Let Them Stare

I wear running shorts when I run. So edgy right? Well, depends who you ask. I know this wouldn’t be that fantastical of a statement usually, except, I’m currently in India. And I’m a grown woman. And here, even in the bustling cosmopolitan city of Mumbai, in 2016, the general fact remains that women don’t wear shorts.

Women exercise in a variety of different outfits including leggings that cover the entire leg, or that go below the knee, or even a kurta and churidar, or other traditional wear, often paired with jogging shoes. But a woman wearing running shorts to run,or even shorts in general, is not a common sight. (Side note: I don’t know what it’s like at gyms and exercise clubs because they are way too expensive for the average person to join. Another blog on that coming soon.)

I’m not saying that women never wear shorts. I’m only saying that it’s rare (other than at marathons and similar sporting events, I would assume), which to me is fairly odd. Now, I wouldn’t have an issue with this if it was a phenomenon across the genders. But the fact is, men wear shorts all the time. And they often wear typical gym wear when they run. Women, on the other hand, are relegated to the mores of propriety and conservatism. Couples exercising together are a strange sight because the man will be wearing comfortable gym shorts and a tee and woman will be in clothes that cover anything and everything remotely offensive. Odd right?

So, I will give you that I am really no one to judge what people wear and how they decide to live their lives. However, I will argue that this general way of things reflects the underlying misogyny that is prevalent in this society. That being said, the point of this post isn’t other people’s wardrobe choices. It’s about my own experience of trying to make exercise a part of my routine. When I jog or run, I wear running shorts that fall a couple inches above my knees paired with a comfortable t-shirt.

The only problem is that the staring is dreadful and incomprehensible. The men are terrible. The women are only slightly better. It’s so bad that I’m usually more exhausted psychologically from the staring than from the physical exertion of running. It’s exhausting when I try to ignore it. It’s even more exhausting when I try to give those people staring my stink eye. Yeah, I typed that right. Sometimes, I give them my stink eye. Or my “What’s your problem?” look. Because I refuse to avert my eyes. Why should I be ashamed when I have done nothing wrong?

These aren’t passing glances or even second looks. I’m talking about full on staring me up and down. If they catch my stink eye, they’ll usually look away. Some look away nonchalantly in an effort to play down the nasty violation they just engaged in. And some look away with the discomfort of being caught ripe on their faces. Yet others will begrudgingly peel their eyes away, only to glance back half a second later with that weird, even scary, animal-like look in their eyes that exposes a sexually repressed society.

I know I’m going to get pushback from well-meaning people who say that I should “respect the culture” and not impose my values on them and to be wise about which fights to pick. But here’s the thing: I’m not imposing anything. And if shorts aren’t part of the culture, why do the men get to wear them? So this whole women-don’t-wear-shorts policy isn’t any kind of cultural issue. It’s a sexism issue. It’s a systemic oppression issue. Furthermore, I don’t think I need to remind anyone of India’s recent history of violence against women that regularly made international news. The militant staring might be a soft violation, but the gang rapes are simply the other end of this same continuum. The only “cultural issue” here is misogyny, sexism, and the objectification and oppression of women. And I’m not sure I owe it “respect”.

And so, here’s what I have to say to the utterly unenlightened men who have no shame, no respect for women, no self-respect, and no sense of common decency and boundaries: You don’t get to win. You don’t get to decide how I feel about myself. You don’t get to control what I wear. You don’t get to take my freedom from me. So take a good look. This is what a woman who is exercising looks like: sweaty, powerful, and unashamed. Not to mention, here’s the bigger picture: this is what a woman in shorts looks like. She has legs—surprise!

To the women who stare, I say: Take a good look, sister. And allow me to let you in on a little secret: You can be free too. You can say no to patriarchy and misogyny and discrimination and the backwards notions that have held you down for so long. The metamorphosis itself can be uncomfortable, but when you finally taste the sweetness of freedom, oh darling, there’s nothing that can stop you.

I’m going to keep doing my thing, and take the advice a couple of my best girlfriends gave me a few months ago: Let them stare. I know I’m breaking convention and shaking up status quo. And I’m okay with that. I’d rather introduce people to a new way of living instead of crawling back into the oppressive box I worked so hard to break out of.

So let them stare because their eyes are opening to a new and beautiful reality. Let them stare because they have nothing better to do. Let them stare because ultimately they want to be you. Your body is nothing to be ashamed of.

© Copyright Benita Grace Joy 2016

P.S. Creative Sabbath, Navigating New Realities, and follow my travels on Instagram!

 

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