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.
There is something about living your best self that draws in other people. We call its wonderful parts, inspiration. The pleasure of watching someone achieve their dream, follow their passion, be happy.
But it also pulls in darker sides of humanity. Microaggressions like insincerity, barbs, sarcasm, condescension. Boundary violations like stalking, hero worship, objectification. Dangerous things like righteous rage & what I call themsplaining (which is people telling you who you are from their own limited point of view but as if that is the truth). Some people are in a hurry to impose on you, their scripts of what your life should look like & who you should be. It’s a lot easier than saying, what a joy to behold & what does it teach me about my own joyfulness? People tell you who they are, in the way they respond to your happiest self.
My dressing often brings in aggression. Workplace harassment for wearing a hair ornament. Bullying by a classmate for wearing sarees. Slut-shaming & prudery-shaming together. Don’t ask – hate isn’t logical. Last evening I sported a face painting, some people said was ‘scary’.
I once read an interview with Rudyard Kipling, where he spoke of the abuse he endured as a child. He said, “That experience left me devoid of the capacity to hate.” My contentment in my body & clothes is probably terrifying for some people. It’s hard to be angry at people who are scared of you. In my experience, refusing to respond with anger kills the aggression. Bullies have returned offering timid affection. It’s hard to take seriously because a guilty compliment is a bribe, a desperate plea for approval. All I feel is sad for the smallness that humanity can also be.
I go back to Kipling. And try & keep my head when all about are losing theirs & blaming it on me. This is being my best self. Doing this in big colours makes it an adventure. I am a fierce butterfly.
: Watch your reaction to what impresses you
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.
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 was fascinated by the saree as a child. Unfettered by stitches, lacking the artifice of buttons, a saree was freedom.
I’ve struggled with gender boxes my whole life. Every damn thing, a fucking war. Short hair. Tattoos. Red clothes. Short clothes. Boots, not sandals. Science projects. Marketing jobs. An analytical mind. Single status. Silver, not gold. Diamonds I paid for. Sci-fi. A love of graphic novels. English poetry. Silent performance. A business. A band. A breakup. A failed engagement. Boundaries. These became my trophies.
Warriors don’t wear shyness, they wear war paint. I RAGE, oh how I rage. I rage with the eloquence of Alanis Morissette. I rage in the shriek of Gwen Stefani. I rage with the mellow harshness of Tracy Chapman. I rage in all the ways of women who refuse to be pretty.
But sarees, these speak of modesty, of tradition, of maternal memories, none of which identify me. I’ve struggled to find my self in a saree. Should a love of this garment mean I trade in my warrior card? Must I pay for the respect accorded to a saree with my right to rage?
How do I not lose the essential me in the drapes? How do I keep a palluv from stifling my scream? How can my inner supernova burn through the folds? How do I keep my steel from drowning in cotton? Always a war.
I found my saree self in the bitter eloquent long locks of Alanis Morissette, the dark chocolate wrath of Tracy Chapman and Gwen Stefani saying don’t speak in red lipstick.
My colours are clashing screams. My patterns are silent drama. My folds are parodies of shame. This is who I am, in a saree, in a dress, on stage, on screen, on a page, in relationships, in my sleep. It looks like in the next second, I’m going to turn & run sat you so you want to get out of the way real quick. You won’t want to be caught in the fire gaze of those eyes. Someone called this a superhero pose. I’ll name it Angry Girl of the Indie Rock Persuasion. I wear the label, it doesn’t wear me.