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.
Don’t I look like all the sins you’re going to commit tonight? I felt it too. Because feeling flows through me the way water runs through the planet, within it, over it, above it and into every creature that lives on it. It feels good to dissolve. It feels peaceful to let go and drown in cool darkness. Words like ’empath’ and ‘boundaries’and ‘toxic patterns’ just flow into sound & light and are swallowed up in the darkness that we are.
Who ever told you that the quest for love would be easy? I knew it wasn’t easy, you say, I just didn’t expect it to be so unpredictable. But how could you think it to be otherwise? Love is the subject of most songs and stories and poems told across the human race and since when did we ever entertain each other by being predictable? It’s an act of rebellion to care. Love is an assertion of life.
But I’ll also say, let go when it feels like self-loathing. “It’s not supposed to be so hard” people say when they mean you’re not worth putting in the effort, you are not worth enduring the agony of confusion for. That is not the time to persist, to prove your commitment. All that is, is pouring your precious self into an endless session of validation. Let go of anyone who can’t make time or space or effort for you because the truth is they won’t.
You are married to a tale. You fell in love with stories because they were bigger than you and you liked to find your place inside them. Why try to shrink that story to fit your hands and your imagination? Don’t hold your breath. Don’t hoard your breaths. Don’t get stuck on the ideas you pinned on the pages of your mind, fearing that your self will be lost if you look away. Feel. Feel. Feel. Your story is being created as you live it, not as you imagine it.
Love is a part of it. It always has been and will always be, even if it doesn’t look the way fairytales and romcoms narrate it. It’s not a sin to look. But it is a sin to breathe and not live.
Some time ago, I watched a woman walk into a coffeeshop. She was dressed in a neon yellow jacket, neon yellow sneakers & microshorts and sported a ponytail on either side of the head, held back with – you guessed it, neon yellow ties. She looked like she was in her early 30s. I was consumed by uncharitable thought after judgemental idea – about her overcoordination, skin exposure, colour choice. The vehemence of my feelings shocked me.
Earlier in the year, an old friend attacked my saree styling, called me names, threatened to walk away if I ever ‘dared’ wear one in his presence. He refused to apologise when I called him out for his misbehaviour. The next day, he trolled my blogs.
I used to wear a bright red fascinator to work. I was catcalled at the station, followed home and worst of all, found nasty notes left on my office table. It was upsetting because I was not breaking any rules or harming anybody.
What it is it about apparel that incites such violent responses in other people? When I discovered it in myself, I realised I couldn’t write it off as other people’s issues. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t act on it. I thought it. I too, felt a powerful negative reaction to a stranger’s dressing. Why?
Our bodies are policed by families, by male partners, by female companions, by the fashion industry, by media standards, by gender definitions. I enjoy people’s confusion when I wear a saree (sanskari) with sneakers (tomboy). Or green lipstick (wild) with a kurta (traditional). I tell a story with every look. And my stories force people to reconsider their assumptions.
Each time we see someone presenting differently from what we expect, we experience shock. Alongside come our memories at having been policed for similar behaviour. Maybe we resent the person’s courage. Maybe we hate their naivete. Maybe we miss the security that a prison offers us because all imposed rules are prisons.
I dress to assert my identity and that itself is a protest. I guess that’s true for the girl in the coffeeshop too. The very act of dressing is a political statement.
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.
I used to think of myself as ‘one of the boys‘, because I didn’t identify with how femininity was practised around me. I wanted to own my intelligence, my independence and strength the way I saw only boys do. I walked, talked and dressed in a close approximation of my male peers – dirty jeans, chunky boots and a loud voice steeling myself to incorporate crude speech. I didn’t get a lot of acceptance because gender roles are too deeply embedded in people’s minds. Other girls still saw me as competition for their boyfriends and the boys treated me like I was a defective female.
Once I started working, I was able to experience my personal power without having to dress it up so much. People took me seriously and held me as accountable. Through my 20s, I was able to embrace my softer side – sitting with my legs crossed, caring for my appearance, smiling over snarling, compliments instead of sarcasm. I had discovered I could be/do these without giving away my power.
Now I meet more women who practise my kind of femininity. Not the coy, simpering, bitchy-to-other-girls, defining oneself by one’s boyfriend/husband kind. But smart, independent women who don’t feel the need to hide it or tear me down. They’re also emotionally aware, not just apeing ‘maleness’. This kind of femininity is more acceptable now.
Occasionally a woman expects me to be her knight in shining armour – this is the old toxic femininity, acting helpless + expecting women to do all the work. It’s not perfect.
But I have more fulfilling conversations with other women now than I did before 30. Careers, health, poetry, architecture, sexuality and yes, men too – we talk like two humans would, not like scripts mouthed by strictly controlled prisoners.
Men, in comparison are rarely this interesting. There are exceptions but they’re a scant few. Conversations wth men often have to be ’emotionally dumbed down’. It’s tiring and not worth it when there are other more evolved humans called women.
I’ve come a long way from ‘one of the boys’. Right now I’m every bit a women’s woman. Or maybe, I’m my own person.
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.