15: The Land of Legs
By Paige Wagar
*Beep beep beep*
I’m not sure why I even set an alarm. With only three days stateside under my belt, my sleep schedule is far from aptly adjusted. I am up at 4am and ready for bed at 6pm. Nonetheless, my 7:30am alarm means that it is time to get on with the day. I jump out of bed and peek out my windows, assessing the weather before deciding on an outfit for the day. Rays of sunlight practically blind my not-yet-adjusted eyes. Another beautifully sunny summer day in Southern California. And here prompts adjustment number one to life after India… legs.
From the moment I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, there were legs everywhere! My sister greeted me in the shortest shorts I had seen in four months and the skirt my mom was wearing at the airport showed knees. Knees! I wanted to rush them out of public as soon as possible! People were probably staring. What were they thinking? After a thirty second mental explosion of disbelief I was able to reign in my thoughts and bring myself back to reality, back to California, back to the Land of Legs.
Southern California summer style is casual and simple, easy, breezy, and leggy. Short shorts and even shorter rompers, dresses that depending on the length of one’s torso are more appropriately known as shirts. And being that I live in a laid-back town of beach bums and surfers, when meandering the lanes closest to the sandy shores of the Pacific, more often than not shirts are the only requirement. Here, our definition of socially acceptable coverage is rather liberal especially when compared to the dress code of Kotagiri.
I turn to my drawer and pick up a pair of shorts. High-waisted, acid wash denim that ends just above mid-thigh. These shorts have seen many a beach day and were my go-to weekend attire for most of high school. But today, now, something feels off about them. They seem so… short. Despite knowing that my plans for the day don’t even necessitate leaving the house, these shorts feel risqué. Such a stark contrast to the comfort and modesty of Kotagiri’s kurtas. I place the shorts back in the drawer among their other leggy companions, and pull out a pair of worn denim jeans that ends just above my ankles.
I struggled with the dress code of the Nilgiris. A moral dilemma that, even after three months, never went resolved. At the onset of the semester, I worked hard to keep my frustrations with the dress code to myself. I wouldn’t say that I am the most fashion-savvy, but I suppose that my upbringing in Southern California – a region where fashion is a particularly unique form of self-expression – my reaction to the limitations of dress was nonetheless understandable. I recognize that my response to the clothing of Kotagiri is directly due to the stark difference between the culture of clothing in Southern California and Southern India; my upbringing in a culture of bikinis, denim cut-offs, and strapless dresses informs my opinion on acceptable exposure.
I wore a sleeveless shirt into town one day. I wasn’t bare-shouldered, I draped my shawl in a way that hid my upper arms from the streets of Kotagiri. Retrospectively, it was a rather foolish decision; I let the temperature make my decision on how to dress that day. And though I was substantially cooler than I would have been in a kurta with its ¾ sleeves, I was substantially more self-conscious. As I walked into town, it was as if the wandering eyes of passerby’s could see through my shawl. They knew. To add to the experience, when crossing an intersection a stray gust of afternoon wind caught the edge of my shawl just right and lifted it up, exposing my bare shoulder. In that moment, I swear everyone in Kotagiri was staring upon me. I was self-conscious, embarrassed; I felt violated. And above all, I was frustrated by my shame. All because of a bare arm.
As my time in India progressed, I was able to identify that it wasn’t simply the new restrictions on acceptable clothing that I was frustrated with, it was my inability to override my response to these newly imposed limitations with my desire to recognize and respect the culture of Kotagiri that frustrated me. I was frustrated at my frustration.
And so, I was torn. I wanted so badly to assimilate into the day-to-day life at Keystone to the best of my ability, but I also felt that I was committing a disrespect to my personal beliefs as a passionate feminist. How dare The Man tell me to cover myself! Internal dialogues along these lines played through my head for the duration of my time in Kotagiri. The dynamic it reflects characterized my relationship with the clothing I wore while in India: the devoted and angry feminist who is frustrated with the restrictive dress codes imposed on women of the world by tradition.
What fascinates me most about my post-India aversion to legs, and skin in general, is my belief that people should be free to dress as they please free of judgement and ridicule. And here I am, astounded and shocked by those who choose to wear Daisy Dukes. After only four short months, I had begun to internalize the expectations and social norms of Kotagiri despite never consciously abandoning my fervent belief that decisions on how one chooses to present themselves to the world should not be regulated by societal pressures. I suppose it provides a curious commentary on the strength of social norms and the impact of culture on individual thought. Dynamics that I would have previously agreed are quite powerful, but I had never experienced such a salient moment that highlights their influence.
I’m sure exposed legs will work their way back into my comfort zone as time passes, but I don’t know if I will ever forget the feeling of the eyes of onlookers on my shoulder at that intersection in Kotagiri. Judgment, curiosity, mortification, shame. All because of a few inches of bare skin.