By Deborah Grey Jun. 02, 2017
Baywatch, the TV series, set something in motion back in the ’90s. It made desi millennials like me increasingly comfortable with visible cleavage and exposed midriffs.
“Maine sex dekha,” announced Prateek with an almost-evil glint in his eyes. The other 12-year-olds in the classroom promptly surrounded him, urging him to share what exactly he saw. “Foreigner logon ka bhi ek Juhu beach hai. Waha snow-white ladkiyaan chhote chhote red dress mein apna sex dikhaati hain. Maine dekha hai,” he said, a smug look appearing on his face.
“You idiot, that’s Baywatch. It’s a show about lifeguards in America,” said Neha, whacking Prateek on the back of his head with her Sanskrit vyaakaran book. “They save people from drowning. There is no sex on the show,” she continued, as I excitedly joined in the whacking with my Kishore Bharti textbook. The class monitor ran to the staff room to complain about boys doing “haww-wali baatein” to our sports teacher, who had conducted a basic sex-education class oddly titled “Moral Science” just a few weeks ago.
The other girls and I looked at Prateek pitilessly, as he was made to kneel down next to the dustbin for the rest of the day. After school we all surrounded Neha, to find out how she knew so much about the show, and if she was telling the truth about sex (because a 12-year-old has clear priorities). “Well, I did not see the show. Papa said, ‘It is for adults.’ But I saw the promo during an ad break,” she explained. “Par sex dekha kya,” asked another girl, clutching Neha’s arm and digging her nails into it in excitement. “No yaar,” said Neha, blushing deeply. “I don’t think they show sex on TV. Maybe a kiss or two,” I said, wondering what Prateek was referring to when he said he saw “sex”.
“English pyaar ko sex bolte hain,” Vidya helpfully explained to the rest of the group whose understanding of “sex” was based on a few fast-forwarded scenes from Hollywood movies. “I think Prateek was talking about bikinis,” she added, causing all of us to break into a fit of giggles, as we figured that he thought “sex” referred to how a woman’s body was exposed in a bikini. I made my friend Arti make a pinky promise that she wouldn’t watch Baywatch without me.
A year later, Arti kept her word and we watched our first episode of Baywatch together at her house when her parents were away. It was a bit of a let-down. Sure, there were a lot of bikini-clad women, but there was no sex or even a kiss unless you count CPR. But it was the first time “good girls” like us had broken a rule. (It was even more exciting than stealing one of Arti’s father’s cigarettes, which we promptly put back because neither of us had the guts to smoke it.) Then I confessed to Arti, “I’d love to grow up and look like CJ Parker.” What I really wanted was to sprout breasts and go blonde, so that some boy would pay attention to me some day. I was the boring class topper who had braces. Boys only approached me when they wanted help with their homework or wanted me to forge their parents’ signatures on report cards.
I finally bought my first bikini at the age of 16, but did not have the guts to wear it on an Indian beach until I turned 18.
I didn’t know it then, but Baywatch had set something else in motion. Beyond the immediate desire to look like CJ Parker, desi millennials like me were becoming increasingly comfortable with visible cleavage and exposed midriffs. When I turned 15 and finally sprouted breasts, I decided it was time to buy myself my first bikini. I remember falling in love with a bright yellow one in a store in Bandra, Mumbai. But my shopping companion was a mean girl who pointed out that I had a flat ass and a bikini deserved a better body than mine. My self-esteem wasn’t quite bulletproof at the time, and though I did not exactly burst into tears, I didn’t buy myself a bikini that day.
As I grew older I realised that for the Indian mindset, bikinis are no different from a “bra and panty”. In a way this explains why men feel comfortable flaunting Amul Machos on Goa’s beaches. While, thanks to Baywatch we’ve grown comfortable with showing cleavage, wearing hot pants, halter-necks, and bodycon dresses, the bikini still remains the final frontier in the battle against being body conscious. Somehow, we’re unable to cross it.
I finally bought my first bikini at the age of 16, but did not have the guts to wear it on an Indian beach until I turned 18. It took a lot of will to overcome my distaste for creepy boys, who took pictures of bikini-clad women and hissed, “free show” or “sexy”. The rulebook for desi girls in bikinis dictates instant slut-shaming. I grew a thick skin as aunties eyed my Baywatch babe avatar and wondered out loud, “Maybe she is trying to make extra income”, linking the lack of fabric on my body to my (allegedly) missing moral compass. Interestingly, the same aunties never had any comments for white tourists who wore skimpier swimsuits than us. The jibes didn’t always come from strangers. I remember a friend once told me with a grin, while we were vacationing in Goa, “Bilkul slut lag rahi hai. Obscenity ka charge laga ke andar kar denge tujhe!”
Today, I credit Baywatch for introducing me to strong and confident women like CJ Parker who were competent professionals and sexy to boot! I know Baywatch was often dismissed as a stupid show that sexualised and objectified women. But to me, CJ Parker was more than a lifeguard – she was a woman unapologetic about her body. She helped me make peace with my flat ass and it was Alexandra Paul’s Stephanie Holden and her athletic frame that inspired me to focus on staying healthy. I ditched the measuring tape and went running every morning. When I ran, I’d sing the title song from Baywatch in my head:
“Some people stand in the darkness,
Afraid to step into the light.
Some people need to help somebody,
When the edge of surrender’s in sight…”