I Grew Up Being Slut-Shamed By My South Asian Parents

My mother would suggest that if I walked around in short skirts then I would get what was coming to me.

Apr 3, 2014 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

On a recent trip to visit my dad in Abu Dhabi, where he now works and lives, I was reprimanded for what I wearing -- a loose boatneck tee with baggy printed pants -- not by a stranger, but by my father. I hadn’t seen him for years, and had thought we were past this stage. I stood there, first flabbergasted and then frustrated, on the verge of tears that I only unleashed later in the privacy of my own space. For me, the ignominy of being rebuked by my parents has a far greater effect than many might imagine. 
 
For years I wondered why I suffered from such severe body dysmorphia, unsure why I couldn’t accept myself for all the things that I am. Even if I couldn’t fully believe that I was beautiful, I wanted to at least allow that I was -- I am -- a human, a woman, alive, and that I have so much to be grateful for. But the seemingly innocuous things that many parents say to their children -- about what they wear, how they act, their weight, their acne, the size of their nose or their ass -- affect how children learn (or don’t learn) to accept themselves. 
 
Passing comments are loaded, as was this comment from my father. It was loaded with the history of our family and the interactions I had growing up with parents who always seemed to disapprove of my style choices, always encouraging me to dress better (read: more conservative, less slutty). 
 
 
Growing up in a South Asian household has its downsides. I understand generational and cultural gaps will always create some kind of disconnect; my mother’s style icon is Jackie Kennedy, whereas I’m more of a “whatever” kind of girl. There are things she couldn’t condone my wearing, and that’s OK, but for me it really comes down to how that’s communicated. My parents judged and criticized my clothing constantly. I was side-eyed anytime I wore something they deemed inappropriate (which was most of my wardrobe). If I wore anything tight, they harassed me until I changed. 
 
In an essay for my blog and podcast, Two Brown Girls, “On Struggling With Selfies,” I wrote, “South Asian mothers like to ridicule. They think it builds strength, but it really just enables brutality.”
 
Telling a young girl she can’t wear what she wants because it’s not appropriate encourages the idea that men’s reactions should dictate society’s norms, and that all women are meta-Eves, tempting and ensnaring men with our sultry-eyed gaze. My parents’ culture is steeped in patriarchy, in the philosophy of the one-step machismo machine, where there is just one kind of man, and two kinds of women: the angel and the whore. These limited ideas of masculinity breed men who want ownership of women. 
 
From a young age I was taught that it was my responsibility to make sure I didn’t attract unwelcome attention or stares. Unfortunately for me, most stares are unwelcome, whether they’re meant to be positive or not. Somehow I always feel the burn of the male gaze. If a man gawks at me, it never feels admiring or uplifting, but rather insidious. Men ogle with no remorse, as if you’re their property. But it’s not admiration; it’s toxic. 
 
When I was younger, if I wanted to wear anything my mom considered inappropriate, she’d look me dead in the face, her eyes burning, and ask, “Why not just walk around naked? At least that gets right to the point.” It was rarely useful and always insulting advice. I started believing my body was a sin. 
 
I had an ass, I had tits, and I would stand in the shower pressing down hard on my chest, wishing my breasts would go away, pinching my nipples in the hope that they’d fall off. I didn’t want to bear the brunt of my mother’s anger anymore. I didn’t want to be seductive. But to her, I was. She unwittingly sexualized me through this whole process. I grew up far quicker than other girls my age because I understood the weapon between my legs. But instead of being excited by it, I was dangerously ashamed. 
 
In later years, my mother would suggest that if I walked around in short skirts then I would get what was coming to me -- as in rape, or any kind of sexual violence. According to her, there was no reason a woman wore a short skirt other than to “ask for” harassment. To me, it seemed she was suggesting that fashion was only for men. 
 
The frustrating politics of this language is that it implies women are responsible for rape or sexual violence -- the only crime where the victim is guilty until proven innocent. The New York Times published an article early last week about the linguistics of the word “homosexual,” and how the old-fashioned terminology denotes the historical implications of that word. Like the “n-word,” which is loaded with meaning, “homosexual” also has a legacy, as does the language that describes women, and their assaults. 
 
In his new book, “White Girls,” cultural critic Hilton Als imagines himself as silent film star -- and child sex abuse survivor -- Louise Brooks, writing, “My beauty was a conduit for violence against me.” So, too, are all acts of violence against women, whether physical or verbal. 
 
My parents’ language sowed deep seeds of self-doubt, which have left me feeling confused and alienated. I know, in the end, my parents thought that they were equipping me for the world, and I know they never intended to hurt me. But the shame they taught me hurts, and its roots are deep. So parents, take heed: there are more effective ways to open up dialogue. Teach your sons to respect women while they’re young, and treat your daughters with respect. Never underestimate the power of your words.
Posted in Issues