February 22, 2020
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The Body Impolitic

She may be all body. But the raw female is to be invisible.

The Body Impolitic
Illustration by Saahil: Inspired by Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
The Body Impolitic

I was struggling into my bra when Saba called on my cellphone. I had a choice: I could take that call and fasten my bra later. Or—and that’s the choice I did make—I could fasten the obstinate clasp, feel more secure, and call her back. These seemingly inconsequential, small but significant choices a woman makes every waking hour define the quality of her life far more significantly than all the other, more ‘important’, much ‘bigger’ issues. It wasn’t just about the bra, of course. I was running a little late for an important appointment and couldn’t find the right footwear...it had been ‘bor­rowed’ by a daughter. I should have iro­ned the new jacket from the flea market, but hadn’t. It was hanging like a limp, shapeless shroud around my shoulders. My mind ought to have been sharply foc­used on the content of the lecture I was to deliver half an hour later. But it was making sure I didn’t forget to throw my cellphone into the over-stuffed tote...ohh, and the reading glasses! As usual, I had to rush back from the elevator to locate them—come on, come on, come on.... I had been scanning the headlines moments ago...where the hell was the bloody chashma? I retrieved it from under the wet towel I’d carelessly thrown on an unmade bed (damn!), I’d also forgotten to switch off the fan. Both lapses are seen as cardinal sins in my husband’s book. When I finally  got into the car and called the organisers to say I was running 10 minutes late, making the standard Mumbai monsoon excuse everybody understands and accepts (“hideous traffic, flooded streets”), my slightly flustered words were met with an embarra­ssed interruption as a young man stuttered, “It’s perfectly okay, ma’am...you see, your lecture is scheduled for tomorrow.” Oh heavens! I really could have taken Saba’s call and forgotten all about the bra.

Most women go through life severely sleep-deprived, especially if they’ve rai­sed children. Most are mildly, even sev­e­rely malnourished, sometimes without­­ rea­lising it. Most neglect their own med­ical issues, big ones and small ones. Most refuse to acknowledge that they are ever tired, bone-tired. Most postpone key personal decisions if they feel those clash with family interests. Most spend their entire adult lives feeling guilty about something or the other. Most suppress their true selves, so afraid are they of rej­ection. Most play-act, especially with their sexual partners. Most suffer from low self-worth, no matter how successful the world thinks they are. They do all of this hiding behind invisible screens.

The big picture involving women’s position/rights is a very familiar one. It takes care of itself or not—clumsily, or otherwise. But the world carries on. Women spend their lives ‘managing’ something or the other—rarely ‘living’. Rarely thinking about their own potential. Rarely making a decision that is exclusively theirs (“She’s so selfish. She’s so heartless! She only thinks of herself...”). Is there something wrong with ‘herself’?

Illustration by Saahil

Women are never really, really naked, even when they don’t have a stitch on. Women in all cultures in fact live in purdah.

It is the smallest, most intimate mom­e­nts of a woman’s dom­estic life that tell the real story. Look closely at any woman. Your mother, for starters. She’s the one woman whose ‘lit­tle things’ you will have the best access to. When you study her little things, and you put those tiny pieces together, then perhaps you will see the woman in totality. Women are pretty adept at scrupulously concealing their ‘little things’, afraid their secrets may reveal too much about their minds and hearts. Women are never really, really naked, even when they don’t have a stitch on. They also don’t like their own nakedness too much. And are convinced they’d be cruelly mocked if caught minus a cover, at least over their modesty. We are too embarrassed to say we need to pee when we do! Or defecate. Or defoliate....

What they indulge in when they think no one’s looking is significantly different from the public persona the world obser­ves, judges. Everything about a woman changes when she believes she is alone and unobserved, even her breathing patt­ern. Her body language alters when nob­ody is around...and she automatically relaxes her thighs. If you ever walk in on a woman who is one hundred per cent sure she is not being watched, notice the position of her legs. Generally, her knees will be apart, letting in fresh air to the one area of her body that rarely receives any. A woman’s conditioning is such (“keep your legs together, put your legs down, cover your knees...”). Little girls of two and three are taught this mantra and made acutely aware that something very precious lies between their legs. Some­thing they have to fiercely guard and protect. Nobody bothers to explain to them what that ‘precious’ thing really is and why they must protect it. Often they are warned it is dirty and dangerous to even think about ‘that part’. There is an unspoken threat...an unstated menace...and for the rest of their lives, women feel unsure about their sexuality and its power over them. There are times when I feel like screaming, “See! See! See! What do you want to see? Breasts? Legs? My most private self? Shoulders? Butt­ocks? Dekh lo! And then leave me alone.”

Ideally, women are expected to lead inv­isible lives...born invisible...die invisible. Our laughter is invisible. So are our tears. Our struggles are invisible—unless they are big ones, but even those become invisible after a point. What isn’t invisible about our lives? Invisible stress. Invisible grief. Invisible joys. Women spend their lives ‘managing’ something or the other—rarely ‘living’. Rarely thinking about their own potential. Rarely making a decision that is exclusively theirs. Our smallest triumphs have to stay invisible.

Menstruation was the biggest ‘invisible’. When I was growing up, it was never to be discussed. There was such shame surrounding ‘that time’ of the month, even the smallest giveaway (a tiny stain on the school uniform, a  packet of sanitary  towels lying around) was made into a disgraceful incident. An incident that left countless little girls scarred for life. The appearance of budding breasts used to cause alarm in families (“Oh God! Already! But you aren’t even 11 yet...”) as if it was all the little girl’s fault. As if she had somehow shamed her family by maturing early. As if she was a potential threat to the family’s honour.

Women in all cultures live in purdah, whether it exists physically or not. It is the invisible purdah that is much harder to leave behind. It requires a greater level of subterfuge and stealth.

To get back to the obstinate bra I star­ted out with—women can’t have their undergarments strewn carelessly in full sight of others. Bras, panties have to be kept hidden from view. Even our undergarments have to be invisible for society to feel less uncomfortable. With almost all aspects of our inner and outer lives shielded from public gaze, I do wonder what will happen to the world if we decided one fine day to reveal ourselves in all our abundant glory? Shall we?

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