When I was in varsity, friends were used to seeing me wearing shorts and tiny tank tops when I was at the dorms. I was usually confined to my room apart from the short trip to the communal bathroom so this was not a big deal. Any time I step out of the dorms, I was fully covered – typically in a baju kurung and tudung (head scarf).
One day my friends wanted to take photos. I was wearing an old t-shirt that said “Penang” across the chest and my usual white shorts. We took some around the dorm and up the roof in various poses – silly poses, funny poses, serious poses, friendly poses, you know the drill. Those days we didn’t have digital cameras. Once the roll of film was all snapped up, I offered to get it processed and sent it to the sundry shop located at the lobby of the college. The uncle told me that it would take 3 days to complete.
When I came later in the week to pick up the photos, the uncle said, “You are very sexy,” or something to that effect. I didn’t give it much thought. But after that strange things began to happen. We had a big board at the lobby of the administration building in the college. This was where the photos of college residents, their names, faculty and room numbers were put up (I suppose it was to make it easy for visitors to locate us).
First, I noticed that my photo was missing. A few days later, my mails were missing. They would be returned to the letterbox a few days later – opened and clumsily put back together. I had a lot of mails those days, and a lot of male friends. Though it seems unimaginable today, those days boys actually took the trouble to bring pen to paper and write. I get 4-5 letters a week, from friends, families, stalkers. Not much different from facebooking, really.
Anyway, this went on for a few weeks. I was unhappy but there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t know the culprits and didn’t have any reasons to suspect anyone.
Then the rumours and name-calling started. S0meone swore she saw me making out at the common room. Seniors would call me to their rooms under the pretext to have a chat but really it was just another name for bullying. I was criticized so much about the way I dress that I took to wearing a sweater over my baju kurung. Eventually I even stopped going to the dining hall for meals or to the common room to read newspapers.
I found out in the end that my album was seen by many people before I collected it from the sundry shop. Whether it was by mistake or whatever, from that moment I was “branded” and viewed in a certain way. Unpleasant of course but I’ve had 5 years of boarding school under my belt so I was not fazed.
I thought about this time of my life when I read about this girl who is currently being heavily criticised for what is deemed as “indecent” dressing. I put the inverted commas because I saw the photos and I didn’t think what she wore was indecent. The reason there is even a hulabaloo over this is because she is a minor celebrity: a few years ago she had the highest possible score in what is the equivalent to a university entrance exams so she became the poster child for academic excellence. She is currently reading medicine under full scholarship. The photos were of her, some were solo photos and some were with friends – in them she was not wearing tudung (I don’t know if she is no longer wearing tudung or if she was not wearing them only for these photos, either way it is immaterial); in a couple of them she was doing posed shots like you see in magazines (but these were amatuer shots). Clearly these are private photos that are not meant for public eyes.
Somehow a few days ago bloggers got hold of these photos, plastered them in their blogs for all to see along with snippy comments to go with it. This girl has been under intense public criticism since. Her mother finally released a statement to say that she (the mother) was the one who bought this outfit for the girl, and she was aware of all the friends featured in the photos and that her daughter was doing well in her studies. As I write this I understand a skype interview is taking place at the mother’s house, attended by journalists and bloggers so that this poor girl could “defend” herself. I use the inverted commas because I don’t feel there is any need for her to do any defending but oh well.
Over the years I have been criticized for wearing too much black, for wearing clothes too little for my size, for wearing too formally, too sexy, too snobbish, too casual, too much. For some reason, someone will be unhappy no matter what I wear. People I know, people I don’t know, or haven’t spoken to in years, even complete strangers – they all have opinions and are not shy about making them known. Some of these were nice opinions, but if we average them out over the course of my life the fact remains: people judge you viciously over what you wear, and they judge you especially when they don’t like it. They will make it known, for some reason they feel entitled, and they will make all sorts of assumptions about you, talk about you, posit about you. They believe that this comes from a good place – “I say this as an advice,” – somehow denoting that this moral policing (as opposed to fashion policing) is a much needed aspect in my life. That I am a problem that they could solve. That my clothes were a societal problem.
I am not mad about these opinions. Like them, I know that it comes from a good place. Whether it was needed or intrusive was not the point. People want what’s best for you, and conforming is good (is it, really?).
I make it a point to stop people, strangers and friends alike, to tell them they look nice when they look nice. I notice what people wear – the colours, the brands, the way the clothes are styled, the accessories, the shoes, the perfume, make-up. I notice their mobile phones, the laptops they use, the manicure. Just the other day we had a karaoke session with some old friends. One of the girls remarked to Mr. Abu, is that a new chain you are wearing? He said, no and then looked to me for confirmation. So I said, yeah that’s not new. But before this he was wearing the magnetic one, and before that it was the tribal leather one. This numerical one, he has been wearing it for at least 2 years. I’m surprised you noticed, he said.
I always notice.
I choose the see nice things. I choose to see the care that people put in what they wear. I know that the clothes doesn’t say anything about the person’s character – whether he is nice or unkind, whether he is successful or broke, whether he is happy or sad.
I am fine with clothes being just clothes and not a mirror to your soul. I know it is just something you wear to cover up your naughty bits, and that it doesn’t define you as a person (not even if your job is to model professionally for a living).
And I know that it is a personal choice, and sometimes…an economic or time-sensitive one.
If I am offended or outraged by someone’s outfit, I shut my mouth. Too many people will make their opinions known, I don’t feel the need to offer mine.
So instead, I say nice things when I see something that I like being worn.
I wish I could tell this girl that there is no need to defend herself. Go ahead, just wear whatever’s comfortable for you. People will always have opinions. Que sera sera. You’ll be just fine.
(It’s a judgmental world we live in.)