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.