Last Sunday at the beach with big strong waves and seaweed-y waters*, a lady came up to me and said, ” Excuse me, are you Indian?” When I replied in the affirmative, she went on to ask the question she really wanted to ask, ” Why don’t Indian people wear bathing suits at the beach?” Her belief was that it is bad enough that you have to be fully clothed everywhere else, but atleast at the beach people should be able to let their guard down and relax. The lady’s observation while quite accurate, is not entirely true. With time more and more Indians are stepping on to beaches and into waters in swimwear, both in India and abroad, probably more abroad than in India.
I put this question later to a group of friends and got a variety of responses. “They feel cold.” ” We don’t need to work on our tan.” ” Don’t have swimwear worthy bodies.” ” Body image issues.” “Uncomfortable showing skin.” The Husband brushed it off saying ,” Ofcourse they do. Go to Goa and see.”
Most of this I agree with, some I don’t. The Goa bit is just stretching the truth, because even there it is quite uncommon to see an Indian in swimwear; rarer still an Indian woman. Especially at the more popular and crowded beaches.
So why don’t a majority of Indian people wear bathing suits at the beach?”
Indians are uncomfortable showing skin and shape. This is changing, but for now it is true. This is probably a big reason why we prefer to just wet our feet at the beach instead of bathing. Even when we do splash around, we just dunk ourselves fully clothed and dry out on the sand. We rarely drive or travel long distances to spend an afternoon at the beach in India. Having to sit wet and uncomfortable in a car or bus, plus getting the car seat soggy is not a real problem in our world. In a country where even today covering your head in front of an older person is considered a sign of respect, and women wearing western clothes is often made a big deal of, it is quite odd to be cavorting on a beach in a swimsuit. It is so uncommon that it tends to draw unwanted attention and disapproving stares. This adds to the existing levels of discomfort and further dissuades public appearances in swimwear. I am not even talking about bikinis, just a tank suit with a little frill, tights and sleeves. One can always argue that modest as it is, the sight of such a garment is bound make heads turn, but it is not that kind of attention that I’m talking about.
There is nothing though that explicitly forbids Indians from wearing anything they chose, so why is it that even in America, where all of the above doesn’t apply we are still so shy? Reason two – Indians are like pack animals. We like to move around in groups. Our groups are mostly comprised of other Indians, or will atleast have some other Indians. Coming from a country where people have reservations being undressed even in front of people of their own sex, it does make it sort of awkward to be swimwear clad in front of friends of the opposite sex. It may not be as bad if they were your friends, but very often they happen to be your partner’s friends or partners of your friends. While a lot of this is real, some of this is also in our own heads. The people we hang around with maybe totally cool, but in our minds we imagine that just by wearing swimwear in front of them, suddenly the whole equation goes from **bhabhi-ji to WTF!! That is enough to deter us.
Problem part 3 – we judge our bodies very harshly. We are big, and as a friend put it, bootyfull. We don’t confirm to the skinny standards of sexiness. This makes us extremely conscious. To add to our woes, since we have always avoided any show of skin or figure we have had no incentive to get that flat tummy, or put in extra effort to rid ourselves of our thunder thighs and wrestler arms. Frankly we don’t want to reveal what we take great pains to hide under layers of baggy clothing. We have body image issues. We don’t have the confidence to say, “Hey so I don’t have a body like Katrina Kaif or Kareena Kapoor or whoever, but I don’t care. If you don’t like what you see, don’t look. Why on earth are you looking at me anyway?” Men are conscious of their moobs and flabby middle region as well. This might explain why a lot of them prefer to wear swim shirts to the pool and beach.
And yes, we don’t need to work on our tan***.
* sorry, I don’t remember the name. It is along the Jersey shoreline
** bhabhi-ji – very respectful term for sister in law
*** Infact we spend a considerable amount of resources in doing exactly the opposite, trying to bleach our year round tan into milky whiteness.