In India, or at least the part where my family comes from, when you wear even one small piece of clothing that’s the slightest bit fancy or expensive, a grandmother or aunt would point at you saying, “dekh lo, ye fashion kar rahi hai”. This would roughly translate to, “look at this girl, doing fashion.” I would say this phrase goes hand in hand with another common phrase I’ve heard from grandmothers and aunts, “angrez bann gayi, yeh ladki!” They would say this with a severely offended tone whenever me, an Indian-American, would do something that they consider non-Indian, saying, “this shameful girl, she has turned into an American.” According to my family back home, two of the most disgraceful things someone could do are, one, fashion, and two, being American.
According to my over analysis of my relationship with fashion, this was probably the starting point of me trying to move away from it. That, and living with two brothers who were constantly trying to belittle me and shame me of my femininity. Though, fashion, of course, isn’t just for women. Because of the factors introduced to me at a very young and impressionable age, I became a confused, half 'angrez', half desi 'tomboy'. My wardrobe consisted of XL graphic t-shirts and my brother’s hand-me-down pants. I assumed wearing cool skirts and shoes would make me too feminine, too 'angrez', too noticeable.
Tomboys (at least one facet for what I percieved as a tomboy) want to reject beauty standards that were pushed upon women. When people asked me, back when I went through this phase, if I were a tomboy, I would reluctantly answer, “yes.” Reluctantly because, for me, it wasn’t all about that. I didn’t just want to reject beauty standards women faced, I wanted to reject femininity and feminism as a whole, I wanted to reject my Indian heritage that I was so ashamed of, I wanted to reject myself. I wanted to camouflage into the sea of white I was always surrounded by; I just wanted to assimilate into western society, but by trying so hard I ended up, instead, hiding in the shadows, becoming less confident as the days flew by.
Time did pass, slowly and painfully, and other aspects of my life began to stabilise. After a full five years of this sort-of-tomboy, self-loathing phase, I was ready to start exploring my fashion choices and finally caring about what I looked like. But when I went on to websites and flipped through magazines, I saw zero women who looked like me, or even one aspect of me: a short, heavy, hairy, brown skinned woman. Even when I went through Indian designers’ websites, the women didn’t look like me. Although they were brown skinned (some barely brown passing), they were the embodiment of the western standard of beauty. Long, straight hair, pale skin, slim bodies, and extremely tall.
Representation is a form of validation for the 'others'; the minorities and for the bullied. I thought that if no one like me wore clothes I saw in fashion magazines, then I shouldn’t wear them because they would look horrible on me.
As a side note, I thank social media for noticing this issue, especially good body positivity accounts that personally helped me. I feel hopeful enough to say that by the time the next generation is being born, they will hopefully never feel like they can’t express themselves through fashion and art.
So, through various Instagram accounts and long, tear-felt talks with my mother, I slowly started to get comfortable with myself. I started wearing short shorts again in the summer, after seven years. My sense of fashion came from was what everyone else was wearing, and in the New York City high school I went to, it was just skin-tight leggings and a top from a generic store. I hated this: it was pricey, boring and I was not completely comfortable with my brown, thick body (I still am not).
The other issue was that everyone who knew me, knew the 'tomboy' old me. They couldn’t, even if they tried hard, really accept the new and improved me. The thing is, when your friends, who may or may not love you unconditionally, have seen you at your all time worst. They, whether or not they’d like to admit it, have a lot of power over you and your identity. So as you graduate and evolve from the dark times you went through, your friends still see you as the depressed, chubby brown girl who wore garbage bags to school. But I realised I couldn’t suppress my true self for the sake of a few people, who I may never speak to in a few years.
For a non-South Asian, this probably would have been the end of their relationship with fashion and self-acceptance. For me, someone who was surrounded by a world of explosive coloured saris, lehngas, palazzos and salwars all throughout her life, this was just the beginning. I think Western clothing looks terrible on my short, Punjabi body; I wanted to wear lehngas that Deepika Padukone wore in Bajirao Mastani.
I wanted to wear tikkas and bindis, I wanted to walk with my mehndi covered hands swinging in the air.
This was what I was used to when growing up, spending so much time in India. I wanted to decolonise my wardrobe, long before I knew there was an entire generation of South Asians from Western countries trying to do this exact thing.
Discussing fashion with my non-South Asian friends is difficult. They always ask me why I take my clothing choices so seriously and their criticism to heart. It’s because fashion is not just what I choose to wear on my body that looks aesthetically pleasing, fashion is another outlet of embracing my culture, it’s putting a visible declaration on display for everyone to see: “I am Indian and proud.” The clothes I wear are a second skin of brown, another added layer of acceptance. It’s my identity, my astitva.