I’m the problem, it’s me

The first time I noticed it was when I went to a wedding. The experience was a sensory overload, a cognitive pandemonium, an assault of stimuli. It was all this overstimulation against a six year old, who latched on to her mother’s palloo like a baby elephant holding its mother’s tail, following her lead amidst a herd of aunties and uncles who towered above in full aplomb.

In retrospect, I probably have my height to thank for the insights I gained because down from where I was, my gaze was at a level parallel to most women’s waists: the tempting sight for innocent, naked eyes.

At first, my eyelids flickered looking at the different colored fabric around or on those waists. It was as if it had rained colors for you could spot any color you had a name for. Eventually, my gaze drifted from admiring the cornucopia of colors to evaluating the similarity among many women: their exposed stomachs and waists. For some women, the skin beneath their breath-stifling blouses spilled on either side of their spine like lava slowly giving into gravity. The bottom of their waists folded over their petticoats, which were tied so tight that they gave their torso an illusion of an hourglass.

Many such women also had some lines – which  I interpreted as “tummy wrinkles” – randomly running across their waists like the roots of trees. At the same time, however, there were also women who had none of this at all – no overflowing skin, nor the tummy wrinkles. Later, I realized that these women were much younger, dare I say prettier, than the ones I compared them to. They were my older cousins or relatives who were old enough to be considered for marriage, or already married but young enough to be my parents.

In contrast to the — gulp — voluptuous older women, many of whom wore saris, the younger folks wore lehengas or if they chose to wear saris, they somehow managed to look effortlessly elegant unlike the aunties who looked like they had forcibly squeezed themselves into their outfit. This distinction suddenly made me reexamine how I was dressed. None of my skin was exposed, except for my arms. I wasn’t dressed in a sari or lehenga, but a modest salwar. I also didn’t have a deep neck line or the extra bit of roundedness on my chest. I felt a pang of shame over my inadequacy and wished I could disappear by using my mother’s palloo as an invisible cloak.

“Arshu, say namaste to taiji,” my mother instructed as we stopped to greet a middle aged woman – one of many who were supposedly part of my family but I could never remember the names of. I folded my hands, uttered a barely audible namaste and veiled myself under the palloo again. “Why didn’t you wear a sari beta?” I heard taiji ask  my mother.

“If you don’t take advantage of your figure now, then when will you? When you’re fat and gray like me?” She laughed gregariously.

“No, no taiji it’s nothing really,”my mother replied. “I just feel more comfortable in a salwar. It’s more…more me.”

“Nonsense! You’re a young, attractive girl with all the right proportions!” taiji said, even loudly. “Salwars are for those types of women – ”

She lowered her voice and leaned in closer so that her lips were near my mother’s ears.

 “You know. The flat-chested, chin-haired types or the middle-aged women who’ve lost their feminine energy.” She pulled back and winked at my mother before bursting into a cackle again. But my mother’s smile didn’t convince me that she found taiji’s comment as amusing.

Over the next few years, I embraced my changing body by adorning it with different clothing. As a soccer fiend, I realized very early on that I could virtually live in nylon jerseys and track pants. And to be honest, I did – much to my parents’ disappointment, who brought plenty of floral cancan frocks and ruffle-sleeved t-shirts for me, only to find that I mostly wore them on my birthday or rare special occasions. Perhaps it was taiji who spoke to my mother at that wedding years ago, who didn’t make me give up entirely on my girlhood.

I still remember the excitement of wearing my first lehenga on diwali – the joy I got from showing off the thin strip of skin that remained exposed between my blouse and skirt. It made me feel different somehow. More girl, more woman, if there is such a thing as feeling that way. It was almost as if I became a different person upon wearing such clothing – like Carol Danvers becomes Captain Marvel in her super-suit. And though I enjoyed feeling special, something about wearing a soccer jersey felt equally empowering and provocative, especially when old Kanta, the house help, bickered about how I was sending the wrong type of message to boys and men by wearing flimsy sports gear. Alas, it turned out that Kanta was not the only one who felt that way – she was just the only one to express it.

At the end of middle school, I found myself in a paradoxical limbo. For one, I turned thirteen, which meant that wearing crop tops and LBDs would finally not only be considered appropriate but also expected. At the same time, school uniforms for girls beginning ninth grade would undergo a complete fashion and cultural transformation. It would be time to say goodbye to skirts and shirts and hello to my old friend – the salwar.

I, for one, didn’t really care much about wearing a salwar as opposed to skirts. If anything, I’d get much more freedom to stretch and move since I wouldn’t have to sit folding one knee over the other, nor be paranoid about waxing my legs – something my mother insisted on since I had to wear skirts to school. She said I “couldn’t wear a skirt looking like Yogi Bear.” I guess she had a point, but waxing still felt like a gender-selective torture treatment, considering guys wore shorts even though they had enough hair on their legs to make a wig. Nobody called them disgusting.

However, my opinion far from reflected the consensus among girls in general, who caused a hullabaloo as if we were being asked to wear burqas altogether! They whined and complained the entire summer before school started.

Salwars are so lame!”

“They’re literally trying to make us into guys.”

“It’s not like boys are going to stop hitting at us if we stop wearing skirts!”

“But I don’t have fat legs. The school should just let us choose!”

“You know what my mother says – if you have it, flaunt it.”

Weirdly enough, the tone of their conversations echoed what taiji had said to my mother all those years ago. It seemed like the girls of today had already started being groomed to be the aunties and taijis of tomorrow. And if there was anything I was sure about amidst dealing with breasts, acne, and ass – all of which grew at uncertain speeds, shapes, and sizes over which I had no control – was that I would do everything in my power to ensure that I wouldn’t become what I loathed.

Thus, I continued my love affair with Nike throughout high school even though I was supposed to be loyal to the Aritzia’s and Victoria’s Secret’s of the world. Eventually, my parents also accepted the fact that I had accepted and embraced my womanhood, which entailed sports bras and jersey shorts instead of push up bras and skirts. If only Kanta could have matured the same way as my parents as she grew older. “Aye re, why you not wear such beautiful bras! Give me if you not want”, she regularly ranted to which I always played along by offering her my entire collection.

Although, I would be lying if I said that my parents’ support was enough for me to continue the path I had carved for myself. Or that I didn’t have moments of self-doubt and/or self-loathe over my choice(s), over how I look in shorts, over how I didn’t look in dresses, over how I think other people think I look in both. Recently, I had an experience which resurfaced a memory from my 18th birthday – one I was very sure had disappeared from the deep, convoluted nerves in my brain.

I was at my uncle’s 40th birthday party. It was a “youngsters’ night,” which meant only adults below 60 were given permission to enter the venue – unsurprisingly a club-like situation with a pitch dark room only illuminated by a giant, abstract chandelier and neon laser beams that mimicked the northern lights in a night sky. Having been informed by mum that the party was going to be a big affair with many folks who hadn’t seen me in ages but had known me since I was a kid, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and put on one of the only LBDs I owned. I hadn’t worn a LBD in the longest time, which probably explains why I felt like someone had gift-wrapped me in Spanx.

At the party, I stood in the corner sipping on Sprite, when a familiar face walked towards me with a large grin. “Look who it is,”he said, putting his arms around my neck before I could prepare myself. “I haven’t seen you since your 18th birthday. Where the hell have you been?!” 

“And hello to you too, Jay,” I said, pulling away.

“I’ve been busy. You know – college and stuff.”

“Cut the crap. No one is ever so busy to drop a message.” 

I smiled insincerely.

I had known Jay since preschool. He was the son of one of my parents’ closest friends and lived in the same neighborhood as me. So, we pretty much knew everything there was to know about each other and saw more of each other than we desired – or at least, more than I desired. We were completely platonic – thank god – but Jay took that as a sign of me being under his guardianship, as if I was a little princess in need of protection. He was the kind of friend who made fun of my girl friends on the dinner table or mansplained to my parents about why I should stay away from a particular guy in our class. I had told him to stay out of my business a couple of times before, but it was impossible to figure out what went on under his perfectly groomed exterior.

“So, what’s up?” I asked, for lack of a better way to start conversation.

“Have you stopped playing soccer?” he asked, steering the conversation in a completely different direction. Where he wanted. Like always.

“Yeah why?”

“Oh. It’s nothing”, he said, trying to hide his expression while taking a sip of champagne.

“Don’t play with me. Why did you ask?”

“It’s not a big deal. Really.”

I frowned and began to turn away when he held me back.

“OK, OK, I’ll tell you. Geez. You look good. That’s all.”

“What do you mean? Are you trying to say I didn’t look good when I played soccer?”

“No it’s not that. It’s – I mean obviously you were more -” he looked into the distance. “Muscular. You know what I mean? Like your hams and shins.” I looked at him, perplexed. “Basically, what I’m trying to say is, you look much better in a dress now. OK?”

It took me a minute to absorb what he said. Was it a compliment? Why didn’t it feel like one? I turned and finally walked away, sat in the car and went home. For some reason, Jay’s comments took me back to my 18th birthday party where the same guys who humored themselves by calling some girls sluts for wearing backless or mini dresses hooked up with them afterwards – girls who were much skinnier than me. It reminded me of what my aunt told me the next day about how “fat” girls should dress “more appropriately” in clothes that complimented their bodies.

In the car, I tucked myself into the left corner of the backseat, literally sticking against the door, with my legs folded atop one another and my arms cradling my elbows. All I felt like doing at that moment was to punch Jay in the nose and tell him off with a giant FUCK YOU. But punching him or anyone for that matter wouldn’t get me what I wanted. Which was to tell Jai. And taiji. And every other person who ever commented on what I, my mother, or my friends wore or looked like that they needed to stop teaching women how to be women.

Young and thin? Wear lehengas and short dresses to show off your figure. Don’t show enough – you’re not womanly enough but show too much and you’re a slut.

Young and fat? Wear clothes that hide your rolls and jiggly skin. Wear a salwar and you’re a tomboy but wear a dress and you’re obscene.

Old and fit? Wear a sari to flaunt your health. Not wearing a sari – you’re ungrateful for your youth but wear a sari and you’re provocative for your age.

Old and fat? Wear a salwar or pants to flatter yourself. Not wearing them – you’re delusional but wearing them and you’re too manly.

How could they impose these rules, which, no matter how well obeyed, still put womanhood – my womanhood – up for critique? Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t. Womanhood isn’t an equation that needs solving: add this, subtract that and you’ll get the desired answer. Nor is it performative or meant for someone else. It is meant for me. And me only. And, contrary to anyone’s standards, if it looks ten pounds heavier and in a bikini or seven pounds lighter and in oversized sweats  – so be it. Enough is enough. I am not a woman for you. I am not a woman because of you. I am selfishly, unabashedly, and radically in love with me – the woman of my dreams.

***As I climbed up the stairs to reach my apartment, heels in one hand, phone in the other, I nudged the door open with my foot and ran straight to my room. I wrestled the dress off of me in animalistic fervor, got into my favorite pajamas and began sending a series of messages I should have sent years ago. “Dear taiji,…”.

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