!!
It should work on the types that pretend they know palmistry so that they can hold your hand…..or at least its catching their bluff!
The ‘same time next year’ promise
I’ll tell you what…let’s meet a year from now and discuss our husbands.
Do you suppose all three of us will be married in a year’s time? Somehow I doubt it….look at the men the two of you have met and the ones I’ve dated….none of them marriageable!
Let’s just get together and bitch then!