By Mehak Walia
Have you ever wondered how to leave a lasting impression on people and win them over? Is it what you say, what you serve, what you wear or the way you carry yourself? The answer to this golden question is the easiest but often the hardest to believe - leaving a lasting impression depends entirely on one’s ability to be the most unique and unapologetic version of themselves. Sounds easier than it is, huh? Why do you think that is?
Well, this is, unfortunately, a product of the years of pressure put on us by society and our own family and friends. This pressure builds up into a box made of the tiny bricks of oppression, held together with a generous application of cement made up of ideals and rules, squeezing our identities into a neatly shaped, one-dimensional box. In this little brick house, identity, esteem and uniqueness will ultimately be sacrificed and buried alive. But how did we even get here?
You see, the self-image and identity of an individual are strongly shaped by the benchmarks set by the society they are born into or are living with and hence, at times, this dilutes the essence of a person, disallowing them from walking the path true to themselves and their individuality. This orthodox toxicity has slowly begun creeping into all aspects of our lives, including the blessing that we call fashion, which was created to express and appreciate our bodies and unique styles. Fashion both conforms to these ideals but also reinforces them, ending up being a gendered disaster that curbs the freedom of expression through clothing.
On top of that, the ‘shopping experience’ that was supposed to make our days shine brighter and our eyes replenish their twinkle, has now been turned into a retail mess with separate sections for men and women filled with gendered clothing and extraordinarily messed up executives that make you feel bad about everything. Your gender, size, style choices and expression are all subject to scrutiny, suppressing the masses and keeping us all in line with society’s little brick boxes that designate what we can and can’t be.
Luckily, a few diamonds in the rough grow stronger having been pushed down the path of self-exploration and originality, helping them own up to the beauty of uniqueness making them who they are. This is when they dare to stand up for themselves and for the others who identify with them as they go above and beyond to crush the boxes and make way for imperfect perfection with a hint of colour, ink, rebellion and bold fashion.
The Binary Bias
India being the diverse nation that it is, has had a rich history of gender representation and acceptance dating back to the Delhi Sultanate. Yet, as people who have been taught and conditioned to follow the herd, we tend to stick with what feels widely accepted and comfortable. This is precisely why the binary concept of gender (male and female) was awarded the ‘ideal’ crown, thereby making any other gender or identity ‘abnormal’ or ‘unacceptable’. These ideas have been enforced, inculcated and conditioned into the minds of the youth and carried through generations..
We see this adopted in the fashion industry on a daily basis, where the very basics of clothes - the designs, styles and even the colours - were segregated and gendered thereby creating more boxes for us to fit into. The “Binary Bias” has unfortunately been the norm for too long and while change is happening, it will take a lot of hits to knock down the brick house.
Fashion, far from always being glitz and glamour, has been critiqued over decades for its lack of representation and sticking to exclusivity when it comes to size, race and gender identities. It's ironic, since the fashion industry was supposed to cater to the ‘wild one’ inside each of us and help us express our hearts as well as bare our souls with everything from clothes, cosmetics to accessories, yet seems to be taking forever to broaden its horizons and let go of the binary concept of gender.
But maybe change has finally reached their door with some catwalks more recently following social movements and getting on board. Over the last five years, a greater number of gender non-conforming styles and models have graced the runways. Names such as Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France, RuPaul, Rani KoHEnur, Maya The Drag Queen, Priyanka Paul and so many more have become major names in the fashion world. In a review of 2,327 show castings in New York Fashion Week Spring 2020, The Fashion Post found that there were 36 gender-inclusive castings (1.55%) across 19 New York shows. This includes 24 openly transgender and 12 non-binary models, such as drag queen West Dakota, Maya Monès and activist Jari Jones. Whilst this is a super small number, it is still an increase from Fall 2019.
Evidently, knocking down the brick house of fashion can’t be done with one big huff-and-puff, but is more like a slow-paced game of Jenga. One by one a piece is removed until the whole thing comes tumbling down. A big part of that is the increase of gender diversity across social media, shining the spotlight on some of the people who are taking the pieces from the Jenga tower.
“Society has always created boxes, even in terms of fashion. There are so many barriers. Barriers to celebrating your authenticity. Barriers to wearing what your soul wants. Barriers asking you to follow only what "they" tell you to follow. It’s high time we let every human being wear whatever they think liberates them irrespective of their gender or sexuality,” stated Yuvi (@yuvi.groovy), a 16-year-old influencer who believes in breaking the gender norms and de-gendering fashion along with celebrating his individuality authentically with a touch of ‘extra’.
“Fashion and society are slightly interlinked. If a major part of society decides to wear a specific outfit, the fashion industry will emphasise that particular area. Fashion benefits and stimulates society. Garments are items made by people with a clear distinction between male and female which show the socially constructed nature of gender differences,” commented Yuvi. He further added, “When you try to break the norms of society, there are huge amounts of criticism and hate that are thrown at you. My fashion statement is filled with androgyny which in itself is a strong statement against the heteronormative society. Hate comments and slurs are common but the good part is that the love always outshines the hate!”
“We need to educate them about the LGBT community, genders and sexualities. Also, we have to understand that different style statements do not mean that the person has to be of alternative sexuality. Remember, fashion definitely in itself can be a form of rebellion. By fashion, we can say NO to the illogical norms of society. We can celebrate our individuality while challenging and changing them. I believe spreading awareness and representation is the hardcore first key. The more representation visually, the more it becomes normal and acceptable in society. I use my social media platforms to spread positive representation and be yourself unapologetically,” said Yuvi with a proud smile.
“Society loves to divide things and people into boxes. I guess that's because it's their way of sorting things out. It's a general habit of keeping things less chaotic as we do with the stuff in our houses. This habit of putting things in boxes very well reflects fashion too. A simple example of this would be the fact that clothing stores have men and women sections separated and if a man goes in the women's section, everyone starts gawking at him. Men usually have to give clarifications for doing so by stating that this is for my wife or girlfriend or some other woman in my life,” said Divya Roop aka Divine Scarlett (@_divyaroop_), a drag artist and gender non-conforming person who believes that her style statement is majorly androgynous. “I strongly prefer a non-binary style in terms of clothing, accessories, makeup, etc,” she added.
“My style is either too feminine for the people or they are just uncomfortable with the idea that someone does not give a damn about their opinion. So, since their feelings get hurt thinking their opinion is of no value, they feel the best thing to do is be the ‘kid in kindergarten’ and revolt back. They do this by telling me that my style or dressing sense is wrong and that I should be laughed at. I think the best way to deal with them is just to ignore them. Let them know that their opinion is still not valuable!” she said.
Shattering Social Norms with Self-Love
Part of the brick house is also body inclusivity, and despite the growing movement, fatphobia is still a societal norm integrated into much of our culture. Almost 89% of people in India have at least once been through a phase in life where they have been body-shamed or bullied. Apparently, you can never be quite the right size - in fact, Indian fashion seems to push this further by creating a very painful shopping experience as there is a lack of sizes or good styles that cater to everyone.
“I think as being a plus-size model, there is a lot of change required in the fashion industry. We need more validation. It's so disheartening that a huge brand doesn’t have sizes for girls like us. We also deserve the same type of clothes and patterns and styles which small, medium and large girls get. I love wearing crop tops and it’s my general type. My whole wardrobe is filled with crop tops and I am so fascinated by their style and I love myself when I am in a crop top but the world is not kind to me,” said Ishmita (ishmitapuri), an 18-year-old plus-size blogger, content creator and body-positive influencer.
Ishmita added, “My size was one of the reasons why I hated going shopping because I knew that I would get disappointed and not get my size. I always felt rejected, going to every shop asking for some cute top and then getting the judgement, "We don't have this in your size" "Your size is not available.”
“It was always a struggle, finding something which suits me and makes me happy but also in my size. I always loved fashion, dressing up and observing new trendy clothes even though I usually didn't use to get my size and rejection was always hard to accept, I think that fashion is evolving and there a lot of plus size girls who are achieving heights in the fashion industry but overall, we still need acceptance and sizes available on all huge or mediocre brands!” she rightly demanded.
Crushing it with Art and Colour
The beautiful thing about expression is that it isn’t just done through fashion, but through the other hallmarks of our appearance that we choose to display. Often frowned upon by Indian society, tattoos, piercings, body modifications and bold hair colours, are seen as unnatural and not ‘ideal’ too. Undoubtedly, this is intrusive as our bodies represent us, they are to be used as a canvas to project our unique identities, beliefs, dreams and personalities.
“Society might have its terms to define what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of how we represent ourselves. Still, it comes down to the individual as to how he/ she wants to represent or keep himself/herself. Someone who seeks approval from the others might mould accordingly whereas someone who’d require only their approval shall experience true freedom,” said Tattoographer Karan (@tattoographer), the first and most modified and tattooed Indian on the planet (with a Guinness World Record to prove it!)
India has had a diverse history and it has had its own versions of body art with tribal marks, traditional engravings and Mehendi, along with colourful hair colours adorned by the royals Yet society seems to be stuck upon the past rather than embracing and appreciating the modern age with open arms.
“Numerous people whose existence I like to keep myself unaware about have tried to make me feel differently about my decisions about all of my modifications; some thousands of negative comments can be viewed under my YouTube videos. It’s their own opinion, their likes and dislikes which is none of my concern. They are free to comment and I take no offence. I don’t let anyone’s hate or love get to my head,” he added.
He continued, “I have reached a place where I don’t give even a second of my time, thought or energy to someone trying to extend anything negative towards me because they don’t deserve it. I deserve all my time, thoughts and energy which I’d rather invest in myself and my goals than wasting on someone’s negative mindset. The decisions I took for me were driven by my own likings and passion.”
“I believe that society loves to put everything into boxes. Like, okay you’re young so you can dress a certain way but you’re old so you have to dress a certain way because of gender, age, sexuality etc. and I believe that fashion is beyond these boxes and it’s not meant to be kept in a box- everyone can express themselves however they want to and the society makes it very difficult to do so,” comments Yushika Jolly (@yushikajolly), the founder of ‘Paradyes’ (@birdsofparadyes), India’s first vegan semi-permanent hair colour brand which comes in 9 bold colours and is here to change the narrative around hair colouring among the Indian audience.
She further added, “In my case, I have always coloured my hair in funky colours - red, blue, green, yellow - and people always give me the eyes for it but I try not to pay head to it since it’s been so long. But earlier, I used to get a lot of questions, ‘oh this is a very different hair colour, why?’ and people wouldn’t directly say anything but they would make indirect comments about it. It is because they don’t dislike it but it makes them uncomfortable since it’s not normal and anything new makes them uncomfortable, they feel like it’s their right to comment on it. Although times are slowly changing there are a lot of people who appreciate it also like oh! I love how you carry this colour.”
Yushika added, “I feel like in India there is a notion that colours are not ‘sanskari’, there are moral values attached to your hair. I don’t know how they came up with it but it exists. I believe you can do anything you want; it is your hair and you can do anything you want with it, it’s on your head, why should others have a say in it. Indian people haven’t been presented with enough opportunities and enough colours in the market so they weren’t thinking about doing something like this but now, they do have an option with Paradyes and they can make an informed decision!”
If makeup makes you feel gorgeous, crop tops make you feel self-love, bold hair colours make you feel like yourself and tattoos make you feel beautiful then so be it. Show it off with pride as you stand up and let the masses know that you choose to be different and are not afraid to embrace it while being true to who you are. It's time to take back the control that we have unwittingly handed over to society and be our natural and unapologetically authentic selves. Self-love always starts within. If you, as an individual, wish to step out of these ‘ideal’ boxes imposed on you by society, it’s time to follow in the footsteps of Ishmita, Yuvi, Yushika, and the others like them. Celebrate your life, self, identity and body and shatter them with self-love!
About the author
Mehak Walia is a writer who loves to use her words to create the rare merge of storytelling, correctness, readability and clarity. She has also written four (fiction) books and has been a part of various anthologies- short stories and poetry. Follow her on Instagram at @mehakwalia28