What do I wear?

Reflecting on how society has impacted my clothing choices

Prisha Tiwari, Staff Writer

Cover up. Don’t show skin. That’s too low. If you bend over, everything will show. Come on, that’s too simple. Wear a v-neck. Show off those legs. So what should I wear? The constant commentaries are contradictory. My style and fashion adapt themselves based on my environment and type of people that surround me, rather than my own comfort or feelings –– but I wish style and fashion were simply a way to express myself instead of facing the constant barrage of judgment in my mind whenever I reach for my next outfit.

When shopping for clothes, I not only think about where I’m going to wear them but also the people who are going to see them. I’m lucky that both my parents and grandparents have grown to change from the stereotypical, ‘girls must remain modest idea’ that many of their previous generations held back in India, especially when it came to clothing. Despite the acceptance of my parents or grandparents, I know that society will judge, comment and question why my family allows me to dress the way I want. Because of this, I used to think dressing the way I wanted — especially if it wasn’t “modest” enough — wasn’t really worth it.

I have had plenty of conversations with my mom, asking her why girls were expected to remain modest. My mom explained that a generation ago, and to some extent even today, Indian society conditioned girls to believe that more “modest” girls would be chosen for marriage, that they were “ideal.” But wearing what they considered scandalous clothing would mean that they “weren’t innocent enough.” Showing off their legs translated to women being more focused on following the latest trends than taking care of her family.

Graphics by Prisha Tiwari

To me, it seemed stupid. A woman’s purpose is not just marriage and motherhood. Women should be able to dress the way they want instead of conforming to society’s definition of what a respectable mother and wife need to look like. But I can’t change the world and people’s mindsets, so the only thing I could do was comply and keep peace. I didn’t want my family to go through trouble because of someone else’s unnecessary comments about my clothing. So, during my visits to India, I remained modest –– I wore only full-sleeved shirts and long pants.

But as a teenager, there’s a flip side — a social-media-curated standard that claims that more skin and tight-fitted clothes are what gets you the attention, what lets you be seen. When I think about it, people on social media often sexualize women based on their clothing. On my TikTok, ‘For You’ page, I often see women with “perfect” bodies wearing two-piece swimsuits receive comments like, ‘Wow, you are so hot’ or the hourglass emoji, meant to emphasize their desirable figure. These TikToks get over a million comments, whereas another woman in sweatpants doing the same thing may not even receive one. Of course, it’s nice to get compliments about how beautiful you look or how amazing a top fits on your body, but these compliments only seem to come when you show off as much of your body as possible.

In my mind laid two contrasting decisions –– be modest for the sake of my family, or be less modest and receive flattering compliments on social media.

I was stumped.

It was so hard to choose. But, after all this confusion, I decided I didn’t need to choose one or the other. It didn’t make sense for me to change the way I dressed so that others would accept me — what started to matter was how I felt about myself. If my family doesn’t care about the way I dress, –– only outsiders –– , then why should I care about what society thinks

Clothing is a form of independence, style and a representation of personality — it isn’t something that should be restricted because of other people’s opinions. Society’s expectations of clothing will always contradict itself. Comments from others will always be there for me to listen to, but I try my best to let these negative remarks go because the only thing that should change the way I dress should be me and my opinions. I’ll wear skirts when I feel like dressing up, and I’ll wear sweatpants when all I want to do is eat popcorn in bed and watch TV.

I now try my hardest to dress solely for myself, but occasionally there are times where I can’t help but think — what am I supposed to wear?