Negotiating Skin

Source: famouswonders.com/positano-on-the-amalfi-coast/

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.

Tailoring Troubles

I’m not one of those people who particularly likes to shop. It can definitely be fun with friends or family, but in that case, I enjoy the company rather than the shopping. I don’t like shopping for clothing, in particular, because I find it immensely frustrating. Finding clothing that fits right, is comfortable, and is well-priced is always a challenge.

In theory, tailoring should fix some of the difficulties of shopping. You can completely bypass the melt down that comes with lugging 15 different pairs of pants into the dressing room only to discover that none of them fit. I love the idea of having my clothing made just for me. In an ideal situation, the clothing looks good and is comfortable. There are no parts that are too loose or too tight; nothing is too long or too short. But in reality, I’ve found that my tailored clothing hasn’t lived up to its reputation.

Fabric at a Nepali clothing shop

When I was here for study abroad, I was living outside of the city in an area that had a small town center. There were a few shops that sold fabric and tailored clothing. One of my friends had developed a relationship with one of the shops in the town center and suggested that I go there. I wanted to buy a kurta suruwal (a shirt and pants, the Nepali equivalent of the salweer kameez), so I picked out some fabric, got measured, and had the shop owner sew it for me. I thought I was getting a great deal. The whole thing, with fabric and tailoring, cost 500 rupees, about 7 dollars at the time. I got the kurta suruwal and started wearing it around sometimes. One time I wore it to meet Tri’s parents. When his mom saw me, she looked at me funny.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. She walked over to me and started yanking the bottom of the shirt, trying to straighten it out. But to no avail.

“The whole shirt is crooked,” she replied.

And it was, but I hadn’t noticed until she pointed it out. Later, when I wanted to get another kurta suruwal sewn, I tried going to other little shop in the town center. Unfortunately, they made the armpits too small, and when I took the shirt back to have it resewn, they must not have understood me because they ended up making the waist area larger. The whole thing looked ridiculous on me, and I threw it out.

A woman wearing a kurta suruwal

When I was here before, I was living in rural areas and was washing my clothing by hand, so I wanted to wear comfortable and easy-to-wash kurta suruwals. But now that I’m in the city most of the time, I wear western clothing. However, I’ve tried to get some kurtas, Nepali shirts, made. I’ve had several shirts sewn at a place in the city, a supposedly fancier place than the shops I frequented before, but, again, I’ve had bad experiences. Both of the shirts were way to small in the shoulders. I had to take them back to the tailor to have them resewn. Even then, though, they didn’t do a great job. The fabric on one of those shirts bunches up in the middle and the other one is unwearable because the shoulders are still too small.

What is it? Am I a really weird shape or something? I think I’m a bit taller than the average Nepal woman, but with tailoring, size shouldn’t matter!

Last week I decided to try again. A few months ago, someone gave me the fabric for a kurta suruwal as a present, and I decided to get it sewn at a tailor that my friend recommended. We’ll see what happens…

Have any other women who have had things tailored experienced something similar? I love the idea of tailoring, but I’m feeling pretty negative about it right now. Is there a particular way I should be going about it? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

My Favorite T-shirts

Many older and married women here wear Nepali or Nepali-inspired dress on a daily basis. That might include a kurta (a shirt) with jeans, or more traditionally, a kurta suruwal or a sari for special occasions.

A lot of younger people and men wear Nepali style clothing for special occasions but usually wear Western shirts and pants.

Some of the shirts people wear have all sorts of funny and strange stuff on them.  Sometimes they have English written on them but with unusual spelling or grammar, like this one we found in a shop,

Sometimes the logos are really intense or almost scary. Here is our host in Kavre wearing a shirt with a skull on it,

And sometimes they just make for a good laugh,