Like the fabulous Gori Girl, I have a serious case of sari envy. In the mornings, I run past an Indian bridal boutique, my feet slowing as I take in the richly hued fabric sewn with tiny gold discs and glass beads. On weekends, I linger longer, pointing out my favorites to my husband, playing dress-up in my head. Behind the saris, though, are yet more gorgeous outfits: shalwar kameez glimmer in the half-shadow of the closed store, clinging to the mannequins just-so, their lines smooth and unflawed as a perfect cup of chai. On those runs, I promise myself I’ll come back when the store is open and try one on, just for the fun of it. If it’s a good fit, I tell myself, I might even buy it.
Lucky for our finances, the money is safe. I never walk to the boutique during open hours. Most days, the kidlet and I walk on the other side of the road, if not in the opposite direction, because my ego can’t handle walking into the store. My ego? I know, I know. It’s stood up to many things: women giggling at me in stores, men using my questionable ethnicity as a pick up line, even slights on my cooking. Truly, though, I can’t walk into an Indian boutique and try on a shalwar kameez--because I’m the wrong shape.
There’s a stereotype about Indian women: young women are short and sapling slender with thick black hair; older women are short, fat, and losing their thick black hair because it's busy migrating to their chins. While the stereotypes aren’t entirely true, there is one common factor--height.
I fit neither profile. Although I’m happy most of my hair is still on my head, my measurements are, in some ways, the bane of my rather pedestrian Indian life. I’m 5’9, have broad hips, and take a US 6. My shoulders are broad, my arms muscular from a combination of baby-toting and Pilates. My legs are relatively slim, save for my calves. My calves are thick, not sinewed, but well-muscled runner’s calves that eschew fitted pants of any sort. In European or Western clothing, I’m fine. Indian clothing, not so much. Modern shalwar kameez pants are, for me, a sad fashion catch 22: if they fit over my calves, pants reach only just past my knees; if pants reach past my knees, I can barely pull them over my calves.
According to my mother--and mothers everywhere--it’s what’s on the inside that counts. My Indianness is, or should be, innate. I should know it without the trappings, without worrying about my coloring or my calf-size. Yet when in doubt, acting like a duck, or an Indian, makes me feel more Indian, more like I belong. But there is only so much dal a girl can eat, only so many bangles she can wear (I did get lucky in the bangle department: I have small, flexible wrists and can wear most kids’ jewelry). Worse, my pale-as-milk sister-in-law wears shalwar kameez and saris more often than I do, because, skin color aside, she fits the profile: she’s slim and short, with regular-sized calves. While I have three saris tucked away in my overstuffed wardrobe, Susan* has an entire chest brimming with saris and kameez that would make most women weep.
Boston and Cambridge have a lot of Indians. There are at least four Indian restaurants in nearby Harvard Square, another two in Davis, and more opening all the time. Exit my front door and walk in any direction and you’ll eventually hit an Indian restaurant or grocer. They’re as ubiquitous as poor weather days and Red Sox caps. Unlike home, not many of the younger women wear kameez in public. Once upon a time, I’d look at any Indian woman and turn green (or at least a paler shade of camel) with kameez envy. Recently, though, I’ve noticed a trend: more and more of these young, modern Indian women look like me. True, they have darker skin and much better hair, but they’re also tall--each generation is a little taller than the last. Most sport the legacy of a fit and healthy lifestyle: some have yoga arms and shoulders; others have runner’s or dancer’s calves. Indian women, as a whole, are changing. Some may be half-Indian like me, others just a genetic jackpot of height and muscle. A new stereotype is emerging, fast enough that one day soon, I may actually fit some semblance of “Indian figure”. So while I mayn’t be wearing kameez today, I might just find the perfect fit tomorrow, or the next day, or the next...
Do you wear shalwar kameez? Do you have trouble finding kameez that fit? Or are you a sari girl?
*Name changed to protect the fashionable