“Is this the best dress you have?” he asked me on our first date with embarrassment at being seen in public with me. That was my first date ever, and I had put a lot of effort into getting ready for the evening. My friend had helped me get dressed with the best she had for my size. I remember my relationship with that guy: how conscious I used to be about what I wore every time I met him. There was always a pressure to look desirable within moral codes of respectability, especially when we would meet his friends. The pressure is still there, and not just from romantic partners. But I am navigating around them in my own ways.
I come from a family that considers any one of its members’ regularly spending on themselves lavish living. I, on the other hand, tend to feel differently from them about certain things, monetary and otherwise. And I choose to earn to support those differences rather than place the burden of my choices on my family. The part-time work I do gives me a sense of pride and responsibility towards myself and towards my parents, too, to a certain extent. More importantly, I don’t have to answer to anyone about how I spend my money.
This way, I have largely been able to manage my share of expenditure on dates and other outings. However, there have been times when some bills have turned out to be too much of a shock to my budget, and I have wished that my date could make it all better by just footing the entire thing. But, bound by pride and principles, I rarely ask for the favour. The times when my date has casually taken care of the expenses, I have felt cared for without feeling less of an ‘independent’ person.
The thought of going out with people to places I’ll never be able to pay at scares me. Not just with dating, I also find it difficult to be around friends who are more well-to-do than I am. I sometimes fail to see myself as ‘sufficient’ or ‘complete’ around them when I see them having things I don’t. What follows are my attempts to either make peace with the feeling of not having, or to buy things to make up for the feeling of lack.
I remember the first time I went to a lounge in Delhi’s trendy Hauz Khas Village with a group of friends. These get-togethers at expensive nightclubs have always been a matter of worry for me, not because of the sense of futility I feel about them, but because they remind me that this is a kind of lifestyle I don’t have access to, and that I come from an orthodox family where women are not exposed to such cosmopolitan spaces and cultures of recreation.
Deciding what to wear suddenly becomes too much of a task to bear, primarily out of a pressure to look ‘modern’ and aspiring-to-be-upper-class. And the struggle doesn’t stop there; once the clothes are decided, I suddenly realise that I do not have ‘suitable’ footwear to go with them. And then there has to be accessorising in just the right amount – a calculation I have never been able to master, since too much of it apparently might make me seem like a ‘wannabe’.
The entire ‘getting ready’ process consumes me with thoughts such as: Should I wear some stockings if the dress is ‘too short’? That way, I can easily move out of the house without much interference, and I won’t look ‘slutty’. But then, I also want to show off my body. I want to see what it is to not cover parts of my body in public. But then there is this whole fuss about ‘carrying off’ what you wear and ‘pulling it off’. What does that even mean? Is wearing something different from ‘carrying it off’?
My experiences of sharing intimate spaces with female friends have evoked in me the need for self-grooming and using cosmetic products. In the clear difference between their ‘getting ready’ and mine, I could not help but look up to them, in which of course my limited exposure to popular culture also has its role to play. I would sometimes resort to just ‘being myself’ and see things as different approaches to life. However, occasional mocking at my ‘un-femininity’, my friends’ efforts in dressing me up (which I have seen as gestures of ‘care’ and ‘concern’ on their part), and the fact that they were seen and approached by more men than I was, changed my notions of beauty and desirability.
The kind of dating proposals I get are mostly from guys who I have tended to categorise as ‘unattractive’. For a very long time my notions of attractiveness have been around stereotypes of fair skin, a toned body, and charming ways of holding conversations. Though I have always believed in prioritising personhood over looks (to a large extent, I do believe that the two should be seen separately), this prioritising itself sometimes seems to me to be a cover-up of my own feelings of undesirability. There are rushes of adrenaline at the thought of ‘hooking up’ with conventionally sexy and attractive men, which I believe also comes from wanting what one hasn’t had. So, I end up spending a large part of my income in living up to these notions of femininity that I see around me, trying to be more desirable.
From my experience of being at the receiving end of this snap judgment of desirability, and seeing what a loss it is of getting to know people as persons instead of cardboard images, I realise how unjust this approach is towards seeking companions (which doesn’t necessarily mean romantic partners). This is not how I would want to be seen. I have been missing out on a lot of sexual, emotional and intellectual stimulation by reducing a person’s attractiveness to these notions.
Also, my ideas have changed with the exposure I have got through cinema and books to different ways of living and thinking. I no longer go by popular notions of physical attractiveness when I seek partners. Allowing for abstraction and subjectivity around ideas of beauty and desirability gives me space and openness to explore what I personally see as beautiful, desirable, sexy and attractive, thereby also facilitating my explorations of my sexuality.
There are occasions when I deliberately choose to dress up in a particular manner for some people and occasions. We have our own ways of showing excitement, affection and importance, and ‘dressing up’ for people is one of them. There are also times when I swing between anxiety and reassurance around why I invest in relationships in ways that are essentially self-evaluating and materialistic. Nonetheless, this is what the journey is all about – our journeys of knowing and accepting ourselves, standing by our beliefs and principles, and also questioning them through introspection.
Cover image taken from What’s Up