By Sunanda Chatterjee
"Did you know there's such a thing as tights?" asked my four year old daughter, her streaked dusty cheeks bearing the tell-tale sign of having cried sometime during the day. She was wearing her usual play clothes of long pants and sweatshirt for daycare. It was nearly six o'clock and the daycare was ready to close. I was a bit late from work and relieved that I'd made it before six and avoided a late-pick-up fee.
"Eh?" I said, vacantly licking my finger and wiping off some grime from her face, wondering what had made my usually happy child cry.
"Tights. You can wear them under a skirt. Or a dress. Ellen told me."
"Oh, tights? Yeah, I've heard of them."
"Well, I want them."
"I've also heard they are really uncomfortable."
"Ellen wears them. I want them too."
Tights. Okay, so I'm an immigrant to the United States, a conservative middle-class Indian woman who only wore sarees or salwaar kameez back home. Many years ago, when I was a month into my graduate studies in the United States, I realized that adorned in a saree, I wasn't making an adequate impact on my peers with my Powerpoint presentation on polymerase chain reaction. Some gazed at the red dot on my forehead, while others stared at the gaudy border on my carefully draped silk saree. So I decided that in order to blend in with the people of my adopted country, I must attempt to look like them.
I went to the local K-mart and bought a couple of blouses and long skirts, and a pair of black pumps to go with them. The first day back at school, the pumps nearly killed my blistered feet. A long distance call to my sister brought about another visit to K-mart. "It's the friction," said my sister. I returned with bags full of knee-highs. Incidentally, K-mart also sells band-aids.
I soon realized that knee-highs eventually became ankle-lows, and it's not acceptable to fasten them with rubber-bands. Another call to my sister revealed the existence of panty-hose. It stays up, she said. I bought them at the K, which, by the way, also sells corn-caps. Now the thing about panty-hose is that while it makes your scarred and hairy legs look satiny smooth and silky, it is made of nylon and by the end of the day, your feet smell like high school boys' changing rooms, or on a good day, like the backside of a horse. Besides, after one or two washes, they develop laddering or runs. And wearing ripped panty-hose is worse than being seen in a saree or ankle-lows.
After listening intently to my predicament, my sister suggested tights. I told her I thought they were the same as panty-hose. She said, no. Tights are of thicker material and are more durable. It turns out that tights, of which I bought only a two-pack, for three of my beige panty-hose lay unused in my dresser, amplify the stink-trouble. Besides, they are more suffocating and uncomfortable than panty-hose if you have a paunch or flabby thighs.
After a month of dusting my feet with baby powder in the mornings and rubbing lotion on my tummy and thighs at bed-time, I gathered enough courage to ask one laboratory assistant at work for suitable alternatives. She suggested cotton tights. They are a bit more comfortable, and don't make your feet smell, she said. You get them in colored packs by the dozen. On my weekly trip to K-mart, which by the way also sold flat heeled 'sensible' shoes, I bought a dozen cotton tights, thinking I had found the panacea. Cotton tights worked well until I washed them. They lost their color and texture and grew ugly pill. After a couple of washes when I wore them, I looked like a freshly sheared sheep.
Come the second phase of 'blending-in.' I bought khaki pants. And black pants. Also navy blue. That's a decision I've never regretted.
"So can we buy them?" asked my daughter from her car-seat.
"Buy what?" I asked, looking at her in the rear-view mirror.
"Tights," she said, exasperated.
"Why do you want tights?"
"You told me I can only wear pants in winter. The girls said I should wear skirts like them. I said it's cold. They said they wear tights."
"Why do you want to look like them?" I asked.
"I want to play with them. They said no, coz I dress funny."
"What's funny about pants?"
"Mamma, I want to play with the girls."
My daughter has been somewhat of a tom-boy. As a matter of principle, I don't buy pink outfits. The girls' clothes in all stores always seem far too short or much too tight, so I buy her clothes from the boys' section. She also has her older brother's assorted hand-me-down night-suits which display things from tractors to Power Rangers. Two of her best (and only) friends are boys, Andrew and Peter. The three have a whale of a time in the daycare climbing the monkey bars, and building dragon-castles in the sandbox. But somewhere down the line, my daughter yearned to play with the girls, who gather around the swings to talk and play with their dolls. My daughter has no dolls. She plays with her brother's dinky-cars and action figures at home.
I met with the Director of the daycare and complained that the girls said my daughter dressed funny. I asked that the Director force the girls to let my daughter play with them. The Director asked my daughter, "Sweetie, why do you want to play with Ellen? Why don't you play with Crystal or Nina?"
"I want to play with Ellen and her friends," said my daughter, firmly.
The Director told me Ellen is one of the meanest girls in daycare. But she agreed to talk to her. "So what if she dresses funny? You have to let her play with you."
The next day, my daughter was sitting by herself in the grass by the swings, wiping tears from her eyes when I came to pick her up. Andrew stuck his tongue out at her and Ellen walked past her like she didn't exist.
"If only you'd let me buy tights," said my poor daughter.
On the way back home, I bought a couple of pink-purple and white dresses, a few pairs of tights and a pair of ballerina shoes for my daughter; I know about wanting to blend-in. Dressed in her new pink clothes, I admit she looked like a princess. She said had a great day. She played with the dolls with Ellen and her friends. All day she ignored Andrew and Peter, who asked her if she was mad at them. Andrew said he was sorry for sticking his tongue out at her yesterday. She told him she just wanted to play with the girls from now on. On the way home, when her ballerina shoes slipped off her feet, my son told her that her feet stank like a wild boar. She made a face and hit him with his Superman.
The next day she wore her white dress with white tights. During lunch she spilled chocolate milk on herself, and the girls said she was messy. That evening when I picked her up, she was playing with her two boy-friends. Andrew had pasta-sauce on his shirt and Peter's shirt had evidence that he'd consumed strawberry milk. The three of them hung upside-down on the monkey-bars like contented bats, hair swaying in the cool breeze.
Back in the car, my daughter stuck her feet up to her brother's nose. As he grimaced, she grinned from ear to ear and said, "I'll wear pants from tomorrow."
So, you Misogynistic Makers of women's apparel, the Chatterjee women have made their choice.