Negotiating Skin


In fifth grade, my parents took me and my brothers to the rocky beaches of Italy. One day when we went down to the water, I was utterly shocked to see grown women casually going topless, lying on their blankets, sunbathing, and swimming in such a public place. In the US, from just a wee age, girls (even female babies) are often expected to cover up on top, whether there’s anything to cover or not, at least at the places and beaches I frequented. It’s silly really, but what I was used to. I remember one time when I was at my grandparents’ house as a kid, my grandmother had let my brothers take off their shirts in the hot whether while we were playing baseball outside. My feminist 7-year-old self insisted that I too would take off my shirt in the heat. And I did. But really, I’m quite modest and uncomfortable when it comes to showing skin. I’ve never felt at ease wearing short shorts and bakinis, although I used to wear skirts and pants to the knee pretty frequently and bathing suits at the beach.

Before I came here, I suspected that women in Nepal would be fairly covered, but I found out that it really depends on where you are. Women in urban areas generally cover their legs, but more and more, you see girls and women wearing shorts or very short skirts. In rural areas, older women sometimes bathe bare chested, and it’s really not a big deal. Then, of course, there’s the sari. You can wear it without showing any mid-section, but many women do show at least some of their stomachs.

Some people in Nepal are able to get away with showing more skin, but I have taken a fairly conservative route while living here. Since people already assume all sorts of things about me as a foreigner, I didn’t want to give them any fodder to fuel their opinions, so I’ve always tried to wear simple and conservative pieces that don’t show a lot of skin. Especially as a married woman. If I were to go around in shorts, I would get stares and possibly scowls from those who know me (at least that’s the impression I get).

The other day we had to wear a sari to school for our class photos. I was dreading it because I don’t particularly like wearing them. I only have one, and it’s quite heavy and hard to walk in, but all the other teachers were planning to wear saris, and I didn’t want to be the odd one out. I mind saris not only because they can be uncomfortable but also because they show the stomach. I always feel very exposed in one. I suppose I could tie it in a way that would allow me to cover more of my midriff, but that’s more of a trend among matronly women, and I think people would be bugging me to tie it in a different way. In many places in the US, it’s moderately inapropriate to be walking around with your stomach showing (outside of the beach or another area where people are wearing bathing suits), so I understand where my discomfort comes from, but I’m not sure why I can’t just loosen up and not worry about it.

Where does this leave me? I think I’m caught between American customs and Nepali ones. I’m not comfortable doing it the way I used to, wearing shorts and skirts that at least come to the knee, but I can’t fully adopt the Nepali system either. I don’t want to be so averse to showing my skin, especially when it’s hot out and more comfortable to wear lighter clothing that’s less prone to covering skin. Maybe I I’ll relax a bit when we get back to the US and can find a system that feels both appropriate and comfortable.

5 thoughts on “Negotiating Skin

  1. You look really nice in your sari picture above.

    I also dress pretty conservative. I never wear bikini, and I rarely wear shorts unless I’m jogging. In the summer I usually wear capri pants or knee length skirts.

    Over the weekend P and I went to his cousin’s bratabandha in Wisconsin and P’s mom insisted I wear the new sari I received as a wedding present. It is a beautiful sari, but it is the newer “net” sari that is gaining popularity, and it is pretty much see-through. I felt relatively uncomfortable all day wearing it because I knew everyone could see my stomach, and it made me feel out of shape and exposed. I spent the whole day sucking in my stomach!

    • I saw your sari on fb, and I love it! I see how it could feel exposing though. Are the net saris lighter than other saris? The one I’m wearing above is freaking heavy. I need to go shopping for a lighter one…

  2. be comfortable with your uncomfortableness! Years of social training can’t be undone in a day!! To this day, I feel weird exposing my legs…even when it’s friggin hot (did you know it’s 88 degrees in good Ole Missoura right now!?!), I sport the jeans because I’d rather take the heat than the overwhelming self-consciousness. I’ve found that taking it slow and moving gradually has helped (wore long skirts, then cut-offs…maybe I’ll make it to shorts eventually? Jesus, I sound like a never-nude >> A sari is more all-or-nothing (you either show your midriff or you don’t really), but you can try positioning differently!

    This reminds me of the college scholarship contest where high school students make prom clothes from duck tape. (see link above)
    Clothing sends very subtle and complicated messages about the status of the wearer. It is popular now for rich Americans to wear clothes that don’t look expensive but send subtle messages about the class of the wearer. The rules about showing skin in the U.S. have gotten more difficult to follow but the highest status people are free to be modest or eccentric but if they want respect, they tend to dress more conservatively.

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