A friend and I were going back and forth on the pros and cons of subsistence farming, comparing the POVs of the Indian farmer to the interest expressed in Western locavore circles, when I saw this article about kiddies around America running naked and freaking people out. And it fit in perfectly with a general pattern that’s struck me over the years, another one of those “everything old is new again” things, how you can put one situation in two countries and arrive at two entirely different results.
In India, of course, most toddlers seem to be clothing strictly optional although it’s not for lack of modesty or a commitment to new age body images. Like any other child on the planet, my family’s albums carry a full complement of photographs in which I’m either gloriously naked (ok, I have a diaper on) and clearly happy about it; or else I’m swaddled within an inch of my life (complete with woolly hat – in South India!) and my face is a sulky, oily, thundercloud as I sit grumpily on someone’s lap, staring up at the camera with eyes full of misery. It’s no wonder I started talking early – I probably wanted to be able to shout “Off!” everytime they came near me with those sweaters.
However, as far back as memory serves, my mother believed in clothing me from head to toe. I don’t know if this was prompted by any special feeling of modesty – knowing her, she probably just wanted to dress me up in pretty little frocks. Going shopping is a very clear, very early memory. But somewhere along the way, I remember her and my aunts telling me I needed to learn how to sit properly because I was flashing my panties all over the place.
One aunt told me the correct person to emulate when sitting down was Lady Diana, legs pressed discreetly together at all times, never crossed. “Sounds ridiuclous,” Young Amrita said, in blissful ignorance of Older Amrita’s meek submission to the rule. Another one would physically pull my legs down if I propped them up, the way I loved to do. All of them told me morning, noon and night that nice girls acted more ladylike and ladylike = no flashing panties. I ought to have grown up into Britney Spears just to show them all.
Of course, I never learned a social lesson easily when I could do it the hard way, so one fine day Ma came home with… wait for it! Bloomers! “For active little girls” apparently. I have no idea where the devil she got her hands on one, much less the half dozen she bought. Since my idea of “dressing” at the time was to stick my paw out the bathroom door and wait for Ma to put clothes in it, I even wore those things. But she didn’t give up on the lady training.
In retrospect, I think she was overcompensating for my lack of sisters. When she was my age and learning decorum, she had her elder sisters to look up to. In fact, there are times when I think my grandmother’s basic MO in raising her daughters was to raise the first two very strictly and then tell them to raise the rest of them in a similar manner. And having failed to provide me with proper feminine role models, she decided to take over the position herself… with a vengeance.
I’ve always thought her dedication to the affair was fairly wasted on me because by the time a girl enters middle school, there is a vast amount of peer pressure to act “like a grownup” which frequently means acting like a peculiarly Victorian ho. You know what I mean – on the one hand there is the need to be all girly and chaste and wouldn’t know the meaning of all those dirty things if you said them vs. the need to try out your budding sexuality. Girls who flashed their panties in seventh grade didn’t have a lot of friends, I can guarantee you that. The ones who were wearing bras, on the other hand, were very popular.
But where do we get those impulses in the first place? It has to be from our mothers/ mother figures. If we didn’t have a healthy fear of the female authority figures in our lives and what their opinion of our behavior would be, would tween girls be as teeth-jarringly, piously moralistic as they can be?