Published: Sat, Aug 10 2013. 12 06 AM IST, Livemint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Something has been troubling me. In our school, a lot of people from the nearby village work as gardeners, housekeepers, maids and watchmen. Now, we have a swimming pool and there’s an underlying rule that any type of two-piece swimming suit is banned because it is “culturally insensitive”. What this means is that girls can’t wear bikinis—if my stomach was showing I’d be asked to change or be given a lot of angry glares. However, boys can still walk around shirtless and it is fine. Do you think it is fair for a woman to be made to cover her body? I mean, first of all—what’s the difference between a male and female chest? Isn’t it just the media and society who have sexualized the top half of a woman’s body? And secondly, if women wear saris in the villages which do show the stomach and part of their chest, then why is there such a huge issue with it over here?
On the one hand, I don’t think it is fair for me to have to constantly think about whether what I am wearing is “culturally sensitive”, but on the other hand, am I being completely ignorant in saying that everyone should be as comfortable with my body as me?
That’s a really complicated issue you have there!
At the simplest level, there is the feminist issue you raise of being comfortable with your body, and of personal autonomy. But even at this level, the complication is that while revealing the female body is a problem in some contexts, covering it is problematic in other contexts, for example, the Muslim head scarf. You know about the controversy in France, where you are not permitted to wear a head scarf to school.
Now, wearing the head scarf/veil can be a sign of autonomy if the woman chooses to do it as a sign of her submission to God, or it could reflect cultural policing by the community. But this is true too, of the bikini. How can wearing a bikini reflect cultural policing? Because not everyone’s physical body is “allowed” to wear the bikini—if you’re fat, or old, or hairy or all of these, it is understood that it would be gross to show your body. Especially so if you’re a woman. Men with hairy paunches have the confidence to show everything. Why do you think? Because they know their worth is not measured by their “beauty”, while a woman has to be attractive whatever her work and accomplishments are.
So “policing” does not always take place through overt force or violence, but often through a subtler transformation of what is considered to be normal and acceptable (just as with the head scarf). You wouldn’t wear a bikini, for example, without waxing your legs. Or if you didn’t know that you have a lovely lithe body!
True, male chests are not sexualized in the same way that female breasts are, but if you want to challenge that, then you need to build up a feminist community and an understanding that would take on the idea of both beauty and sexuality, simultaneously. I mean, then, that you would have to have an understanding that old droopy female breasts as well as podgy male breasts (which are much, much more common than you may think—it’s just a well-kept secret!), all have the “right to be revealed”.
So simply revealing or not revealing one’s body is not an indicator of slavery or freedom. For instance, in Western cultures, it is de rigueur for women to reveal their bodies (to wear skirts rather than pant-suits, to reveal cleavage particularly in formal evening wear) so that if you don’t show your body, you appear to be unsophisticated, dorky or hiding fatal physical flaws. You know this from Hollywood films in which the tomboy in jeans at some point or the other emerges in a short skirt, looking very feminine and suddenly, recognizably “pretty”.
But additionally in the context of your school there is another crucial element—what is being described as “cultural” sensitivity is actually about class, isn’t it? The poor working-class people in and around your school have different notions of what is acceptable and what is not. So yes, they wear saris revealing their bellies, but a bikini revealing a belly is simply not the same thing. But, from that perspective, showing legs as such is equally problematic, so any swimsuit should be a problem from that point of view.
After all, almost everything people of our class do (especially of the class that is largely represented in your school) is bound to be completely out of the range of comprehension and aspiration of the people who cook for you and clean up after you, right? No amount of “cultural sensitivity” is going to lessen the degree of alienation between “people like us” and “people like them”. I mean, come on, a private swimming pool in a school—isn’t that culturally insensitive enough? As if bikinis are the point at which “insensitivity” sets in.
Now you, X, I think, would be quite sensitive to the class angle, which many of your schoolmates might not be. I mean that I think you would be aware of the weight of privilege you bear. In India, the body of the bikini-clad woman represents that privilege and the distance between “us” and “them” starkly, as does the body of the suit-clad man.
Bottom line—it’s worth fighting for the right to wear a bikini as long as you don’t believe that this proves your autonomy in some simple way; as long as you question in real, everyday life the cultural policing involved in rules for appropriate display of the female body; as long as you respect the specific people who work for you and around you in school—the actual individuals, not some amorphous “culture” they represent.
Ultimately, if you respect them and demonstrate your respect, if you teach their children, as I know many of you do, if you do your best to make the humiliating work they have to do less unbearable in whatever way you can, I don’t think they would care what you wear. But perhaps by then, you may not care so much about proving a point through wearing a bikini either.
Nivedita Menon teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Her most recent book is Seeing Like a Feminist.
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