Women Uninterrupted is an inter-generational podcast bringing you difficult, different, and uninterrupted conversations about being a woman.
In Season 2, Episode 4, a mother discusses her apprehensions about the ‘revealing’ clothes that children wear and a teenager shares how these concerns can be communicated better by parents.
Host: Anna; Guests: Navina & Neha
Editing: Tasmin; Title music: The Carpet Beat by Maya
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Why I am not allowed to wear certain outfits: a pre-teen’s analysis
by Maya Dwaraka, 12
My mom does not allow me to wear crop tops and micro shorts for many reasons.
One of them is that where I live, Bangalore, is not very safe. My mom told me people can sexually harass me if I am not careful, and the chances increase if I wear short clothes with my stomach or any other body parts showing. All my friends wear crop tops while I am not allowed. That is unfair to me as children want to look cool and keep up with new trends.
But I understand what my mom means.
Recently I travelled to Singapore to visit my aunt and my mom told me I can carry all the short clothes I had. I asked her why she allowed me to wear them in Singapore and not in Bangalore. She told me that Singapore is a much safer place than India. For example, parents in Singapore allow their children to travel alone by taxi while in Bangalore, parents of 12-year-olds are reluctant to send their children in a taxi alone.
Sometimes I wonder what if India were as safe as Singapore.
Full text of the conversation
The text has been edited for clarity
Neha: Welcome to Women Uninterrupted, the space where we host difficult conversations between different generations of women.
Anna: Hello, I’m your host Anna on Women Uninterrupted. With me, I have Navina, who is back from work and she is still in office wear. I also have Neha: she is wearing comfortable after-school clothes. That’s a cropped t-shirt and leggings.
Note to all future podcast guests, I don’t usually describe what you’re wearing but this episode is about how different generations have different perceptions on what’s appropriate, and what’s inappropriate in clothing. And we’re talking about it today on this show because clothing choices are one of the power struggles we have with others. Parents struggle with children, men with women. For instance, you could be a woman walking down a public street, and an absolute stranger will give you his opinion on what you should or should not be wearing. With Navina, it’s a struggle, a conflict, that she has faced in her classroom. Over to Navina.
Navina: Hi, Anna, hi, Neha. I’m glad we’re talking about this. I teach public speaking to middle and high school children...and I’m conflicted at times as to, you know, whether I want to take a feminist stance or whether I want to take a realist stance. I consider myself a realist. So when I have these eighth-graders, you know, hormones raging…when you have these girls who are wearing revealing clothes, and when they walk into the class, I find that the boys just turn to stare at the girl and I’ve completely lost them. I’m the teacher and I’m talking in class, but when a girl who’s a little, you know, it may not be politically correct to use the word skimpy, but maybe we’ll say it’s all relative…so, relative to what girls normally wear - fully clothed in jeans or something - if you’re wearing very short shorts, and when you walk into the classroom, the boys have stopped paying attention to what the teacher is saying. As a teacher, I do wonder whether the girls can probably dress a little bit more appropriate to an educational setting.
Neha: Hi, Navina auntie. So personally, even in my school, the teachers are always like, “Oh, the boys can’t focus.” And they sort of, like, put all of the blame on the girls. And I get that, you know, girls should sort of understand, like, be aware of what they’re wearing. Especially in school and stuff, you shouldn’t obviously be dressing how you would to a pub.
But at the same time, I think a lot of times people sort of generalise the situation, because they’re like, oh, all boys do this, all boys do that. I think a lot of it reflects (on) how they’ve grown up, because for example…once I went out, and some of my guy friends were there. And there was a stranger, a random guy, who was staring. But all of these guys, like, my friends, they went up to him. And they started saying, you know, this is super uncomfortable for her.
So I think that it really depends on the values that you have as a person, because there are some guys that would sort of, you know, keep staring, keep making comments and things like that. But there are also others who sort of understand, especially if they’ve grown up with sisters, or good connections to their mothers; they sort of understand the situation from the girl’s perspective as well. And they don’t really make those sorts of remarks.
Navina: Neha, I have a question to ask you. Let’s say you’re in a working space, right, where what you can do, your competency, your capability, your ability to think: all of these are coming into play. And whether you like it or not, in today’s highly sexualised society, (in which) the images that claim certain things are sexy, like, let’s say, a woman showing certain body parts is considered sexy, right? And women are comfortable about showing them in certain situations. I feel it’s contextual and I wanted to know what you think about when you walk into a space where you want your thoughts to be heard, where you want your voice to be heard - are you okay with even some boys focusing on your body rather than on your mind?
Neha: No, see, I get that but I think that a lot of times, even take like rape, for example…they’ve made it such a blame-the-victim type of thing instead of the perpetrator.
Navina: But you didn’t answer my question.
Neha: No, yeah. So in this case, obviously, I agree. Like, personally, if I was going for an interview or something, I’d obviously dress appropriately, right? But I think that even for women who don’t… right now, men are still, you know, sort of perverted in their own way…but I’m saying that ideologically, people shouldn’t be that way. Like, you know, they should start appreciating what a woman has to say, instead of just appreciating her for the body parts she’s showing or the clothes she’s wearing. So I think that obviously in work and things like that, that is important. But then again, I think that a lot of times, even when you’re going out casually, a lot of people you see will keep constantly making these remarks about what you’re wearing for no reason. It’s unwarranted. And they just keep doing that.
Navina: Do you think it’s a question of…see, you mentioned the word appropriate, right? I think that’s where the issue comes, when across the generations we are talking. I think where we draw the line…when I say we, (it’s) the older generation…probably draws the line of what is appropriate. Or maybe it’s not age-related. Maybe like you said, it’s about where you were raised, how you were raised, right? Where I draw the line on what is appropriate may not be where you draw the line. So in that case, what is appropriate? Like, today, I’m wearing pants, but when I was growing up, pants were considered inappropriate for a woman. It was considered even outrageous, and I could not take public transport growing up in Chennai in pants. I would feel everybody is staring at me. Today, we wouldn’t bat an eyelid on that. So when you say appropriate, is that like a moving target?
Neha: I think that like, obviously it differs, right? Like, I was talking to Anna as well. And she was like, jeans and pants…I think that’s like the new crop top. And obviously, maybe in 20 years, it’s gonna be something else. That’s the difference, right? For example, my dad, he started working in Facebook, which is a more youth company. So he goes to office in a suit and all of that and everyone’s sitting there in jeans. Sometimes, like all of these adults, like even my mom, when I’m going out, she’s like, “What are you wearing?” But then at the same time, my friends or other people my age are like, “Oh, that’s so cute.” So I think that’s where the different perspectives come in. It’s not just men who make these remarks, right? Even women sort of judge other women for the clothes that they wear.
Anna: Yeah, so judging is the issue here. What we’re wearing should be our personal choice. And the only situation where someone can legitimately lay down boundaries is perhaps when you’re a parent. And then along with all the other parenting things you do, you guide the girl child as well as the boy child on how to dress appropriately for different occasions, and different cultures. I think, as a parent, we could change our conversations, and our approach to clothing guidance. It kicks off the whole victim blame game when we tell the girl child that she is asking for it because of what she is wearing, that she is responsible for the male gaze.
Navina: Maybe it will always be finally a personal choice and how much of a risk you’re prepared to take to be judged. Some of us may not be okay to be judged, right? You know, we just wear something conservative so that at least I’m not being judged; I’m not being looked at. That’s one thing. Also the risk part of it, right: as a teenager, I’m sure it’s okay to wear a crop top and go to, you know, a restaurant, but if you’re going alone and you’re taking a cab at, say, 9 pm, it might not be the smartest choice to make. What do you think about that?
Neha: Yeah, I think definitely people should be more self-aware, in that obviously, like, if it’s 2 am at night, you don’t want to come back wearing very revealing clothes.
Navina: That was such an interesting difference in perspective. I said 9 pm, and she said 2 am, so we seem to be having a disagreement even on what hour is unsafe (laughs).
Anna: I think the onus is on the society around us to not react. I mean, let’s be a safe society and respect other human beings.
Navina: But Anna, I will disagree with you on that and say that: So today, if I’m sending my daughter who’s 20 years old…okay, she’s obviously an adult, she can make her decisions…
Navina: So I am going to be worried for her, you know, if she is dressed skimpier than the normal population, or what people are not used to, because the way I’m looking at it, I can’t change the world in a day. So today, I feel she is at risk. So I’m going to say: in India, please cover up because the society is not used to this, I’m okay with you dressing this way in Singapore or in any other country where the safety of the woman is assured or the safety of the woman is guaranteed. But in a place where it’s not, I don’t want to be the pioneer who’s risking my child’s safety for that. I’m not here to change society. I’m here to safeguard my child.
Neha: I think that the problem really is the way it’s communicated. Because mothers or even other people, right, they’ll just so quickly judge you without really explaining why and then that’s what stays in your head. But if you sit down and have a genuine conversation, like what we’re doing right now, where it’s like, “Oh, it’s not you. There’s no blame on you. It’s more about the society that we’re in right now, the country that we’re in right now. And you know, in other places, like maybe when you go off to college in another country or things like that, it’s completely fine.” I think then girls won’t rebel that much. Like, they’ll respect that ideology more and sort of, you know, also begin to dress a little more conservative.
Anna: How long do you think a parent can really control the child and what she is wearing? Neha, you said something about…well, the more you’re controlled, the more you rebel.
Neha: Yeah, I think that’s a very child-like mindset, no matter how much we try to avoid it. A lot of children, as much as parents put restrictions…it’s in your nature to sort of rebel against it. But I think the way it’s communicated is really important. And I think that maybe once you go to college, parents won’t have that much of a say, because to be fair, you will be in another place, right? But then again, there are some parents who will, you know, call you up and be like, “Oh, what are you wearing today” types.
Anna: I know children who will go out and they’ll have stuff in their bags. You can go for a sleepover and change into something else, and that defeats the point.
Navina (laughs): We had that when we were growing up as well. That doesn’t change, right…those things don’t change.
Anna: This is a larger conversation. It is not just about what we’re wearing. It is about society, and how we can change society. We can change it one day at a time.
Navina: It has changed, right?
Anna: It has changed, yeah. I think (in) the next generation, you might be telling your child, “Don’t wear…” I don’t know what it could be…I can’t think of anything right now…
Neha: …like a bralette!
Navina: I think it’s stemming from the primary issue that for too long, a woman’s body has been sexualised. Like, you know, women don’t see men as being more sexy just because they wear shorts instead of pants. But the reverse is not true. So we have sexualised the female form for too long that any changes that happen to it - there’s a lot of focus, there’s a lot of judging, there’s a lot of expecting-to-be-aroused kind of thing. Whereas I don’t think women - women are also sexual beings - we are not drawn to a man’s form. We don’t care about whether he is wearing a tank or full sleeve: wear whatever you want. So why is it so acceptable for a man to wear whatever he wants, and dress to comfort, whereas for a woman, the smallest change she makes: it could be something as simple as unbuttoning one button of your shirt - it’s highly sexualised. So I think de-sexualising the female form is the larger goal if we truly want to get to, you know, equality between the sexes,
Anna: You’re on your way to changing the world (laughs)
Navina: Yeah. And for that, yeah, I agree media, and the way movies are taken, like, you know…my daughter today, when she looks at many of the Tamil movies she says, “This is sexual harassment, you know, the guy looking you up and down…it’s just in-your-face harassment.” So until we change all of those conversations, desexualising the female form is going to be the way to go.
Anna: Or rather, we could speak up against the male gaze. There’s no excuse for the male gaze. Women are entitled to…we have a right to our sexuality. Showing skin is no excuse for a lack of safety and anyway, who determines how much skin is safe for a woman? What we need instead, I think, are public spaces occupied by more women doing their own thing safely. There’ll be a day when we will not bat an eyelid at a crop top in the same way that we embrace a sari. Thank you, Navina. Thank you, Neha. Signing off from Women Uninterrupted, the intergenerational space for difficult conversations brought to you by The Hindu.