The confines of a 'bikini body'
It is mournful how patriarchy has made women capable of denying themselves pleasure - out of fear, shame or internalisation - and even heaped on them the burden to uphold its oppressiveness
Two or three years ago, tired of wearing a second-hand, hand-me-down one-piece swimsuit, I went to a store on Linking Road to shop for a bikini. I found a hot pink one that contrasted radiantly against my skin.
Frankly, I was tired of that weighed-down feeling my belly had to put up with each time I got out of the sea or a pool. At the time I had been trying to unlearn my fear of water, so would go swimming more often. I didn't have a "bikini body" but I decided to prioritise my personal comfort over my fear of feeling shamed.
I began to embrace my experience of my body underwater, clothed in this hot pink two-piece. If I was able to look at flabby bodies that were anything but size-zero and find in them so much beauty, then surely I could see the same in my own non-ideal reflection.
Since then I had been trying to destroy this notion I had internalised of what constitutes this "ideal". The magazine industry and the media over-complicated what should have been a non-issue, with their annual body-shaming summer issues evangelising the cause of "bikini bodies", prescribing the best diets to achieve the perfect figure, or exercises aimed at customising one's flesh to make it more desirable. Within these pages were replicated images of "ideal" bodies that were hairless,
manicured, flat-bellied, with cleavage designed to attract the male gaze. It seemed as if the only point of wearing a swimsuit was to make male heads turn; as if you weren't entitled to sport one until and unless you had successfully arrived at such a state of body. For the longest time, I associated this article of clothing with shame.
Wearing the hot pink two-piece suit started to feel liberating. Not only was it comfortable, but I felt light underwater. I liked not having too much sand to rinse off later. But there were many moments when I'd be in the water on a beach in Goa, the one closest to our home, and I'd marvel at young girls and women who would go into the sea fully clothed, or with cotton or Denim shorts, or women who wouldn't even go in but would park themselves at the edge, hugging the shoreline and allowing only their feet to get wet.
I'd mourn for how much pleasure we, as patriarchally conditioned women, were capable of denying ourselves either out of fear of being shamed or because we had internalised the body-shame inherent to our societies. It always angered me to see men shamelessly frolicking in their underwear riding the waves while women stayed at a safe distance and stared either admonishingly or wistfully at people like me, or at foreign bikini-clad women, who dared to wear a practical outfit they'd been told was against 'Indian culture'; that the burden of upholding this oppressive culture still fell upon women.
Yesterday, I wore the same two-piece pink suit to the public swimming pool in Tramin — utterly gorgeous, with a view framed by the Alps, and with sections of grassy lawns for visitors to sun-bathe upon. We paid the entrance fee and found ourselves a spot under the shade of a tree. It was a marvellous day; sunny, yet lightly windy, and funnily, the water in the pool was cold, so much so that I couldn't be inside it for longer than a few minutes, but what I discovered was this most pleasurable feeling of going for a dip, then lying on the stone slab by the pool, with my face to the sky, allowing the sunlight to penetrate my skin.
I began feasting on the light. When I was by the pool, I surveyed all the different kinds of bodies that surrounded mine. I enjoyed how normal it was to be in a bathing suit, and I revelled in having the space to simply 'be', without the angst that accompanies shame.
Though I had books to read, each time we returned to our grassy nook, I'd lie flat on my red towel, positioning it such that I could bask in the glow. My legs felt warm, then my back, then I'd flip over so my face and my belly could be included in the experience. I was self-delighting.
There were moments when I curved my body as if I was praying, and I'd see a sliver of light between my thighs. It was not the same body that had been in the fitting room when I bought this two-piece. My commitment to daily exercise and my enjoyment of it meant that the bikini was now ill-fitting, lose around my chest and my waist. This was possibly my last time wearing it, in fact, and I found myself trying to take a selfie because I felt like for the first time in 35 years, I was encountering the particularity of my own beauty.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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