I was preparing for medical entrance exams in Class 12. My chemistry tutor ran batches of 25 which began at 6 am till way past dusk, in his house. He was very good! Till that morning when he looked at me, smirked, looked away at the others and said ‘Those girls who wear tight jeans never clear these exams. I can write it down for you.’ I was 16. Everyone laughed uproariously. I never went to him again. I did get a call from a medical college in Pune.
He wasn’t that good, after all!
A few months back I read about Amy Pence-Brown, a nearly 40-year-old woman, who stripped down to a bikini in the middle of a busy market, blindfolded. She invited strangers to draw hearts on her body in an effort to promote self-love; to promote acceptance of our bodies for what they are. Supportive comments poured in!
I quote from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a gift from a man and a most valuable one.
‘According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man. A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking…suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. His presence may be fabricated…but the pretence is always towards a power which he exercises on others.
By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself...manifest in her gestures, voice, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence.
To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. This has been at the cost of women’s self being split in two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself…from earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life… Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’
Berger wrote this back in 1977. Such were the times, the expectations from women and thus of women. Appropriate it to today’s situation. Are you too thinking such are the times, still? At least partially?
Let’s go back to Amy who began this piece for us. When she exposed every popularly-defined 'ugly, fat and ungainly' part of her body what all did she do? She erased that split within! The ‘mother’ fought away her own image of herself, through years of conditioning, to free her three children from the burden of dominant beauty discourses. And the ‘fat feminist’ reclaimed her body!
And now come back to where you are sitting and reading this. What are you wearing right now? And why?
I’m inviting you to self-talk because it is something I once used to do standing before a wardrobe which always ‘played safe’ and knocked away any ‘experiment with clothes’ or ‘lust for the latest fashion’ that tried to get in. Because, will it suit me? In school there was little scope. In college the fantasies of wearing the most different dresses materialised in the changing room, and never walked out. Even after I hit 20, maybe especially then, since the world is suddenly visible to your adult eyes, a lot of clothes, accessories, make-up and hair-dos were secretly admired on others and dreamt about later. From two pony-tails in school I had graduated to one pony-tail in college, with the latest rubber band holding it, no more.
I was very conscious of myself, and not just because of beauty magazines, advertisements, movies and social media feeding me their standards but also those people-to-people comments politely lecturing me on ‘what is okay for you’. So you know what a battle it must have been to wear my first ever halter-neck without worrying that my bust line is a shame! But when I walked out for the first time baring my back to the world, I slowly started arriving at a point of comfort with how I look in what I wear and where. It is then that realization seeped in – all these years of growing up, the ‘will it suit me?’ was more about ‘will it suit others’ idea of me?’
I was trying to please, to appeal to another’s sensibility. And it wasn’t even me who was doing that!
A woman’s self-esteem is constantly crushed. Going back to Berger, girls often grow up in an ‘allotted and confined space’ and even as women face ‘tutelage’ from surprising quarters. The pressures to be dainty, pretty, shapely, combed, graceful, ironed wrap us in layers of self-judging, mummifying what we truly want to be. Colouring our image of ourselves in others’ tinted glasses. Because on our shoulders hang expectations, of others from us and those we women tend to have of ourselves as a result of constant conditioning.
So the ‘big’ aunty in tights, walking gaily down the chic mall or the neighborhood market, and who still in a very evolved world generates snickers, may have run an obstacle course to get herself to buy her first pair, and climbed a mountain of belief to wear it! Against her family, her husband, her kids, her magazine, her friends’ sense of aesthetics, and who knows what else to reach the finish line of confidence. A true heroine, if you ask me. One who has succeeded in leaving beauty myths behind even if to don the latest fashion (for why should a tank top be the privilege of a few?) One who has accepted her body, as your ‘warts’ but her all! And one who burns the measuring tape you take to her thighs (like that despicable newspaper printing candid bum shots or a Right winger’s view on jeans) with an enviable self-assurance!
A lot is gained when we reclaim our bodies – its bulges, its scars, its pores, its patches - one step at a time. Because what we also reclaim is our Presence; social, emotional and even political presence in the world, in its truest sense. Just like Amy owned hers, in her black bikini.
Nakedness was created in the mind of the beholder, in the Garden of Eden. And it continues to be today, in all its forms. Says Berger –
‘She is not naked as she is.
She is naked as the spectator sees her.’
Think about it.
[Entirely my opinion, the importance of which like any other is as much in its rejection as in its acceptance.]