The Double Lives of Brown Girls’ Closets

Once they know about my religious and family background, people generally want to know how my family relationships are now. They’re not so bad these days, thank you. After 8 years, even such a dramatic revelation as apostasy loses its ability to shock and agitate. Filial love can, in some situations, overcome anger and pain.

More difficult to overcome than my family members’s distaste for apostasy are their feelings about bodies.

Indeed, for a year after I publicly left Islam, I still wore headscarves and long-sleeved, long clothing to family gatherings. It didn’t matter that most people knew what was going on with me and that most of the women in my family don’t cover their heads. Appearances had to be kept up, I suppose.

a lady modelling an Indian outfit consisting of a  short bra-style top with a low-slung skirt
The skirt on my cousin’s lehenga choli is much more billowy than this one and the top consists of at least five times as much fabric, but it may as well have been this revealing for all the hand-wringing it caused.

I spontaneously decided to stop wearing a headscarf to family gatherings in the days leading up to my uncle’s wedding reception. My cousin had lent me a lovely short-sleeved lehenga choli (or Desi-style long embroidered skirt and top) to wear for the occasion. When my mother asked me what I was wearing under the short-sleeved top, I blurted out “nothing.” She pointed out that short sleeves looked silly with a headscarf; I agreed and said that I wouldn’t be covering my head at the reception. My sister poked her head out of her room to declare that she wasn’t going to wear hers, either.

We two sisters caused quite a scene when we showed up at the hotel with our arms and heads bared for all to see. I still feel kind of bad for stealing so much attention and thunder at someone else’s wedding reception.

I may have stopped wearing a headscarf to family gatherings since then, but I do wear at least short sleeves and cover my legs down to the ankles. If I wear bottoms that are even slightly form-fitting, I pair them with a longer, looser top. It’s not that my relatives labor under the delusion that I’m as conservatively-attired when not around them, mind you, it’s that they consider it disrespectful and shameful to bare that much skin around family.

So what happens to people like me when we live with family but want to go out dressed far less conservatively? Or when we have to transition from family gatherings to less filial outings or vice versa? There are two ways of keeping less-than-conservative clothing choices closeted and out of sight from family members.

I will call the first method The Red Herring. It means leaving the house dressed in the outfits we intend to wear but with their relatively skimpiness obscured by the skillful use of wraps, leggings, shrugs, jackets, and other clothing that can be easily removed once out of sight. If going from a non-family event to a family one, these items can be just as easily added to an outfit.

Some outfits are not so easily converted back and forth that way. Furthermore, obvious cover-ups that don’t coordinate with the outfit or look awkward tend to scream “I’m gonna take this off!”. As previously mentioned, appearances must be kept up even though everyone knows that everyone knows what’s actually going on. This leads me to the second technique: The Stealth Change.

the mom from Bend It Like Beckham scolding with her pointer finger outstretched. caption reads "I don't want you running around half-naked in front of men, huh?"
“Half-naked” is clearly a relative term.

If you’ve ever seen Bend It Like Beckham, you’ve seen how the lead changes her clothing in the locker room in such a way as to not show much, if any, skin. You’ve also seen the way she manages to change from a sari to athletic wear and back during a car ride. The art of stealth changing is one that many of us learned in our quest to dress how we want outside of the proverbial nest while maintaining the illusion of propriety with our families.

I was never very good at  The Stealth Change. I’m physically uncoordinated as a general rule; my ungainliness multiplies when I’m in a high-stakes situation. In recalling all those times I was side-eyed or leered at for inadvertently flashing some stranger, I find myself wishing that The Undress had existed for me ten years ago.The product is being marketed as for the beach or exercise, but all I can see when I watch it is myself at age 17, trying to change in my car or a disgusting public bathroom. I’d imagine the product could help not only young women whose religious and/or cultural background dictate sartorial sneaking, but also anyone who wears things of which their families wouldn’t approve, including trans and gender non-conforming people.

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The Double Lives of Brown Girls’ Closets
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