Should we cover up?
It is an unwinnable fight. The familiar look of discomfort, the lingering tension that persists every time we leave the house wearing anything that leaves hints of skin exposed. The hushed Chinese whisper that invariably turns into a large scale blowout when we refuse to conform. The constant bone of contention between an understandably concerned parent and his rightly feminist daughter. The fight is ever present, inescapable.
There have been so many of these encounters that it feels almost self indulgent to wallow in the indignity of it all. There were the high school Model UNs that became excuses to pick at the length of girls’ skirts, the amount of cleavage we were showing. There were the indignant middle aged women self-righteously reminding us to cover up at family events. There were, most frustratingly, the innumerable fights with exes, male friends, well-meaning parents over what is acceptable to wear outside the house.
It is just our Indian way. We are taught to be ashamed. Of our bodies and any desire to showcase or decorate it. We are taught to hide skin and wrap ourselves in scarves and cardigans and leggings to prevent hinting at female sexuality. There is just no winning. We will be sexualized, demeaned, relegated to constant shame regardless of what we wear, but we may as well be careful. As though covering our legs protects us from the horrors of the male gaze.
I was so happy to leave India. Exercising absolute freedom over my body was such a thrill, such a grand, unthinkable escape. Wearing sundresses and crop tops and shorts without the accompanying shock and discomfort. It felt good.
Until it didn’t. Because we are never truly free. Wear your shorts and tight dresses all you want, but you still have a body whose sexualization transcends continents. You might escape the judgement but the baggage of unwaveringly persistent catcalls and leering will follow you as long as you are female.
There was that uncomfortable moment when on the ever crowded Delhi metro, a filthy middle aged man grazed his hand right up my thigh making me feel simultaneously outraged and miserable. There was the moment right after when, cowering in the refuge of my male friends, I burst into tears and, like a child being taken care of, was expertly guided to safety.
But there was also that moment when, in true white male fashion, I was told I was cute “for an Indian” as I walked home from another night fending off conversation with men looking for a quick blowjob from an orientalized version of me. Go anywhere. It never ends. Cover yourself up out of fear that you might be stared at, catcalled, raped. Wear what you want with the knowledge that those could happen anyway. Feel restricted. Feel guilty. It never ends.
From this ever tightening grid of risk and restriction emerge the games we play. Fiddling with bra straps, glaring at strangers, walking with tightened fists and pepper sprays in our bags to ward away the curse of the female body. Don’t play it. We all lose anyway.