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  • Astha Sharma

How Altering Our Fashion Can Save Lives

If the representation of inclusive gender expression can discourage bullying, and help avoid suicides among people exploring the gender and sexuality spectrum, we need to alter our fashion.


AI generated image of a busy street in India with clothing stores

West Delhi’s Rohini Market: a place where the locals pop by to purchase anything, ranging from a hairbrush to a thaan of the finest fabric of their choice. Tired of the malls in my city, I decided this would be a better place to buy my 4-year-old niece a gift. Having completed playschool, she was soon going to join a formal school, so a school bag and a stationary pouch sounded like a good idea. I entered the store and told the storekeeper that I wanted a school bag for a 4-year-old. ‘I need two pockets for the books, a small one for the lunchbox, and a side pocket for the water bottle,’ I said.

‘Ladke ke liye hai ya ladki ke liye, madam?’ came the response.

Is it for a boy or a girl, madam?

I spent the next 20 minutes explaining to the storekeeper and his help over and over again, that I didn’t care if it was pink or blue, whether it had the Avengers or unicorns, I wanted a bag with two full pockets, one half-pocket, and one side-pocket. And I repeated the exercise for the pouch. I got a really cute navy pouch with an astronaut graphic, but the bag was a difficult choice.

AI generated image of a young girl wearing a red backpack with a spiderman graphic on it

I think I settled for a red, Spiderman graphic, because:

  • it made practical sense as it met all my requirements; and

  • my niece had spent the last two years climbing up windows like him and understood the concept of superheroes

But it shouldn’t have been that hard, the same way that it shouldn’t have been so hard for distant relatives to let my dearest, male-presenting friend apply mehendi and nail paint to my wedding. Neither should it have been so hard for our classmates at university to let my cis-het male friends grow out their luscious locks and partake in Latin dancing classes, nor should it have taken me days to mentally prepare my darling mother-in-law before I got a pixie cut.

When did the society of jata-donning, and jewellery-wearing men start shunning fashion and othering it, labelling it ‘for femme-use only’? When did it become the norm to bully children into conforming to heteronormative gender expression?

Shahid Kapoor as King Ratan Sing in the movie Padmavat
Shahid Kapoor as Raja Ratan Singh

With our political leaders being ignorant and denying the existence of any other gender besides male and female, while simultaneously openly objectifying and belittling women, it is no surprise the average Indian worships the ideal of a ‘macho man’. Everyone wants to either be, or be associated with one as it builds their ego up on the pre-existing, fabricated narrative of the abala naari, a helpless woman. Granted, this sexist binary is an international pandemic, but how and why did it find its way into the land of flamboyant maharajas, and nawabs?

We owe justice to the millions today who dare to connect with their true selves and explore the entire spectrum of being human, and we owe justice to the billions who will continue exploring. We owe justice to every child. like Arvey Malhotra, who has ever dared, or will ever dare, to be themselves, explore, and defy the heteronormative gender expression - they deserves better. In the land where we continue telling tales of Chanakya’s choti (ponytail), and represent our rishis with long hair, where we continue celebrating Ardhanareshwari, and cross-dressing for Devi Bhagawati at Kottamkulangara Chamayavilkku, and where we embrace the history of art-loving, Mughal shehenshahs, dressed in sherwanis embroidered with flower motifs, we must allow Bappi Lahari his necklaces, and Ranveer Singh his colourful garbs.

If the representation of inclusive gender expression can discourage bullying, and help avoid suicides among people exploring the gender and sexuality spectrum, we need to alter our fashion.

We need to provide comfort in more ways than one. We need to provide safe spaces at home, and in schools, for our children to find themselves. We need more mothers like Aarti Malhotra. We need more siblings like Diksha Bijlani. We need more dialogue about the gender spectrum, and we definitely need more gender-neutral, and practical school bags.

A Special Thanks

Ms. Aarti Malhotra, for allowing me to share Arvey and her story as a part of this article. You can follow her on Instagram for updates regarding Arvey's case. #JusticeForArvey

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