I dress for myself. Most days, I reach for my stick of kajal before I reach for my toothbrush. To me, it is how I differentiate waking up from going-right-back-to-bed.
Not respecting the freedom of one's wife or girlfriend to dress the way they please is an early indicator of an abusive relationship. As women, we tend to look past these taunts and barbs and admonitions about our clothes or the length and state of our hair. We forgive our boyfriends or husbands for their uncultivated tastes, their conservative choices, their religious upbringing, their rural origins or their political positions. At least I explained them all away as my ex-husband's adherence to a leftist ideology where wearing the cheapest clothes and footwear is seen as a hallmark of commitment.
Demanding that women dress or not dress a particular way is often a method of controlling them, of imposing authority and robbing them of their self-confidence and their self-hood. In the abusive relationship that I was caught in, my not wearing a dupatta when I stepped out of the house was a problem. My wearing cotton t-shirts or tights was a problem. I was mocked: "Do you buy your clothes by the kilo in Tirupur's export factories?" My lipstick, kajal, handbags all had to go - they were arrogant symbols of middle-classness. So was my choice of shoes.
My ex-husband would suggest that I must visit his college, a co-ed institution, and learn to dress by watching the "stylish Mangalore girls" as he called his students. When I reacted against such a humiliating and patronizing suggestion, he said it was a "crisis of jealousy". In an already violent marriage, I did not have the luxury of standing my ground or asserting my choice of clothing and make-up. From experience, I knew that a simple argument about clothes would quickly deteriorate into a beating and this simply made me change my style.
Choosing one's own clothes or choosing to wear make-up seems like one of the most trivial and banal topics in the world - yet, within the claustrophobic world of a violent marriage, its implications take on scary proportions. Clothing, and by extension, make up, become carefully curated, and 'correct' levels of modesty are meticulously achieved. A wrong choice of colour could result in a rain of blows or a dislocated shoulder.
All of this is maintained to placate an insecure man, calm the flights of imagination of a suspicious husband and to assert a mark of obedience to his whims and wishes. It is not just something that happened to me. To keep the glass menagerie of marriage intact, many women often start to pre-empt triggers of violence such as clothing. They start modifying their behaviour both inside the home and outside. The complete male-directed obsession and control over appearance and behaviour has a tremendous debilitating impact on women. In a slow erasure of their individuality, they begin to inhabit the mind of the abuser. They begin to dress to disappear.
Judgment on women who wear make-up, on women who wear high heels and carry stylish accessories is all around us. In her breakout film Cocktail, when Deepika Padukone plays the wild bad party girl, she is all short dresses, highlighted hair and heavy make-up. But when she pledges her heart to one man and tries to impress his family, she is found draped in salwar kurtas. Author Chimamanda Adichie publicly shared her fear of being taken less seriously if she wore make-up, before she embraced it as essential to her identity. When such judgmental attitude prevalent in wider society is concentrated within the walls of one's home, women's bodies are controlled and slut-shamed in horrendous ways.
This hyper, hate-filled reaction against women's bodies is because of men's inability to concede that women are equal to them intellectually, emotionally and politically. By reducing us to our bodies, and by imposing control or passing judgment on it, abusive men get a sense of fulfilment and superiority. We will not win this battle if we retreat into the shadows, if we check their boxes, and wear what they decide is the best for us. This applies equally to any scenario: whether the patriarchy stares at our faces in the privacy of our homes, or in the world outside.
Just days after I left my marriage, I bought myself kajal and lipstick. The kajal in the only shade that will do justice to my eyes: black. For the lipstick, I settled on a purple shade that holds hope and hides bitterness. Not the too cheery pink, not the too deep maroon. I wasn't meeting anyone, I wasn't going anywhere - no photos being taken, no special occasions, no television panel appearances - but I needed this. Reclaiming the part of me that had been erased during the months of marriage, an affirmation that I was still my own person - this simple autonomy that I could enjoy again set me free.
(Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator, and activist. Her book, 'When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife' is available on Amazon and Juggernaut.)
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