By Preeti Vangani Aug. 23, 2019
I’ve grown up never seeing my mother bare her body in front of me. And, this personal modesty rubbed off on me when I started swimming lessons. It was only in a ladies’ locker room in San Francisco, where I saw women in different stages of undress, did I realise it was okay to be comfortable in and with my body.
Ifirst tried to learn swimming in 2010. I was 24, recently broken up, had eaten one too many late-night orders of Chinese bhel and needed to feel sexier. It was a public pool near my house. Low-priced, Olympic-sized, a perfectly good place for kids to piss in and then deny it. In my first semi-private lesson, my teacher insisted I wear a full-sleeved swim top under my already conservative black one-piece swimming costume. “But I am wearing sunscreen sir, don’t worry,” I said, floating in the deep end, trying to keep my butt raised while clutching onto the railing like it was my ex. The coach replied, “Sun is okay, but what about the harm from boys?” He was right, protecting my body from the male gaze is obviously more important than saving my skin from cancer.
But I was determined to learn. I bought the swim shirt. My swimming didn’t get any better. Even though I stupendously sucked at learning the butterfly, I remember feeling most comfortable in and with my body, only when I was deep under water. It was only then that my body – with all its dents and bulges – not feel observed, not even by me.
When I try to trace back the origin of this personal shade of modesty that I employ to my body, I think of the time when I lived with my parents in our two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. Even before my chest showed a grape-sized sign of developing breasts, I had to follow an unspoken rule: call out to my mother from within the bathroom when I was done taking a shower every morning. “Mummy, ho gaya,” I’d yell, spring-rolling my wet self tightly inside a king-sized towel, thrice my body’s size. This was her cue to report at the door like a security guard and escort me to my room, exactly seven footsteps away. Then, she would shut my room’s door at flash-speed to ensure no male member of our house or the occasional repairman got a chance to see a girl who surprise surprise, bathes every day.
As I buttoned my uniform’s blouse and rolled my socks up to my knees, she’d often make promises as she plaited my hair that one day when we renovated the house, she’d make sure I get a bathroom attached to my room. My period came much before the promised renovation. Now that I was a “grown woman”, she insisted that I lug all my clothes in and get fully dressed inside the small, steam-filled bathroom. By the time I’d towel dry myself, I was bathing in my own salty Bombay sweat. After several incidents of me emerging in half-wet jeans or a freshly ironed blouse with sweat patches, we arrived at a midway solution. I’d now come out wearing the top of my night suit and the giant towel wrapped around my waist. Somewhere in the little passageway between our bathroom and my room, shame must have grown inside me like an accidental plant.
Even though I stupendously sucked at learning the butterfly, I remember feeling most comfortable in and with my body, only when I was deep under water.
When Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge hit the screens, I found a way to dance with this shame. After every shower, I transformed myself into Kajol, mimicking her towel dance move. “Apna hai ya begana hai woh,” (“Is my lover my own or someone estranged?”) Kajol wondered. “Is my body my own or is it someone estranged?” is what I used to ask myself repeatedly, as I tucked the end of a towel around myself. “Chhup chhup ke phir kyun rehta hai woh” (Why then must it hide so much?) the song goes on.
In the years since, I’ve often wondered about this conundrum. I realise I have no clear memory of ever seeing my mumma’s bare body. In the off chance that I entered her room when she changed, she’d cover herself with a heap of clothes or motion with her finger, head halfway through a kurta, for me to turn around. I like to call this act “building a modesty fortress”. At home, between my mother and I, we called my unmentionable pee and poo bits – “neechey” (down) and “peeche” (behind) and my breasts was simply called my “chhaati” or my chest. I suspect all these euphemisms have had a big role in watering the shame that I feel while trying to see my body for what it is. These admissible stand-in phrases, boasted roughly the same levels of hurt as fat-free butter options.
In 2018, I decided to give swimming a second chance. I was 32, single again, grown as used to break-ups as one does to periods and in the market to find an exercise regime that’d allow me to eat more loaves of gourmet bread. This time around, I was in San Francisco, at a private school’s pool with a woman instructor but still alongside kids who also urinated during the hourly lesson. I remember entering the ladies’ locker room with a rented towel, thinking of strategies to build my own modesty fortress so I could slip into my swimsuit. After scouting the space for a “least exposure” spot, I chose the row of lockers closest to the entry door to the pool. I fashioned my towel into a curtain, hanging it over the locker door, keeping guard to see if anyone was looking at me as I changed.
Over the next few months, I started getting accustomed to seeing women in different stages of undress, some more discreet than others. But all going about their businesses – drying their hair, rolling on deodorant, singing terribly in the shower or clipping their toenails as casually as releasing farts when you’re alone.
I wish there was a world in which we weren’t compelled to have denied each other the true vocabularies of our bodies.
Compared to them, I was a slow learner. It took me over six months to just about graduate from the shallow lane to the medium lane. But I am an even slower unlearner. After decades of obsessively tucking my stomach in for photos, I now often find myself forgetting to pitch my towel-tent while changing and don’t compulsively wait by the aisles until the spot in the farthest corner of the pool becomes available.
One afternoon, while I was walking to the pool, clutching my towel to my chest like it was my firstborn, a woman complimented me on my swimsuit, “You look stunning in it.” I was in that same black one-piece, this time without the undershirt. I found myself mentally dancing to the pleasure that comes from having your body seen, and not feeling embarrassed or apologetic about it. What do you call the opposite of a preoccupied mind state? The state of the bodies that I encountered in the locker room, especially the older women felt like something similar. I saw armpit hair, pubes, and varicose veins. Tattoos and stretch marks and sunburns. Piercings and cellulose and surgery marks and a lady with a C-section scar. My mother had a similar scar, except I’d never seen it.
It is very probable that these women were also secretly fighting with their bodies; for all I know, they could have signed up for hot yoga classes to lose their pregnancy fat in record days or maybe some of them are bulimic. But to witness and experience that there is a relatively public room – slippery and cramped – where for a few fleeting minutes, I can walk around without the hyper-awareness that I am the front row audience to my own body slowly began to feel like a silver lining.
My room back home now has a bathroom inside it, comforts of which my mum never experienced and I do only occasionally. I wish there was a world in which we weren’t compelled to have denied each other the true vocabularies of our bodies. It wouldn’t have changed a lot, but it would have drawn us slightly together, like an attached bathroom is to a room. Perhaps then, we could have been parent and child with seven fewer awkward footsteps between.
Preeti Vangani is a writer, poet and spoken word artist. Fuelled by films and chai, she is currently an MFA (Poetry) student at the University of San Francisco.