It was my twelfth birthday and I was in New York vacationing with my parents and brother. New York was a world away from the sleepy town of Luanshya, Zambia where I was from (and which I loved). The noise, the lights, the gigantic stores, and oh, the people. So many of them! My heart could barely contain the excitement.
It was one of these stores that had coaxed out my blossoming womanhood. I had spotted the perfect outfit at Macy’s. It was a red dress that fell slightly below my knees, delicate flower patterns adding that extra touch to the femininity I was ready to embrace. Although Luanshya couldn’t compete with the thrill of the Big Apple, I was now ready to embark upon my own exciting journey towards womanhood. And, I would take a little bit of New York back with me.
I hadn’t owned dresses in a while, instead preferring shorts or better still, a swimsuit, the water baby that I was. But now, at twelve, my body seemed eager to manifest its new-found expression. Sure, I still loved the shorts and the swimsuit, the cartwheels and dives, but I felt different in that red dress, its waistband accentuating a hint of a future hourglass figure. And that high-cut at the side made me feel so grown-up while reminding me that I could break into a swift run if an adventure were to beckon, much like my idol Jacklyn Smith did on Charlie’s Angles while hunting down hardened criminals in her glamorous outfits. From now on, this dress would be my faithful companion to social gatherings. I’m sure nobody even noticed, but I for one knew the super-woman within. Why, that red dress might as well have belonged to Wonder Woman (another favourite), because, incongruous as it may sound, it had given me a confidence – and strength – like never before. A confidence and strength that lay in my identity as a woman.
The next year, it was time to “return” to India, the red dress packed away in a suitcase along with assurances that I would still be me in faraway, unfamiliar territory. Moments after I stepped off the plane, however, I sensed things would be different. The body that owned the red dress with such aplomb would now come under intense scrutiny. It was “a little too nice,” declared a relative who barely thirty fancied herself the family matriarch, delivering advice and pronouncements at every move you made. My backside was singled out as the major culprit, albeit sympathetically, for I had inherited it – “When I first met your mother, she had beautiful long hair, and she was super skinny, although her bum has always been big”; years later, even my five-year-old niece wouldn’t be spared – “Looks like your granddaughter will have a big bottom just like yours!” Every single day some jibe disguised as concern would leave you doubting yourself and desperate to make amends.
One evening, I decided it was time for the red dress to work its magic. I was fatigued from fighting social and cultural displacement. I was missing Luanshya. I was missing Vibha – a bright, funny, confident person. As I slipped into the dress, I felt the soft, reassuring murmur of the fabric against my skin. How silly of me to get lost in this bizarre environment! How stupid of me to feel like I had to shrink myself to fit into the small world of unhappy, frustrated individuals!
But alas, I had forgotten how the dress clung to me. Not only was my “a little too nice” body on display, I could have sworn my bum had grown a hundred-fold in a month. I remember walking careful, dainty steps begging it not to wobble. I remember waiting for the dress to shake off unwelcome messages and to transform me into the confident person I had been before coming “back home.” But nothing happened. Not one to give up, I boldly stepped into the balcony where I could see my uncle and aunt returning from grocery shopping. “Go help carry their stuff upstairs,” said my father. I was petrified. If I stepped out, the whole world would see my bum and how it was too big to fit into this alien place I had landed in. I just couldn’t humiliate myself. I stood my ground, unable to explain to my dad why I couldn’t go, his anger at my refusal growing with their every advanced step. I felt doubly crushed – not only had the dress let me down, but in my insistence to be myself I had disappointed my father, the one person I loved more than anyone else in the world.
Ten minutes later, I was back in a loose-fitting gown. I had grown accustomed to such clothes; clothes that would swallow me up and hide the body I was coming to be ashamed of, clothes that concealed stubborn curves and bumps with their stark, vertical outlines, clothes that blended me into the curtains. It was a lot safer to be invisible, I realized.
The next day I took the dress out of the closet. I held it up against me and looked at my reflection in the mirror for encouragement. Perhaps yesterday was an anomaly, I thought. After all, I had worn it a dozen times in Luanshya and it had never failed me. But I could not recognize the person staring back at me. She looked confused, angry even, as if wondering how I could have dared to wear something so bold. How I could have dared to think that celebrating being a woman could be a beautiful, empowering thing.
I took it out again the next day. I knew what I had to do. As I held it close to my heart, flashes of the past appeared before me and I had to walk away, into a safe, dark corner; what had once lit up my world was now blinding me. As I passed it on to my cousin, I whispered a soft good-bye. To Luanshya. To New York. And to my soul.
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. She is an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of New Mexico.