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
Yaounde, Cameroon

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:
(Thanks Praveen.)
48 Responses
  1. Unknown Says:

    Usha I think its a primordial fear most mothers have of their daughters being subjected to uncouth comments and perhaps even physical assault. This terrible repression continues in our country too .I have seen schools advocating the use of bras plus sports bras over them for 11 year old when only a sports bra would suffice .This goes by the name of "modesty".
    On the subject of the half saree yes I miss the sight of Tam girls in half sarees and jasmine strands in their oiled braids which was such a common sight in the neighbourhood of my childhood.And yes I remember too my friend K Vidya in her "bodice" and blouse and the dupatta of the half saree draped over it .

  2. Praveen Says:

    that breast ironing is so scary! and they do it to kids!!

    There was this smart gal at my workplace. She wears pretty decent clothes, not once have I seen her wearing something provocative. And this editor was checking her out one day. She realised he was looking and simply got up and announced to the 22 odd people sitting in the office room "Guys and gals, M just can't take his gaze off my boobs".
    That guy did'nt know where to go and hide.

    my granny's brain would have frozen hearing that. times sure are changing.

    And yes Paavadai daavani are beautiful on women :)

  3. Usha Says:

    Eve's lungs: This continues even today in schools? No wonder the girls freak out once they are out of school!
    The picture of vidya? That could have been me or any of my classmates in school! :)

    Praveen:Yes 8 and 9 year olds.
    And those kind of men, I have seen them often in my work life and akila says she faces them too!
    They are just glands for heaven's sake!
    hahah, my granny's eyes would have popped out of their sockets!
    Nice pics of asin.

  4. Saphire Says:

    Oh my god! that was totally atrocious but sadly not unbelievable :(

    The beginning of your post though, had made me smile, coz i recently bought a silk half-sari just coz i thought it was ethnic chic!Plus though I dont get to wear it too often, the only 2 times I have worn it I've gotten raving compliments as it was unique and traditional and made anybody wearing it look lovely..

    But i guess I adore it so much only because it is an option I choose when I wish to.Sometimes Im glad times have changed :)

  5. Rads Says:

    wow. That practice, very uncomfortable and difficult visual. :|

    As an aside, I LOVE the half saris. However Tollywood is, it's made my daughter absolutely love the outfit. She has about 8 sets of them now. That's more than what I owned and I liked them and lived in Madras. Am a happy mom alright :)

  6. Sraboney Says:

    Gosh! I didn't know about breast ironing...The trauma must be similar to female circumcision...And all this to protect women from men? No wonder they say God is a man...

  7. Smitha Says:

    Breast ironing?? The mere thought makes me sick! As you say, I can only be thankful that in our parts of the world, half sarees were considered enough 'protection'!
    And makes one wonder at how unsafe the world really is for mothers to be ready to go to such extremes to protect their daughters.. Sad, really.

  8. artnavy Says:

    just imagine the kind of fear that provokes mothers to do this !!

    really sad

    On the half sari
    it depends on how that is worn- it can be very revelaing and even obscene as we see in Tamil movies

    also in a way it heralds the coming of age of a girl which may not be something the girl is comfy drawing attention to......speaking from personal experience i refused to wear these for functions though i used to love paavadai chattai

  9. sakhi Says:

    "Breast ironing" Are they serious!!! :( :(

    When i started reading the post, i started with a tinge of humour... bby the end of it, my mood got sour!!

    SIGH!! Kab tak yeh sab chalta rahega!! :( :(

  10. Hip Grandma Says:

    I don't have the courage to view the video.It seems and sounds barbaric.As for the half saree torture I shifted straight from skirts in Std.XI to sarees in PUC.I hardly wore half sarees for 6 months.But as you say, the salwar kameez of the late 60's and early 70's were neither comfortable nor appealing as the ones we wear these days.I feel loose kurtis actually make one look smart and look better than the much hyped sari as being 'the most graceful'concept.

    But behind the need to slow down the growth and development of an organ as vital as the breast don't you think that the feminine half of the world has never felt safe in this world whatever the culture?Man with his superior intellect should feel ashamed at this being so.

  11. OMG How sad for the little girls in Cameron and how much sadder for the mothers who have to inflict this torture! Haven't seen the video.. reading about it was enough!
    Coming away from this topic, I think dhavanis are sooooo graceful! and so much a part of tam culture. I used to love draping one while on vacation at the various places in TN Dad used to be posted in.:-)
    Did I ever tell you- that i love your posts? No? Well, I do. :-D

  12. Dard E Disco Says:

    Hi Usha,
    This ws a lovely post- you have raised a topic that is so close to my heart. Why do women feel ashamed of their body? My friend once enlightened me about our attitude towards our bodies. Most of us cant say 'my breasts, my vagina' comfortably. Her convent school's head mistress -a nun used to make the girls repeat this over and over again. Her take was that if we cant say that then how can we ever have a healthy attitude towards our own body? I taught my son and daughter at 'tender' ages to use the appropriate terminolgy. So they then informed me that I was fat from my chest! Till I kept brushing the topic , it would come up again and again. One fine day I just told them that the fat was actually my breasts which grown up 'girls' get. Having got a factual answer, they dont pester me abt 'fat' again!

  13. Bharathis Says:

    Loose chudidhar sets have replaced the half-sarees in many small towns and villages. Housewives seem to think a loose 'nightie' and a towel over it is the female equivalent of their husband's veshtis and lungis. The underlying concept is to present a shapeless swaddled look to the men while being dressed in 'modern' clothes. Thank God most of our Indian men stop with mere ogling, (maybe worshipping goddesses-and so the female form-plays a deterrent role from going further?) and our grannies and Moms were not forced to think of cameroon type treatment for us!

  14. Mama - Mia Says:

    i think i could use the word breasts comforatble only post baby! the breastfeeding trauma makes you say it even to complete strangers! hehe!

    but jokes apart this is indeed horrid! i know the boob trouble 'coz once i had em they were almost always the fantasy size if one might say so! :p the right digit and alphabet! and man it was a pain!

    now, i somehow dont notice it! but these kinda things are indeed so so sad! :( i dont dare watch the video! just reading about it makes me sick! :(

    brilliant post Usha!

  15. Shilpa Says:

    Horrific what these women/girls have to undergo to protect themselves from rape. You would think with the world progressing so much, such barbaric practices would be done away with. But who can blame the women?

  16. Laksh Says:

    Usha, I caught this on reader and kept meaning to come over and comment. I saw that documentary on TV long back and could not sleep for days after that. Most of what the commenter's here say is so true. When will we learn to be comfortable with our body image? Lovely post as usual. Thought provoking.

  17. Kiran Says:

    A very informative article, isn't it amazing that women have to go through and deal with in life from a very early age. We should learn to librate the younger generations. Slow and steady I suppose. The old ways of life all had there place and meaning, some flesh showing is good but not as much as we get now. Hence I do wish the good all days to come back...
    Came across your site from Laksh's page, great article.

  18. shy Says:

    I don't dare watch the video either. After becoming a mother, i have spent sleepless nights after reading/watching such news.It is so horrible.
    Usha, I appreciate your courage to write about issues that matters. thank you.
    Dhavini I know was worn with saree blouse(short bluses) not long blouses with pavadai, in kerala. Like saree, if not worn properly it defeats the purpose; i.e no showing off the curves.
    as side note i loled at ' if it is my fault that I have breasts"..but that was in the beginning of the post before it got to the core issue. my smile is long gone now.

  19. shoba Says:

    Breast ironing?? Words fail me as I am unable to comprehend and digest it. BARBARIC!! And to think mothers doing it. It is almost like a tradition, I suppose , where being beautiful is a curse.I am sure every culture has something similar ,especially those with lot of insecurities for women.

    And about Dhavani!! It is not a very bad attire.Has its pros and cons , I suppose.It was my uniform during my 11th & 12th grade (early 90s). Luckily, it was girls school.Though I didn't mind wearing it,I had to travel in buses to school every day and with all the physical eve teasing around, it was hell as half-sarees provide easy access .In TN, especially in small cities, I am sure there are some schools even now with such restrictions, all in the name of tradition.

  20. Shruthi Says:

    Usha, my mother had a maid who had a granddaughter about the time I had my daughter. The maid told us that she pinches the newborn's nipples and extracts fluid so that her breasts don't grow too large! She even started describing how it is done, but I couldn't bear to wait and listen. Oh, and the maid is very definitely Indian. From Tamilnadu.

  21. diya Says:

    What would you say on fathers killing their daughters during partition in the Punjab so that they do not fall in the hands of riotiers? Recounted in Urvashi Butalia's book on partition...could not sleep properly for some nights...still haunts me.
    This torture is spine chilling too...imagine, some girl going through it even now as we tap away on our computers enjoying our evening tea!

  22. Usha Says:

    Horrendous! :(
    I din't have the heart to see the video, though.

    during my teenage days, i remember that among us kids, we used to count it as a blessing if we dont have curvaceous bodies, so that we can go about wearing our jeans and tees without any bother.

    a decade and a half later, i came across a young, petite and slim punjabi girl who would always have her dupatta secured in place with safety pins n all, making her look like she's from the age of neanderthalmans. Later she tells me, that she always wears it that way, because otherwise she's worried that it'll expose a "figureless" body.
    Such are the times.

  23. whoa! how brutal we human are.. and how evil! and we have the temerity to call animals "wild"

  24. Anonymous Says:

    i liked the post as it progressed .. but ironing ??? God !! so sad :(

  25. Tan Says:

    InHuman is the word! I never knew about it... thanks for sharing...

  26. Tan Says:

    reading the post made me say this:

    Animals are Men;
    Men are Animals!!

  27. Dhanya Says:

    It's so brutal :(
    Really sad state of the children :(

  28. shy Says:

    although it's been few days this is posted( and I commented), it kept coming back to me.
    what an irony Usha.when one part of the world is ironing out the breast another part in enhancing it with implants or atleast with pushup bras. Breats are no more organs or tissues llike you said, thoe are 'assets'. world odfconflicts ..

  29. Indian in NZ Says:

    I didn't know about this at all Usha. I don't have the heart to watch the video, sounds very barbaric to me.

    I remember hald sarees, it was popular in Hyderabad too.

  30. Usha, the penultimate paragraph says it all.

  31. Usha Says:

    Saphire: I think it is a beautiful ensemble but we hated it because it was the only dress we were allowed. Its attraction now is because it is ethnic chic contributed in no small measure by the beautiful north-Indian lead females on Tamil screen.

    rads:When draped well, it is one of the most beautiful dresses but you fail to see it when it is forced on you and you are told how to drape it and how not to drape it.

    Sraboney:Terrible customs born of ignorance and still preserved in the name of tradition.

    Smitha: If they mistrusted only men,why don't they teach them karate or martial arts rather than do this? it is also because they believe that girls are vulnerable to wily men and the girls might willingly fall for them.

    Artnavy:Is it only fear or is it that they do not trust their own daughters.
    oh yes our film costumers can make any dress look erotic.
    you must be aware that in Tamilnadu some people still have huge functions for manjal neerattu.

    Sakhi:Exactly my sentiments.

    Hipgran: Women are unsafe but it is also that society does not trust a woman to resist such advances.

    JLT:Sad indeed.
    Yes, dhavani can be very beautiful when draped well. My nieces wear them during Navaratri with silk paavadais and look so graceful. But they wear them because they like it and not because it is imposed on them.

    Dard e Disco:We were ashamed of our bodies in my generation but it is equally sad that today's youngsters are obsessed with their body image.

    Bharathis:Yes as long as your shape is covered you can walk around in pillow cases too. No one objects.

    Mama-Mia: 5 years ago I would not have believed myself capable of writing this in a public blog! Things that change when you turn 50!!

    Shilpa: Women must stop this. They must feel confident to protect themselves from such predators. Mothers must teach their children about sex and bad touch and also equip them to protect themselves.

    Laksh: It was disturbing. I had to write about it to get it off my chest.

    Kiran: Welcome.Yes we should liberate our younger gen and empower them and make them capable of self protection.

    Shy: We feel troubled even to watch the video . Imagine those 9 year and 10 year olds suffering this? Scary.

    Shoba: I think most schools have switched to salwar kameezes but I think there are some government schools which still prescribe the dhavani as uniform.

    Shruthi: That is terrible. Imagine the pain inflicted on the child! This is the first time I am hearing about this!!

    Diya: Ya rape, honour killing, abduction - woman has been nothing but a pawn to be used by men. But it is time all this stopped.

    Usha: 180 degree turn in thinking huh!Interesting!!

    Winnie: indeed, the temerity!

    Preety: Very sad!

    Tan: I can see your point but not all. There are some.

    Dhanya: yes and they think it is a standard ritual they must participate in when their mothers do it to them. Like we take an injection?

    Shy: exactly. There is one part of the world where people spend thousands to enhance their breast and there is another part where this happens!

    2 b's mommy:It is disturbing to watch.

    Sujatha: Oh I really shudder that it could have been me but for the minor geographic advantage!

  32. sra Says:

    Hi Usha, came over through Desi Pundit. I grew up in a small town in South India and wouldn't have worn the half-sari more than 3-4 times - it helped that I had a mother and gran who didn't care for it either (tho' my mom had other specific ideas about what I should cover myself with). It was also the beginning of an age that saw the death of half-saris, at least in small towns.
    Recently, in the last five years, I've seen them making a comeback among teenagers in totally different, glamorous avatars at weddings - now they are almost desirable, if you like the sequins and beads and gold ribbon, that is. And blouses shaped like jagged lightning, etc - full circle and more!
    Naturally, they are no longer everyday stuff, but 'evening wear'. Even in villages, all I see are salwars and nightgowns, never half saris.

  33. sra Says:

    Hi Usha, came over through Desi Pundit. I grew up in a small town in South India and wouldn't have worn the half-sari more than 3-4 times - it helped that I had a mother and gran who didn't care for it either (tho' my mom had other specific ideas about what I should cover myself with). It was also the beginning of an age that saw the death of half-saris, at least in small towns.
    Recently, in the last five years, I've seen them making a comeback among teenagers in totally different, glamorous avatars at weddings - now they are almost desirable, if you like the sequins and beads and gold ribbon, that is. And blouses shaped like jagged lightning, etc - full circle and more!
    Naturally, they are no longer everyday stuff, but 'evening wear'. Even in villages, all I see are salwars and nightgowns, never half saris.

  34. hillgrandmom Says:

    I too wonder whether I can watch the video. The pinafore as a uniform was chosen with the same idea--to hide the shape. I know how I suffered because I was top heavy as a teenager and how I used to wish I could wear loose shirts as my school uniform instead of the blouses we did wear (in Cal). So much so my mother decided that I should wear saris outside of school from the time I was 14.
    I loved the dhavani though and used to borrow my friends when I was in college in Chennai in the late 60s.

  35. ammani Says:

    Wonderfully well written, Usha. The breast ironing sounds truly dreadful! I'm reminded of the time when, as a teenager I'd hear my parents telling others that I'd gone out for a 'morning walk' and not 'a jog'. Almost as if it was wrong for a woman to run - what with her undulating breasts and all. And how walking was a far more modest and acceptable exercise for a young woman to be seen doing in public.

    Again, lovely writing!

  36. maami Says:

    Erm, don't tell anyone here, but when I wore the half sari I would use 5 safety pins, two to hold the fluttering pallu down, one above the b so that it didn't expose my b ( you know what I am talking about no?), one below so that if i lifted my arms, they wouldn't be exposed at the sides, two at the waist to hold the pleats down...

  37. Anonymous Says:

    I actually thought Half sarees were cute in those days and yes they are nowhere to be seen now, except if you watch movies like Subramaniapuram. But this breast ironing is Brutal!

  38. Usha Says:

    Sujatha: Thanks for putting this up on Desipundit.

    Sra:I traveled to my native village last year. It is a very small hamlet with a population of less than 500 people but even they have switched to salwar kameezes and housecoats/nighties.

    Sue: Yes I remember the pinafore that convent girls wore to school.

    Ammani:Oh they were obsessed with the breasts and how their girls would come to harm because of it!
    Thank you.

    Maami: oh yes the safety pins to ensure that nothing showed. How can I forget that. Once I was scolded by my paati:
    adenna melaku nagandadu kooda theriyame oru pommanatti?

    Maduraiveeran: Yes the half sari can be a very beautiful dress when worn well.
    But my point is how we hated the imposition and the principle behind it.

  39. revathi Says:

    that was a light title for a serious post!

    Anyway, the mention of half saris made me smile when I thought of all the tamil heroines of those days that wore the half sari well into their thirties and looked pretty ridiculous.
    Whatever you may say about covering up or not, the half sari only looks nice on adolescent girls. I never thought of the pinafore this way but now that you mention it, I guess it served the same purpose.
    It used to be an easy way to avoid wearing a sari that was even more constraining- so it did serve some purpose.

  40. What a post Usha! Shocking practice and so true about the attitude of our parents generation.

    I've heard that practice of pinching the nipples of a girl baby from my MIL. Despite my freaking out, she would try to sneakily get it done from my Massage lady. And this is as of a few months ago!

    Sad that being buxom is such a crime. I wonder if we were all dressed sexless, would no one be molested? Strange how we still continue to pay the price for the men who cannot control themselves.

  41. Never Mind!! Says:

    I am sorry if someone already said this,but I can never be thankful enough for being born in India. Yes,we still fight to not be treated second-rated.But the brutalities in Africa are just unspeakable. I bet you have already heard/read about the "female circumcision" practiced in Western African tribes.

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  43. Rebeca Says:

    Nice to know about half saree. I would like to try once half-saree.

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  45. Unknown Says:
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  46. Unknown Says:

    Usha ma'am,

    When will our society be normal with these things, when will they understand that puberty and sex are natural and suppressing them is unnatural? . . . I feel so pathetic about it.


  47. Congratulations :) This post in one of the winners of 'Tejaswee Rao Blogging Awards - 2011' (TRBA 2011). We would like to create an ebook with all the winning entries in 47 categories on Feminism and Gender Issues in India (and one category on Animals Rights). Please do let us know if you are fine with your winning post/s being included in this ebook. ( Please click here to let us know).

  48. sunita Says:

    i love to wear this sari... my mom used to wear it before marriage.. as i grew up in town that too in Punjab so not interested that time.. but now a days these sarees are taking a new trend in clothing.. i wish i could also get one or two to wear in the such a modern times