Women have a funny relationship with bras. From the myths of bra burning, to listicles showing what relief being braless once home brings to everyone who chooses to wear a bra daily. There are conversations about understanding all sorts of bras, some preferring one type to another and many, not wanting to wear one at all. I have always hated this piece of cloth since I can remember. As a youngster rebelling against anything that pleased others when the question of appearance arose, especially, demanding dorky teenagers to look all girly and feminine, I assumed that the bra was be worn to make a girl’s breasts look presentable. I remember cringing at the thought and deciding not to comply.
I can’t blame my childish self for presuming that. Back then, media selling lingerie danced to another tune as opposed to the current tune of making bras desirable for women for their own likes (hell, make them cheaper?!). Shreds of memories of men selling lingerie at counters and once that of watching a man pick out bras by testing out the strength of the cups while accompanying mother to the store left some very strong marks on my desires to wear one when the time came. I pushed the inaugural date by a whole year and I remember my friends all stare with widened eyes every time I would proudly say that “I am bra-free”. I can still picture the look of immense pride on my face, almost as if I had conquered the Kumbhalgarh fort and the judging eyes of my friends.
I would definitely say that I have had the most forward thinking mother, in a geography like Rajasthan, who had always set the example for me. She would talk about bright colours and rather nudge the deliberately prudish daughter of hers to buy the nicer colours. As I learnt more and evolved more, I did accept that these pieces of cloth weren’t that bad at all and that, at certain times, they are much needed as well. It is just a manner of choice and whatever is comfortable one must choose. Like your favourite cocktail, the best fit for you will always be different and no advert, model, film star or the salesgirl at the lingerie store should dictate to you what you would like best.
Why am I talking about bras here?
I was reminded of my entire bra journey recently when walking towards the gate of a reputed gated colony in Mumbai. Let me recount – as I was walking, I saw a lady in a yellow and red t-shirt and pink track pants sitting and staring into space, presumably taking a break from her morning walk. I only glanced at her from afar and continued on my way. As I passed her, I heard a loud yet attempted hushed up “listen!”. I looked at her and responding by way of raised eyebrows asked her if I was the one she wanted to talk to. Happy that I had heard her, she promptly whisper-screamed “its transparent, your top…its transparent, I can see it.. (you know what)”, all of it with a look of urgent secrecy and a mission oriented glaze in her eyes that my modesty, centred around the bra I was wearing was almost saved since my hero sat right there in pink tracks.
In response, all I could do was stop myself from bursting out in (actual and not mirthful) laughter and just nod and say “okay!” as I hastened to run and laugh as she gave me a look of utter annoyance at my not getting the point of bra hiding sisterhood.
I am not saying that I was always like this. When on my personal adolescent mission to not wear pretty bras to dress up for the world that looks at desirable breasts in one way, shape and size; I was a hater of halter neck bras. I did not see the point of those and I still don’t like them, primarily because of my bad neck. But, the point is that I had always presumed the possibility of this to be in a smaller city / town and not in Mumbai where school kids grow up way faster than women my age have. I still don’t appreciate school kids imitating pop idols or models and wanting to wear hot pants or anything to ‘fit in’. If it’s out of own choice and comfort, of course no one must say anything. However, it sure felt funny to be called out by a resident around for an allegedly transparent shirt (was not wearing cellophane or any NSFW shirt) while living in a locality with quite a few of those grown up school kids.
This brings me to my point again that feminism clearly isn’t anti men. Here, it was a woman telling me and requiring me to cover up something which was already covered up and she had no business doing that! It is against such mindsets that are rooted deep in our culture to surface in this top notch cosmopolitan city of mine. I realise today that I could have probably had a dialogue with her trying to communicate to her why the bra is not something to be so scared of, that a suggestion to the world that women have breasts under the cloth is not to be fearful of, that patriarchy controls the female sexuality precisely in this manner and hyper-sexualisation of the female body on media is just an economic gimmick. But then, I shall leave it for another time when I am more well prepared and not as taken aback, even humorously so.
Without all the fanciness of education and scholarly privilege, the most basic of childhood experiences will tell you the (un)importance of sexuality as something that should publicly define one. Theroux in one of his books had described the Indian society perfectly for me! Paraphrasing the same, he’d called the Indian society comprising of frustrated and closeted people who truly exist/live behind closed doors. Pardon the drama but, reading that always gives me the image of a throng of people, dressed exactly the same walking with their heads down but, their faces covered with the ‘Anonymous’ Guy Fawkes masks. The mere functioning in the society has been reduced (god knows since when!) to the mere appearance and the need to conform with what is the collective right or the moralistic Indian way, the truth (even if the damned statue of truth, sach ki moorti, itself has been blindfolded, who cares, right?). However, in the behind-closed-doors way of functioning, one thing that was made clear long ago; sex is something we all indulge in but, that is only for those tied in the holy relationship of a marriage and anything else outside is not acceptable! Where this clearly laid the understanding that sex and sexuality are private matters, people were left gaping and political parties petitioning against an actress who expressed her understanding of premarital sex being fine! Oh, how that led to all aunties getting into relentless gossip sessions, seemingly uncomfortable with the audacity of the actress and the uncles to ‘respectably’ glare at the television sets while the news anchors went bonkers talking about the controversy. For us, its okay to have teasing sex scenes in cinema but, otherwise in ‘reality’ such (read: the ones open about sex) people are those belonging to the scarlet category. No morals, for sure! Even though I can go on and on about how this reflects the understanding of what we perceive sexuality to be and whose sexuality wins the power battle, I’ll state the relevant inference I draw from these point- the fact that the contradictions of Indian society can be seen in the fact that while it is not okay to talk about sex, or had it been possible for the thought police, even to think about pleasure and sex; it is important for the same aunty jis and uncle jis to know about one’s sexual orientation. If one truly believed in the idea of sex being personal/privatte, shouldn’t sexual orientation be left just as it is, personal choice?
Raised in the grand and free democracy that Indians call India, I assumed from all this education in school etc., that sexuality is something personal, if one may please that is. And, no, I do not think that its a completely Westernised thought and the Indian culture is about something more reserved. Reserved and dignified, we are? Then, that does call for one to live the kind of life one chooses to live? No, not talking about Sen’s development is capability but, the old man isn’t all that wrong, is he? Maybe a little vague for the Science and Maths crazy country of mine but, well all the acharyas and saints also did occupy physical and philosophical space here, all right!
So, is Indian culture/existence all about fear? Fear of loss of power? Are we homophobic simply because we’re forced into the complacence of the behind-closed-doors way of life? And that’s why, as Foucault pointed out, we termeverything alien to the routine as insane? Simply because it challenges the social structure of power and masculinity?
There are so many hypocrisies that are part of the Indian experience that most, if not all, have succumbed to these norms and kept their seething angst inside. This itself, in my opinion is another way of living hypocritically. On the other hands those like me who choose to be too vocal about their beliefs (ideals, for some) and constantly question (be it their own parents) the validity of the norm/custom, we are not really appreciated, to say the least.