Yesterday, on a bumpy bus ride home from Dhaka, Bangladesh I watched a Bengali soap opera and did a bit of math. I will have been to eleven countries, flown out of thirteen separate airports, slept in over seventy-eight different beds, gotten more food-related sickness than any one female could have ever dreamed of, and mastered the proper stance over a “squatty potty,” all within a span of twelve months. God, I’m good.
Despite this, a wardrobe malfunction last week prevented me from reaching that high peak of powerful femininity. It was a clear, concrete incident that left me feeling as if my body would never be free again. Those men did not appreciate my curves, my outline, even my body as a whole. Now, I came to Bangladesh knowing full well how men here view the female body. We are forced to wear baggy salwar kameezes so that nobody feels uncomfortable seeing my sexy calf, or (calm yourself) my shoulders. But, it wasn’t until this incident that it really hit me that I feel incredibly self-conscious of my body in this country. Even my ketchup-on-the-butt-of-my-favorite-white-jeans in seventh grade incident could hold a candle up to my walk home from school in a traditional Chittagong Hill Tracts wrap skirt.
The day was hot. For all of you enjoying a hot cup of cocoa while snowflakes float to the ground, I am green with envy of your life. Please picture me sweltering in the middle of a Chittagong traffic jam at a scorching 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with my sweaty hair plastered to the side of my face and wearing a gigantic NorthFace backpack full of books, a laptop, and papers that needed grading. I had left school early that day because I wanted to avoid the greasy cafeteria food and prepare some fresh lentils at my apartment (my first and last attempt at eating healthy here).
The walk from the university campus to my apartment takes approximately thirty minutes and it’s full of titillating obstacles: rabid dogs, careless rickshaws, bumper-to-bumper traffic, men staring at your white skin and ankles, sewage potholes in the sidewalk, and of course, women and children hounding you for spare taka (local currency).
After an estimated three minutes outside the university walls, I quickly realized that I had made a terrible mistake. My wrap dress (literally just a piece of hand-woven cloth wrapped around my waist) was beginning to fall slowly off my hips and make its way down to the uneven pavement. I am half Mexican and if you have ever questioned my heritage, then look no further than these Shakira-and-Beyonces-love-child-hips to affirm any doubt: my hips don’t lie. And that cloth was not agreeing with the movement of my hyper-aware-hips at this point.
But, I had too much pride to return to my office and fix the outfit. And I was too scared to stop anywhere between the university and my apartment to even attempt to re-wrap the skirt. So what did I do? I simply held the pieces of cloth tightly in my hand hoping to God that everything would stay in one place. But it was hot, and my hands grew increasingly sweatier with each passing block of fruit stands, crowded cha (milk tea) stations, and concrete mixers.
Since arriving in Chittagong four months ago, I realized that I have mastered the avert-your-eye-gaze-as-to-not-attract-any-unwanted-stares-or-smiles from local men. It’s incredible, really, how I can walk past a group of Bangladeshi men and simply look right past. It has become a survival tactic for me here.
I engaged this tactic while gripping the pieces of cloth in my palms. I couldn’t bear the thought of what men and women were thinking as I passed them, huffing and clutching my clothes. But sometimes that is the beautiful thing about living in a country that does not see many tourists; I kept thinking, “Alright, I am banking on the fact that they don’t know what ‘normal’ female tourist behavior is.” So I went with it, jamming to Florence and the Machine on my ipod, and questioning my own moral code.
I am happy to say that everything stayed covered (at least I hope so) even to the dismay of the blistering Bangladeshi sunrays and uneven sidewalks. Of course, there were a couple close calls (and possibly some Bangladeshi catcalls) but I made it home in one frazzled piece and swore to myself that next time I would bring safety pins.
Read more about Lauren’s travels on her blog: http://thedailybang.wordpress.com/