Home >Mint-lounge >Features >When will Indian women wear bikinis for themselves?

It’s summer, and bored of seeing my one-piece black swimsuit, Babyjaan, who is loath to get out of her purple and electric green bikini these days, began her interrogation. She was soon armed with the knowledge that mama had a swimwear stash she hadn’t shown her bikini-loving daughter.

We opened that bag of skimpy memories together, and she insisted I model every single one.

Her eyes grew rounder and rounder as she watched me go from red to aqua to monochrome bikini. Of course, the teeny zebra-print string bikini with hibiscus flowers that I had never inaugurated was her favourite. What can I say, my Switzerland-based aunt who gifts me swimwear every year has eclectic taste.

“Wow. You’ve got to start wearing these, mama. It’s good to have body confidence," Babyjaan said with a serious expression. Her eyes, I noted, didn’t see my cellulite, ageing skin or my craft beer belly. Her comment evoked several emotions.

Pride—I immediately tweeted about my 6-year-old’s ability to understand the idea of being confident in one’s own skin. Ire—when did I begin to epitomize bodycon as seen on skinny small screen First Lady Claire Underwood? Worry—I had to do my bit to ensure that another generation of (yes, urban, privileged) Indian women (Babyjaan and friends) didn’t fear the bikini. Panic—the only way to do this would be to walk the talk.

Like most Indian women, I was never confident of my body. I still remember every single “observation" ever made by friends and family (mainly my brother and bestie) about my legs, butt and other assorted imperfect body parts. Sit properly was the standard mantra every time a girl wore a dress. Don’t stand out was hardwired into my teenage self. When I was 10 too, I owned a boring black one-piece. By the time I hit my 20s, I had given up dresses and hid in the unisex comfort of Levi’s 501s. I hate to admit this, but, encouraged by the husband, I only rediscovered my body in my 30s. That’s also when I wore my first bikini—and soon acquired many more. But body consciousness is a bitch. I gained a few kilos and went back to tucking my spares into one-piece swimsuits.

You’ve seen the awkward body language of Indian women in bikinis on Kingfisher Supermodels 3 on TV surely (I know you watch this show secretly). The Indian-origin women from other countries are so much more confident than the girls who grew up here.

Our fashion magazines go through the motions of annual swimsuit issues where they struggle to find models who will wear bikinis. The swimsuits are usually a mix of Gucci, Speedo and India’s most famous swimwear designers, Shivan and Narresh, who have, over the years, been encouraged by their customers to conjure up curiosities such as the bikini sari and customized swimsuits for the “unique" bodies of modern Indian women. What does that even mean? Indian women have big, wobbly butts? We are not sharply angled enough to look good in the world’s most unflattering swimsuit brand, Speedo? Maybe it means that since we put ourselves last on every list, we don’t have time to get our bodies bikini-ready? Strolling is not exercise, ladies.

It’s rare to spot bare midriffs in urban Indian swimming pools, though every time I’m in Mumbai I see a few perfectly toned bikini bodies. Unlike in other parts of the world, though, women with normal curvy, wiggly, imperfect bodies rarely wear bikinis in our cities. We’re so worried about the way we look and, more importantly, the way people think we look. Every time I’ve worn a bikini in a pool in urban India, I’ve felt liberated and relieved. By the time you read this, I would have started wearing my bikinis again.

On Quora, that repository of urban Indian gyan, the usual assortment of bizarre theories abound. Exposing your body is against Indian culture (but paedophilia and marital rape are not, right?); Indian girls feel inferior about their small breasts (small breasts are actually an advantage when you’re wearing a bikini, let me tell you); staring men (they stare even when you wear your most conservative one-piece); extra tan (this requires another column); women fear bikini wax (not according to what my parlour lady tells me); Indian women are not blessed with bikini bodies (hahahaha); and wearing a bikini requires exuberance, immense confidence about one’s body and figure. I’ve seen female Indian fighter pilots in my lifetime, but I don’t think I’ll be around when we realize we don’t need exuberance or immense confidence to wear a bikini.

Of course it’s not easy to buy a good bikini in India. Even little girls wear swimsuits with skirts. I looked online and found barely any bikinis. I did find a secret world of wild swimwear creations. Tummy smoothening leg suit swimwear with inbuilt cups. Tummy smoothening full coverage long leg swimsuit with removable cups. Freestyle women’s swimwear frock style. Racerback swimdress. Women’s jumpsuit swimwear. Classy full-sleeve multi-coloured swimwear. Lots and lots of lycra outfits posing as swimwear. The next time you see a woman wearing a T-shirt and tights in the pool, please recognize that’s the “swimsuit" she bought from Amazon.

Richa Kar, CEO of online lingerie store Zivame, told Hindustan Times a few years ago that Indian girls wear bikinis abroad or in Goa. The maximum bikini sales happen in winter, she said. Can you guess why? Honeymoon season. That’s the time of the year women go on a short vacation with their spouses and show off a wardrobe that they will never ever wear again. That’s also the time they look their fittest because of the pre-wedding crash diet. Please tell me there will be a time when we wear bikinis for ourselves, rather than for the men in our lives.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable every fortnight. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani.

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