There is a sense that the Saree Wearers’ Club is an exclusive one, limited to women who are married or of a certain age, have a certain body shape and even they wear it in certain ways & on occasions only. Any variation from this invites attack.
I’ve been exploring drapes & styling methods for the saree, YouTube, Instagram, my own creativity as guides. I love the saree for how versatile it is. It is after all, just a length of cloth, modified to body type, region & occasion. The saree is my newest palette, my body an eternal canvas.
I’ve received mixed reactions.
The saree blurs social boundaries as security guards & autorickshaw drivers (who don’t usually target women in my class) jeer & whistle. It confuses middle-class men who make way for me on public transport but stare resentfully.
Many feel my English-speaking, short hair flaunting, liberal self doesn’t fit the saree wearer mold. There are those who ask why I ‘need’ to wear a saree when I’m slim, as if the garment is an apology for a body that doesn’t fit western standards. The takedowns build, listing how my look doesn’t adhere-pallu wrong, shape weird, look funny. “I can’t understand this!” I’m told as if my apparel is a request and as if they get to decide if I get entry to the exclusive club. And I don’t.
I was slut-shamed for wearing a saree to a condolence visit (as reaction to my calling out a sleazy man). The shamer, herself a woman, was saree-draped. Her reaction showed she values only one kind of woman (that I’m not). In her eyes I didn’t merit entry into the Saree-Wearers’Club.
People box women into limited roles. How we dress is one of the labels of the boxes we’ve accepted. My experiments break boxes just by existing. If the very act of dressing is political, this single length of cloth has become my flag. It’s versatile, it’s practical, it has a history but it adapts and it stands for something. Me.
In the picture, I’m wearing a colour-blocked kanjeevaram with a corduroy jacket and boots. I call this the fish-tail drape, pallu doubling up as neck scarf. Like it? Join the club. Everyone’s welcome in mine.
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.
AgentsOfIshq: ‘You Should Wear Maroon For Your Skin’ And Other Advice I’ve Ignored As A Non-Fair Woman
AgentsOfIshq carried my story about being a dark skinned person in a country that worships the pale! And I also got to show off my lipart skills. I’m really thrilled to see my name and story appear alongside the brave, witty others on this site that I’ve admired for a long time. Now go read!!
The AgentsOfIshq story is here:
and here’s one version from my drafts:
I love beauty jaunts. This is where I revel in having a body and a whole industry devoted to painting it. Recommended remedy for PMS, hard break-ups and bad days, in general. I started in the late 90s, freshly into adolescence and in possession of hard-won permission to paint my face. Naturally, I paid close attention to the leading authority on my body – the rest of the world.
My first lipstick was the only shade everyone told me was “appropriate” for me – maroon. This is the colour I call India’s apologetic vanity. Lipstick reminds people that women have mouths (which can speak) and presumably most people don’t want to know that. So we are permitted one dark colour “for special occasions” that’s barely going to show in the evenings – when it’s deemed appropriate anyway. Women of every age are huddled under this concession colour. A paler shade may just about pass for someone fairer, but only so long as its not ‘too loud’. Because even with our lips, women are not supposed to scream.
ue work shirt entered the room before I did, with whispers and later, anonymous notes left on my table. Try maroon, I was told, or navy blue or brown because they’ll suit you. My fashion choices became a negotiation with a melanin scale that didn’t have room for me.
I began pushing the boundaries first with brightness of colour, and then the colours themselves. One day a parrot green blouse with no makeup, another day black nail polish with regular jeans. Brighter reds became more acceptable in the 2000s and accessible to me. As an adult, I had more control over my dressing, albeit subject to social censure. I played my dressing like it was a game– how much could l get away with it while still staying within obvious boundaries?
A bead necklace as a belt? A multi-coloured scarf around my handbag? And always, always bright colours. Always playing hide-and-seek with navy blue, black and brown. It gave me a lot of confidence. It frequently surprised (and occasionally angered) people.
By my late twenties, I had expanded my distinctive palette to makeup. Gloss, glitter, fuchsia lips, icy-blue eyelids – I was screaming colour. It has never stopped disturbing people, friends and strangers alike. I came to be known as the Crazy Dresser. Yet, what struck me was that no one minded fairer-skinned people wearing these things. As metrosexuality descended into our ranks, the men leading the charge were all pale-skinned. I often felt like the sole flag-bearer for visible brownness. Other shoppers would stare with open hostility as I reached for the sparkle section, while striking up great camaraderie with similarly fair-hued strangers. The salespeople would try to push me towards the skin creams counter, promising to “cure this awful tan” and always, “You should wear maroon for your skin.”
I’ve realised that the shaming system needs one important ally to work – your own self. Shame had no currency if I refused to buy into it. So what looked good to me, became what looked good on me. My need to rebel faded and I was able to embrace colours and styles simply because I liked them. There are no browns in my cupboard (I have so much on my own skin). But fluorescent green? Sunshine yellow? Hot pink? Hello Picasso! Every one of these shades finds a welcome spot on my personal shade card.
Last year I happily adopted the bold lipstick trend. Blue, did you say? Move over Rihanna, I see you your bold colour and raise you funky designs. My Crazy Dresser self surfaces on my lips in the form of stripes, polka dots, filigree work, even comicbook art. Give me black and white and I’ll turn that into a chessboard on my lips. Or a yin-yang symbol. My lips don’t hide or even whisper. They roar.
Recently I bought a gold lipstick, hoping to try a ‘bejeweled mouth’ look. To my surprise, the lipstick wouldn’t show at all on my skin, no matter how hard I swiped. I realised the shade was the exact same hue as the colour of my skin. I know now that colours don’t ‘look weird’ on my skin the way the fashion industry describes. It’s really, really hard to overshadow gold. And I have a natural supply of it all over my body. All bodies are works of art and mine just happens to be framed in gold. Beauty jaunts are public parades for my royal skin. Are you coming to watch?