Women of India, Reclaim the Beaches!

have shorts will smoke

Image: tourmyindia.com

The following was submitted by SMIW reader Anuradha Ganapathy to our campaign #HaveShortsWillSmoke.

One look at the swimwear range available in India – and you know what is wrong with our country. From full-body lycra suits that double up as swim suits, to sleeves that cling onto your arms, to frilly frocks that hide your butt, it reeks of those two words women have grown up with – “Cover up”. Even if you are swimming in the water for God’s sake!

I once wrote on my blog that being a woman in India makes me angry a lot, but when it comes to being a woman on a beach in India, anger feels like a rather feeble emotion. Because only in India, is salwar-kameez more acceptable attire than swimwear on a beach!

Well let me start at the beginning. When I first entered the water in my twenties, I wore full length trousers and a T-shirt. It was a family trip to a nearby beach destination, and swimsuits didn’t figure in our vocabulary or wardrobe. And maybe, I would have continued in that attire if it wasn’t for the dress code that swimming pools had started enforcing, which forced me to buy my first swim suit. I still remember it. It was black in colour, covering more than it revealed, I don’t remember needing to even wax in order to be able to wear it. There, you get the point.

Slowly I graduated to something that looked more like a swimsuit. But I still didn’t choose the V shape, sticking instead to a rather unflattering Speedo design which went all the way down to the thighs. Buy the V shape, and wear it over cycling tights, friends told me. It was a little like getting tips for a wedding gown. What’s the point, would ask? “You can wear the V-shape (minus the tights) when you are abroad.” Ah yes, of course! Later, I discovered that unless you wore a two piece on beaches abroad, you would always feel like you were wearing too much clothing, a feeling you will never get in India. But I digress.

Coming back to India, my Speedo had now become second skin to me, and yet, every time I wore it on a beach when there were men around, I felt as alien as Aamir Khan did in PK, the only difference being he was naked, while I was not. And I swear, by the way men looked at me, I could have done with a radio to cover myself!

Then came the bikini. World over, a bikini is a regular attire that one wears to the beach. It goes perfectly well with muffin tops, love handles, and all the other euphemisms used to describe the cellulite that most women develop over the course of their lives. You don’t need to have that unattainable figure in order to wear a bikini, much like you don’t need to have it to wear denims. They come in all shapes and sizes and you just pick the one that suits your body type. Not in India though. Here, only Kingfisher calendar girls wear bikinis, and that too for photo shoots. 

I first wore a bikini on a beach in Goa, India – eight years ago. I thought I was being bold, but surprise surprise, the men were bolder. They graduated from staring from afar to coming and standing right next to you, shamelessly checking you out from top to bottom. Like the bikini was an open invitation to be objectified. “You bare your midriff, and you expect us to look the other way?” They seemed to be saying, – some with hands on their crotches. Themselves stripped down to their jockeys, it was easy to pass a verdict on who was more skimpily clad, but that’s not how the chromosome debate works right?

Surprisingly, or maybe not, nothing has changed. In Goa recently, I tested my hypothesis that the number of men on a beach is directly proportional to the number of bikini clad women. Turned out, the beach is indeed the perfect laboratory setting to predict human (read male) behaviour with a hundred percent accuracy. Pavlov would have been proud!

Each time we went into the water, the men would appear magically out of nowhere and flock towards the ocean, either to stand on the shore and stare, or to strip down to their bare essentials and come into the water. Some pretended like they were clicking pictures of the horizon. Maybe they were, but we were in no mood to trust (can you blame us?). One came so close that we were forced to move away. And age was no bar. College goers, middle aged, and even much older men, one of whom had someone like his grandson in tow. All like Pavlov’s dogs, retreating back to their spots with their tails tucked in, the minute we went back to our beach beds.

And here is the deal – much as you may be the progressive Indian woman who does not need a black plastic bag to carry a packet of Whisper, its hard not to be affected by such blatant intrusions on your personal space. You are torn between donning a thick skin (which means you fiercely ignore them) and taking the bull by its horns (which means staring right back at them) – both of which we did. Some walked away and some stood right there, like their feet were buried in the sand.

We stuck it out. Did what we wanted to, but always conscious of that lecherous male gaze peering over our shoulder. 

So yes, that’s my piece on the Curious Case of Swimwear on India’s beaches. I truly am way past arguments on choice, attire, public spaces, objectification, and every other topic that has been discussed in the gender debate, my point being; none of this is really debatable any more.

Equally true is that none of this is going to change easily. But keep going, ladies. There IS no other way. If you like it, wear it. Get a cold shoulder and a thick skin. Live it up. And reclaim your beaches!

Have Shorts. Will Smoke.

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  • I wear bikinis on beaches in Goa. At a pool, I wear swimsuits that leave my legs *gasp* completely bare, and sometimes I don’t even wax as well as I thought I did. But I can do those things because I’ve consciously made IDGAF my policy in life. I’ve found that, more often than not, if you stare back and walk towards a leering man with a hostile expression on your face, with a manly gait (no walking as if you’re in a box – swing your arms and flex your muscles, long strides), they won’t know what to do. But occasionally, you have to be prepared to kick accurately and run, too.

    Before I found this IDGAF philosophy, I once wore harem pants that reached by knees and a sleeveless T-shirt to a beach. A couple of brotherly men told me that it would’ve been good if I could’ve worn something longer and covered more. They were in dhotis folded up, of course. I don’t think they noticed the hypocrisy at all.

    But can we take a moment to acknowledge that men in underwear should never be acceptable on the beach? There’s an important difference in the material used to make swimwear and underwear, for men and women. Underwear turns translucent (if we’re lucky. If we’re not, tighty whiteys turn transparent.) Men prancing around in wet underwear is yet another way of letting us know that we don’t belong there. Bugger that. Take back the beaches.

  • This is almost my story!!! I have had the same experiences in Goa. However, I still feel you are braver because only after my partner’s encouragement and assurances that things will be fine, could I even dare to step into a bikini. And even though he was there with me at all times, I still couldn’t be comfortable because of the attitudes of the men of all ages as you’ve so accurately described. In fact, there came a point when we drove around to find a less popular beach so that I could relax in peace. I felt so helpless and still do but this is the sorry state of our country. Also, the times when I wore a bikini, the stares were not restricted males, however. Even aunty jis in their salwars and capris kept staring at the ‘easily available’ girl. Thanks for sharing your story. It feels nice to know that girls like us are still trying despite the odds stacked against us.

  • Lovely and so true. And by the way I do wear a speedo up to my thighs. And that is not all the minute I step out of water I need a. Ally standing there with a bathrobe for me too vanish into. Lol

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