Yesterday I got off the Metro after a hectic day of lectures, dialogues on social issues and wading through sluggish traffic. Wearing an oversized white sweatshirt with skin-fit jeans, I went through the crowd while listening to Someone you loved by Lewis Capaldi. Just then, two women (college students)  joined me and initiated a conversation. After talking about certain youth organisation that they were a part of, they said, “You are really simple and decent. We thought you are a Christian and so wanted to know if you would join our organization which is exclusively for their interaction.”

The words both amusedt and irritated me. While I could not stop laughing at how aptly they described me on the basis of my clothes, it was ridiculous how they associated my appearance to a particular religion or community. This made me wonder, how do you really define yourself? If they had not approached me, perhaps to confirm their judgement, I would have always been a “Christian” to them with allegiance to certain beliefs or ideas that I don’t identify with. Unfortunately, this is how our society works.

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That encounter took me back to many such instances when I was blindly judged on the basis of how I look. My clothes have often been used to define my gender, my academic performance, my character and now religion too! I remember, a couple of years back, my parents’ neighbour in my home town appreciated me for my academic excellence and said, “Girls who study, do not wear bindis”. These seemingly insignificant comments and prejudices on appearance could be easily ignored if they weren’t so stereotypical, sexist and divisive.

Where do these stereotypes come from?

Each judgement that is made on the basis of appearance is a result of the ideas and experiences that have been acquired or ingrained in our minds from our conditioning. For example, a sharply dressed person automatically makes us think they come from a well-to-do family or earn well. Or a woman who wears western clothes is “loose” and a guy with a pierced ear or a tattoo is “shady”.

If they had not approached me, perhaps to confirm their judgement, I would have always been a “Christian” to them with allegiance to certain beliefs or ideas that I don’t identify with. Unfortunately, this is how our society works.

We carry these stigmas that co-relate behaviour and attitude to clothes and appearance everywhere with us. To college, to metro stations, and even to work. The reason being that many of us have grown up with them and thus they are deeply rooted in our conscience. These stigmas, in fact, become the basis of our acquaintance with people. We decide whom to befriend and whom to let into our lives, based on our understanding of what makes for a”good” or “bad” person, and appearance forms a big part of it in our society. Since stigmas around religion, gender and caste have a cultural influence on us, they find their way into this equation too.

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How a person’s religion is unfairly judged by his 0r her looks

In my case, I was narrowed down to “simple and decent woman who is definitely a Christian.” Where does this correlation between simplicity and Christianity come from? Are there no Christians who dress vibrantly and are outspoken? Or, do people of other religions masquerade in their fineries all throughout the year? Similarly, a woman in a hijab is perceived to be oppressed with an assumption that she is forced by Patriarchy and religious norms to do so. Why can’t it be her conscious choice to wear or to not wear a hijab, deep-red vermillion or other symbols to showcase her beliefs? This practice of judging and segregating people by identifying their religion from their appearance points out how pervasive is religious identity in our society. No matter what you believe in, if you wear saffron or green, for instance, you have already been enclosed in a binary and its prejudices.

Appearance as a ground for gender discrimination

On the other hand, appearance also conforms to gender stereotypes. Even today, a woman wearing a T-shirt receives a lot of stares. Moreover, the card of appearance is always played by patriarchy to judge a woman’s character. In my case, the fact that I did not wear bindis projected me as a sincere student as opposed to my friends who like dressing vibrantly. Since when the intelligence and creativity of a woman depend on whether she wears a bindi or not? Perhaps, it comes from the idea that education and employment are predominantly a masculine domain and if a woman wants to make a space for herself in it, she should look masculine.

No matter what you believe in, if you wear saffron or green, for instance, you have already been enclosed in a binary and its prejudices.

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Though ultimately every woman is pushed to put on makeup and jewellery “for the sake of being a woman”, whether she likes it or not. I remember my close relative was asked to walk in front of her future in-laws to see if she can do it right and to change into a saree and then salwar kameez. Why does society follow such double standards and narrow everything down to the appearance?

When discrimination starts with appearance, where does equality begin?

Rudrani Kumari is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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