As a freshman in high school, I became friends with the group of popular girls. I was not one of them, but I wanted to be. They lived in birkenstocks and Patagonia, and hiked in their spare time. I adored them. (I also most definitely had a crush on at least two of the girls). I wanted to be a part of their group, to be one of the pretty girls that got invited everywhere and that boys liked, because getting a boyfriend would prove that liking girls was really just a phase. As a result, I ignored certain things that now discomfit me.
The girls I was friends with wore mehndi (henna) tattoos to school, and wore Spiritual Awakening Pants, the hippie pants that you find at farmer’s market stalls, or that one place in the mall that reeks of patchouli, and that almost certainly have come from a South Asian country for cheap and have been marked up an insane amount. Nearly every white female tourist I’ve seen in India has a pair of Spiritual Awakening Pants. My mum was bemused when I decided to buy pants not only for my friends but for myself on one of our India trips. “Are you sure? They’re so ugly! So cheap!” When you’re Indian and you wear tacky Indian things, you’re a stereotype. When the popular white girls do it, they’re cool. In my warped 14-year-old logic, it made sense to me that if I wore the pants with them, then I’d be cool too. It wasn’t until I started learning more about intersectional feminism that the guilt kicked in.
What exactly are they appropriating? It appears as if they themselves are unsure.
I personally don’t believe that wearing hippie pants is a form of cultural appropriation. Yet I always feel a little uncomfortable with them, because their whole vibe just seems generically ethnic. They look like an amalgamation of what some white guy in the 80’s would consider to be Indian, commodified for the eat love pray experience. Which, incidentally, is why I don’t consider it to be cultural appropriation. What exactly are they appropriating? It appears as if they themselves are unsure.
Instead, I’m bothered by the way that it implies that this is all India is. A land of incense, elephant patterned pants, and curry. India is chaos, a country that works despite, a country of profanity and profundity. When I see Spiritual Awakening Pants, I cannot help but think of the colonial mindset that drives their production and popularity, that of taking what is good and leaving the rest to rot, that of never really understanding what is good but pretending to anyways.
I cannot, in good conscience, suggest that people stop wearing them. That would be extremely hypocritical of me, because I own a pair of Spiritual Awakening Pants. I like to think that it is an act of reclamation, but I fear that it comes across instead as an implicit endorsement. So much of the guilt I associate with wearing them comes from not just what the pants symbolise, but that I should know better, and yet I still do it. That I should’ve known better in high school, too. I should’ve tried to show my friends how I saw India instead of staying silent and making them believe that what they saw was all there was. Yet despite purchasing the pants in a misguided attempt to fit in, despite the gnawing sense of guilt I feel when I wear them, despite knowing that saris and salwar kameezes make the pants look like cloth someone dug out of the trash, I love them. They’re so comfortable, and they make me feel pretty. There’s a certain power in that, that I crave, after years and years of feeling otherwise.
I faced the brunt of the colourism when we visited India, as most of the white people I knew thought all South Asian people looked the same.
I can’t remember the age I started believing I wasn’t pretty. Maybe 10? Even now, liking the way I look can be a struggle. I thought I was too hairy, for one, but most of all I thought I was too dark. I faced the brunt of the colourism when we visited India, as most of the white people I knew thought all South Asian people looked the same. Small blessings, I guess. My buas used to whisper about how hard it was going to be for me to get married, not knowing that I could hear them. When I was 16, I went to get a passport photo taken, mine was photoshopped several shades lighter. The photographers had thought they were doing me a favour.
My mother and I went to get a facial. They had given us different facials, which I thought nothing of, at the time. Halfway through, something seemed wrong. My face was burning. I dug my nails into my palms and stayed quiet until it was finished, desperately wondering why anyone would want a facial if it felt like this. It wasn’t until it was over, and I opened my eyes to read the label of the box of the chemicals she had used, that I realised what had happened. It was called “tan-clear,” and I had just received my first (and last) skin bleaching treatment. I was furious, but I stayed silent until we left, because God forbid I make a scene. All the while, I wanted to point out that I didn’t have a tan, it was just the colour of my skin. When I later told my mum about it, she expressed her disappointment that no matter how much progress feminism in India had made, these kinds of things lingered. Yet it wasn’t as if it was isolated to Indians living in India. I had friends tell me stories about how their mums would bathe them in milk or tell them to stay indoors so that they would be lighter. It’s everywhere.
What can I do to fight the colourism I see, but love my dark skin and the self it contains?
I searched for an explanation of why a nation that in ancient times had celebrated dark heroes was raising its children on Fair and Lovely, and found colonialism. Specifically, the maddening subconscious tendency to want to emulate our oppressors, because historically, it made it easier to survive. I’m sure there are other complex factors which have led to colourism still being so rampant, even now, but colonialism has played an undeniable role. For me, a lot of the problems that I have with India boil down to the same thing. But thinking about the pervasiveness of it always ends up making me so helplessly outraged that I feel like I’m going to explode with all of my useless emotion. What can I do to fight the colourism I see, but love my dark skin and the self it contains? Sometimes that feels too hard, and other times it feels woefully insufficient.
I can’t remember the age I started believing I was beautiful again. There were big things that happened along the way that helped me feel confident in my body, like accepting my sexuality. I had such a limited understanding of sexuality when I was younger that being bisexual made me feel like a fraud. I did things slightly backwards, in that I came out as a lesbian first, in middle school, because I was impatient and had no sense of self-preservation, and repressed the hell out of liking boys. When I got to high school, where I hardly knew anyone, I seized the opportunity for reinvention by shoving myself back into the closet and repressing the hell out of liking girls.
I stopped lying to myself during my junior year. Even though I had learned more about bisexuality since middle school, I still held myself to a ridiculous double standard that it was okay for other people to be bisexual, because they were actually bisexual, unlike me, who was obviously just being indecisive. I had those double standards for everything, including colourism. The more I learned about intersectional feminism, the more I began to understand that if I wanted to fight against injustice, I had to start being fair to myself. Though I struggle with this, it has recently included allowing myself not to feel as if I have to be perfect all the time.
I wear Spiritual Awakening Pants, because I look good in them and sometimes I crave that feeling.
Now, I love my dark brown skin as an act of defiance, as a way to heal the small everyday wounds colonialism causes me. I wear Spiritual Awakening Pants, because I look good in them and sometimes I crave that feeling. I feel guilty while I do it, like I’m legitimising the remnants of colonialism that I see in the patterns of elephants. I get angry at myself for feeling guilty, because they’re just a pair of pants and my mind says that no one is overthinking it like I am. I feel guilty all over again, because clothes are never just clothes. Then I say fuck it and I wear them anyways, because there’s only so much history you can carry on your back before it breaks.
edited by Yvonne.
This type of pants (if they’re the ones I’m picturing) are ubiquitous here in BC. I appreciated reading your nuanced take on this!
Thank you, I really appreciate it! The ones you’re picturing are probably spot on-basically any sort of baggy cotton pants with a super obviously “ethnic” pattern on them.
I’ve really been enjoying But Make It Fashion. These essays are consistently surprising and keep turning received notions on their heads. Something special is being curated here–thanks to all the writers and editors who are making it happen.
Thank you so much for this.
Thank YOU for reading!!
Bee! Argh, where do I start! *word vomit commences*
Everyone else is bi, I’m just indecisive, why do we do this to ourselves??? I’m not trans, I’m just a statistical abnormality on the Kinsey scale. I’m not a lesbian, I’m a boy. I’m not authentic, other people are authentic, authenticity is something people are bestowed with, no one ever called me into their office to tell me. It’s so fucking exhausting, without the element of ethnicity entering into it as well!
Do you know them as fishermen’s pants? I see that you are also semi-Australian! My wife had a pair that she used to wear all the time, including in India (and anywhere else she could), and she always called them fishermen’s pants but in my mind they were always hippie pants.
I remember the first time I saw a skin bleaching ad, on a billboard in Bangalore. Lil’ ol’ only European mixed ethnicity me could not comprehend, but some shrivelled English man in a hostel explained to me how it was a collision of colonialism and the Hindu caste system, but I never knew how serious to take him (especially considering a lot of the other things he said…)
I hope all that history isn’t always pressing so hard on you, and that you get to feel pretty without having to think so damn much about it <3
This was a really really amazing comment. I absolutely loved what you said about authenticity, because yeah it’s definitely something I struggle with a lot and it’s comforting to know that other people grapple with it too. Hopefully we’ll all get to a place where we don’t doubt who we are so viciously. Also, yep I am Australian, but like you, I think of them as hippie pants as well. And goodness, when it comes to colourism… In India (and other communities where colourism is a real issue), beauty is so inextricably linked to being “fair” skinned that it feels impossible to escape. Luckily, there are a lot of really cool dark skinned feminists who are pushing back, so I’m hopeful that things are changing.
Thank you so much for that last line, its been a bit of a journey but I think I’m getting there.
Loved this article, and would love to read more by this writer! I laughed at “Spiritual Awakening Pants.” I’m a white American, but lived in Kathmandu for several years. I took pains *not* to dress like the white hippie tourists and dharma bums who are so frequently seen in Kathmandu, mostly because I wanted to show respect for my Nepali hosts, colleagues, and friends by dressing in a more put-together way. However, after a while, my Nepali host family bought me a pair of Spiritual Awakening Pants as a gift because “all the other white people have them, so we thought you might like to have some.” I did (and still do) enjoy wearing the pants around the house, but never out in public.
Thank you so much Elenor! This is actually the first article I’ve ever written, so that means a lot!! And yeah, the pants are definitely super comfortable to wear, so I totally get it.
Thank you for writing this article.
It means so much to hear you articulate something that has been on my mind a lot. I also wish that I’d never carried around the mistaken belief that ‘it was okay for other people to be bisexual, because they were actually bisexual, unlike me’.
My breath caught on that last sentence.
Thank you so much for reading and for your kind comment!! And oh goodness, that double standard really is killer. I’m so glad that you have been able to get past it!!
Loved this – and totally agree with Elenor that I hope we get to read more of your writing on AS!
Thank you Kayla!!
Thank you for writing this. Loved this piece. ?
I rebought a 3-pack of those discarded sari fabric skirts this summer, which I guess are a cousin of the spiritual awakening pants. When I was a teen, I had two skirts from the used bookstore and occult shop that doubled as the area’s pagan hub in the days before the Internet was a way people regularly connected. The skirts smelled like the incense that was always burning in the store, and it felt home-y. I stopped wearing them after moving to my current city because people in CT don’t seem to wear patterns or bright colors that much and they stood out, and they were ultimately donated.
But early this summer, I felt a pang of loneliness and nostalgia and decided to find them again because I needed some kind of anchor and 2018 America is just hard. I remembered all of the times we’d had Midsummer rituals and cookouts in the store’s backyard and their backyard pool. It was a good purchase.
Thank you Kaye!! Also, I’m glad that your skirts have helped anchor you. It’s good to allow yourself some peace wherever you can find it ❤️