Half-saree was still the official dress for most teenagers in Madras in the early 70s. (Pic courtesy:Kenny Wordsmith.)
Girls from liberal families wore western clothing. Salwar-kameezes were still not very popular. Mass produced salwar sets hadn’t begun flooding the market and local tailors lacked the skill to stitch them. Plump heroines in Tamil films sported tight versions of this 'north Indian' dress in duet songs which emphasized their fake breasts and fat thighs so much that they were definitely not a favorite with middle-class parents. I am pretty positive that I could have persuaded my conservative parents to let me wear a loose kurta over jeans rather than one of those salwar suits.
When I was growing up, middle class parents had just one rule by which they decided what their girls could wear. Anything that did not show off their shape in a flattering light was acceptable. I am reminded of my friend Anuradha who was an irrepressible rebel. When we were about 14, she wanted to wear tee shirts over her trousers which set off a volcano in her house. After losing the fight she told us “My mother thinks it is my fault I have breasts”. We laughed but soon I began to notice a similar subtext in the statements that my grandmother or mother made about how a woman is supposed to carry herself or walk. ‘Don’t push your chest outside. walk modestly’. When we were in class 7 and 8, the class teacher would have a talk with some of the girls and a few days later they would come wearing half-sarees. This went on till we reached class 9 when half-saree was compulsory for everyone. We experienced freedom only on the games field where we were allowed to wear divided skirts and a loose shirt. Otherwise we hid the contours of our frame behind 3 metres of cloth which covered us over the long skirt and long blouse.
When I was about 18 an older friend asked me if I had ever seen myself in the mirror without clothes and I was shocked that she could talk like that. Of course I had not. And I was not sure I could even do it because there was a kind of shame and fear associated with one’s body . It was safer behind those layers of clothing. But in college there were many times that I wished I could wear western clothing and ‘belong’ to the hep crowd. Many of us wished we were flatter so we could venture beyond the half-sari and wear smart western clothing. Like Anuradha said it seemed that it was our fault that we had breasts.
Looking back I can laugh at these memories. There was a time when I would have cringed to use the word ‘breast’ in public and here I am writing about it in a public blog. Our perception of our body and exposure norms have changed a lot in these 3 decades. Today people have no hesitation about flaunting their cleavages or wearing tight clothing to show off their shape and size. Breast implants and enhancement procedures have become as common as laser treatment for excess hair. I laugh thinking of the time when we would have been happy to delay the growth of mammaries just to be free from the restrictions that society around us imposed on us.
The dhavani or half-saree symbolized our suppression or lack of pride in our forms.
I didn't realize that there would come a time when I'd actually be grateful for the concept of a half-saree.
On friday, there was a documentary on national geographic channel on body modifications in different cultures and times . They showed the neck rings used by the Kayan tribe of Tibeto_burmese origin now living in Thailand.
and the footbinding custom that was prevalent in China for a long time.
While the former is largely voluntary and footbinding is not prevalent anymore, I was shocked to learn hear about a practice called breast-ironing practised in western Africa.
Breast ironing is exactly what it says - the flattening of a young girls’ breasts with a hot and heavy wooden rod or stone to push the breast muscles back in order to delay their development. YOu can see in the picture some of the tools used in the process and they are usually heated before applying on the breast
But why this brutality? Mothers subject their daughters to this barbarity in order to delay breast growth in their daughters in order to prevent rape and early marriage. Even when they feel their pain, they think it is for their own good in the long run.
"Before this breast band, my mother used the grinding stone—heated in the fire—to massage my chest. Every night my mother examines my chest (and) massages me, sometimes with the pestle," Matia adds. "Although I cry hard because of the pain, she tells me: 'Endure, my daughter; you are young and there is no point in having breasts at your age'."
Josaine Matia, 11 years old
This is precisely what I saw in the visual in the documentary and the victim didn’t even look like she was 11.
Read on more here:
The study also gives the following facts:
Some 24 per cent of girls in Cameroon, about one girl in four, undergo breast ironing..
Breast ironing occurs extensively in the 10 provinces throughout Cameroon.sample survey published in January 2006 of 5000 girls and women aged between 10 and 82 in Cameroon, estimates that 4 million women had suffered the process.
Today, 3.8 million teenagers are threatened with the practice.
Up to 53 per cent of women and girls interviewed in the coastal Littoral province in the southeast, where the country's main port, Douala, is situated, admit to having had their breasts 'ironed'.
More than half (58 per cent) of cases breast ironing were undertaken by mothers. Other relatives also participate
The documentary was traumatic. It brought back memories of my own childhood and the difficulty in coming to terms with the changes in one’s own body made more difficult by the society’s ideas about a woman’s body at that time - that the more attractive it is, the more vulnerable it made its owner to predatory males. Men could not be trusted to obey rules so it was the woman’s responsibility not to attract their attention.
The ideas themselves were not very different from those of the Cameroon mothers. And I am grateful that in my culture they came up with the half-saree as the solution even though a wooden pestle was readily available in my ancestor’s backyard too.
Here's a video on the subject: