Tight Jeans and Chania Chorris
I had already been away at college for a few years when my little sister unleashed her budding sexuality onto my unsuspecting suburban Indian family. When I came home to Connecticut from Oberlin on breaks, I would find her furtively posing for the mirror. At dinner, she sat opposite the window, and her eyes darted from the conversation to her reflection, trying to catch a “candid” glimpse of herself. She wore tight, tight stirrup pants and off-the-shoulder blouses and dark lipstick. In the beginning, my parents and I were merely chagrined. I had just gathered enough resolve, egged on by my feminist boyfriend of the time, to stop shaving my legs and armpits. It felt good, but in a shaky kind of way, like if anyone asked me why I did it I might just get enraged and teary and not be able to explain. That was usually how I got when I tried to explain my new “college ideas” to my parents. I remember confessing to my mother, shyly but slightly self-righteously, that I had applied for a job at a women’s newspaper. “You want to work with just women?” she asked. “That's not right. You shouldn’t separate yourself from half of humanity. Men and women together, boys and girls together, that's how it should be. I’d get bored with just one or the other,” she went on. Defeated, but secretly condemning her for her lack of consciousness, I didn’t say more. I was having even less luck testing out my new ideas on Dad. He seemed to think my insistence on using gender-neutral language, for instance, was a symptom of weak logic. We actually got into some fights over it. He’d argue that I was losing the forest for the trees: “What, we're supposed to say ‘snowperson’ instead of ‘snowman’? How does that help anything?” I'd get flustered and high-strung. So at the time when my sister started parading and preening about the house, I wasn’t feeling too secure as a feminist in the family setting. It seemed I could rant against MTV images of disembodied women, discuss the efficacy of affirmative action for women and debate the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir only with my friends at college. But I knew, from the building tension in the house and my sister’s growing narcissism and self-objectification, that a feminist intervention was necessary; my class-privileged, sheltered life had actually provided me with a situation in which I needed to act. What to do? I worried, privately, that she was exploiting herself and setting herself up for the kinds of exploitation and abuse I had suffered at the hands of the white boys of our local public high school when I sexualized my dress and manner in high school. I wanted them to notice me, and they did-when they couldn’t get the attention of any of the pretty girls from “nice” (that is, white) families. And then they wanted action, fast. And if they didn’t get it, they got mad. They spread ugly rumors, harassed me, orchestrated humiliating pranks. I had just gotten over all that, purging it as a time of insecurity and naiveté in a sexist, racist high school, when my sister seemed to be starting it all over again. Only she was getting better results: Boys were calling her on the phone; when I picked her up from the mall with her friends, she was surrounded by adoring white boys (their brothers had called me names); she was charming, lovely, flirtatious, everyone wanted to be near her. So I was a little jealous, hating myself for feeling jealous, and trying to use the blunt tools of my college-learned feminism to understand why and what to do. My friends advised me. “She’s objectifying herself. If she sets herself up as a sexualized Other, she will never centralize herself, she'll never be truly Subject,” they said. “Tell her to throw away her tight jeans!” One morning, we were both combing our hair in front of the big bathroom mirror. She was done up in typical regalia: scant, restrictive clothes with straps and belts and chains. “Aren’t you kind of uncomfortable in...
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