This summer, my best friend Erin visited me in India. We explored my hometown New Delhi, visited nearby cities like Jaipur and even attempted to hit up the gym all of 2 times! It was an amazing experience and an enlightening cross-cultural exchange. What was purely a pleasure trip gave us both a lot of insights into cultural differences in modesty.
I had reinforced the idea to Erin about dressing ‘appropriately” and I elaborated: ‘like Indian girls do’. Respectfully, she showed up day after day in jeans and a shirt that covered every inch of her body. After Erin decided to wear shorts on a blazing hot day to the gym, she was met with invasive and unwarranted stares from men as we walked down the street.
Our conversations for the rest of the day invariably circled back to what the definition of ‘dressing conservatively’ is in India and in the US. At first, Erin expressed dismay for me having to live by someone else’s guidelines on how to dress. But through discussion, we realized the unconscious dress codes within her own culture as well. We all follow societal guidelines no matter where we live, but they are so ingrained within our minds that we think of them as our own. In the United States, showing midriff is usually only worn by young girls in a “going out” situation, and definitely would raise a few eyebrows and a disapproving glance or two if worn in certain places. However, in India, one of the most common types of dress is the sari, worn by women of all ages that shows portions of the midriff and back. When Erin first saw middle-aged women in India wearing this type of dress to a wedding, she was taken aback.
Why is it that the showing of legs is a lot more scandalous than the showing of arms in India? Why is it the other way round in the US? Do we somehow feel safer if we avoid the gaze of men around us? If we cover an extra limb? And most importantly, why does ‘dressing conservatively’ even exist as a concept for women worldwide?
We realized that the surface area of skin we exposed was not a personal choice, but determined by our surroundings.
The backlash against dress codes are certainly on the rise in the United States, with many high school students protesting for the right to choose their own hemlines, and the viral #freethenipple campaign.
How we dress reflects the society we live in, and at a deeper level, the minds and hearts of the people that form our society. What we wear is a huge expression of our sense of self.
So what does it mean to be a woman in a world where our wardrobe is, to different extents, decided by social norms? It means an unclear understanding of who we are.