I recently returned from a trip to Arunachal Pradesh with the Wilson College Nature Club. It was a trek, and these guys do the hardcore stuff in life, especially on treks. So I decided, before leaving for the trek, to cut my hair short. It seemed like a logical choice, since I was about to go on a trip without warm water to bathe in for days on end. I had not, for one second, imagined the kind of repercussions that would bring on. My boyfriend was with me when I got the cut, and he wasn’t entirely happy with the fact that I got it cut so short. But by the time we both left the salon, he quite liked it. When we got to his house, his mother actually told me it looked really good and suited me better than long hair. I texted mom, “I got a haircut!” Her response? “Oh dear. Show me.”
A few days later, I met my mother and extended family. Given her love-hate relationship with my rebellious personality, my mother smiled, shook her head and hugged me. The others casually told it’s too short ‘for a girl’. The disapproval was, though well intended, evident. I smiled and left it at that. Just an hour after that, my grandmother said it suited my personality because I’d always been a ‘tomboy’. I laughed and, once again, left it at that. At the lunch table, my various hairstyles became the topic of discussion, followed by how thin I am and the various possible reasons why, and finally wandered off on a tangent. We left for the trek, finally, and reactions from the group were mixed. Some thought it looked great and went on to tell me I should try going bald ‘since I had the guts to do that’; some pretty much expected something like that from me; some others outright ridiculed it because “you look like a guy!” When we stopped over at Howrah station after almost three days of travelling in the same clothes without bathing. I decided to go to the ladies bathrooms on the station to wash my hair. Three women at the entrance freaked out and stopped me thinking I was a guy. Their gazes went about a foot below my face and they immediately burst into awkward giggles, apologised profusely and allowed me in.
During the trek, one of the younger girls went to the extent of telling me I’m too thin, I need to put on weight and “at least grow some boobs!” I dismissed it by telling her smaller ones are just much more convenient but for the most part I was just astounded. For the remainder of the trek, prickly responses kept popping up in my head no matter how hard I tried to shove them away.
A few days after we got here, I was to meet a few ex-colleagues and my boyfriend to chill for the day. I pulled on a pair of shorts and my favourite band tee, and left. I took a ric and the weirdest thing happened. Asking for directions, the ric driver said, “Ma... umm… kaunsi taraf?” I told him to turn left, and he turned to me and asked, “Aap madam hi ho na? Sorry mai puch raha hoon lekin galat bolne se achha puch loon! Bura mat maan na! (You are a woman, right? I’m sorry for asking, but I’d rather ask than say the wrong thing! Please don’t feel offended!” I laughed and told him I was definitely a woman; I’d just chopped off my hair because of the heat. Again, for the most part, I didn’t know how to react.
Later, on the same day, my hairstyle and dress sense came into discussion and one of my female ex-colleagues actually said “I know this is going to be very insulting, but Janhavi, your boobs are just too small.” She said that in the presence of a male friend and my boyfriend, while walking down a crowded uptown street. I dismissed her comment with a simple “I know, but I swear they’re more convenient,” but my boyfriend stood rooted to the spot with a disbelieving look on his face. “I’m sorry, what the hell did she just say? I’m not going to just take that!” I urged him to move on, while telling him that she’d said it knowing it was insulting, and I didn’t want to discuss it any further. I was seething inside and I wanted to say a lot of things to her, but I didn’t. I’m still not entirely sure why, but at that moment I just didn’t.
I wonder what gives people the right to discuss me like that. I know my family doesn’t mean any harm and they’re just pulling my leg or they’re seriously worried about my health when they discuss my body type. I’m not new to the comments on my hair, my ‘tomboyish’ behaviour or even my dress sense. I’ve grown up being told to walk, talk, sit, stand and even eat in a particular manner that was always vaguely described. The general message was always that I should be more ‘like a girl’. I’ve never questioned the intention, I know it’s always good, but I’ve always had problems understanding what was wrong with the way I was. They’ve never been mean or derisive about any of this; I’m sure they don’t even know that it hurts me every single time I’m told to do something differently. But while their behaviour is disturbing, it pales in comparison to what the others make me feel.
I cannot begin to fathom what makes people think they can talk to or about me like that. Furthermore, I don’t even know how to react to the fact that the only time a man (who isn’t a relative) has brought up my gender identity in relation to my physical appearance, he’s been apologetic and careful not to hurt me, while the women have pretty much gone out of their way to hurt and insult. It makes me question the culture we’re surrounded by. It makes me ask for ONE good reason why I should not rebel against this mindlessness. Women objectifying women, families and friends reinforcing senseless stereotypes that undermine a person’s self-esteem and confidence… this is not going to lead anywhere nice. This is not a world I want to bring my kids into. I know it needs to change, and I know I need to start being that change by not smiling, laughing or shrugging it away when it happens. For now, I’m going to try and break away from the shackles that keep me from doing that.