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The Behenji Phobia

Posted: January 18, 2013

Prashila is an aspiring writer from Goa, who also happens to be slogging at a daytime technical job which is miles away from these apparently artistic aspirations she harbours. A “hopeful cynic”, she longs for the day when every child in India will have two complete meals to eat and a permanent school to attend.

I recently visited a jeweler’s shop to get a second piercing done on both my ears. The idea had been making its rounds in my mind for quite some time now, but it never materialized, mainly due to the fear of the pain that would ensue with the methods that would be employed to undertake it ; but with my parents for company, I finally decided to just “go for it”, considering how I wasn’t getting any younger and the skin on my earlobes wasn’t getting any softer.

My mother explained my requirements to the jeweler man and he gave me various options , but being the generally unadventurous person that I am, I was on the verge of developing cold feet. The jeweler jumped in cheerfully, “Why? In your Goa everything works doesn’t it ? All sorts of weird fashions? ” My parents smiled politely – this was meant to be a joke , one that demanded a smile , but my father went ahead, “She doesn’t live in Goa anymore, she lived in Bombay before and now lives elsewhere .” The jeweler ‘Oh’ed in response.

“She works in Bangalore at a senior post”, my mother added and then added some more . The jeweler ‘Oh’ed further and then added, “She looks so simple , doesn’t look like she is so educated and all. So simple , the way she dresses , the way she is.” My mother now added some more saying how I liked to be a ‘simple person’ and refused to change myself  etc.  etc. My father smiled some more and I… I sighed, with 90% amusement and 10% exasperation.

Indian WomanThis wasn’t the first time I was being judged and indirectly christened a “behenji” based on my appearance. My earliest memory (I am sure there are many such incidents prior to that , but I have possibly not paid attention to them) dated to my first year in college when some of my close friends  and I were seated on a bench near our college bus stop waiting for the bus to take us to the nearest town’s bus station . We were all barely 17, dressed in decently tailored salwaar suits, our longish hair was tied in plaits/pony tails , some of us wore glasses and all of us wore flat sandals and were completely unpretentious. Enter a few second year students , terribly bored and frustrated with the general lack of  ‘quality’ female presence on the campus. Needless to say, they hardly spotted us for the longest time even as we were worried with the possibility of them still using us for some silly and uninspired ragging , but when they did get to the bench and the connecting bus turned to be later than usual, their bored eyes must have begun to rove around and finally must have stopped on us .

“FEs re hi , auntyo kashi distaat marei”, I suddenly heard one of them say in Konkani (this loosely means ‘These are First Year students… they look like aunties man’). The others probably must have stopped at this point and looked at us too and then universally stamping us with behenjihood , considered us unworthy of any further comments or glances. I chuckled as a 17 year old would and told my friends who chuckled along.

Since then there have been multiple instances when completely unknown people have commented on my lack of ‘grooming’ and lack of ‘fashion’ and yet the gleeful sadist in me refuses to transform myself from an ugly duckling to a sparkling swan.

We as a planet are extremely looks conscious, often judging a person by how well he or she is dressed and how straight a woman’s hair is and how fair and lovely her complexion is. All the rest of their qualities and accomplishments take a backseat in view of their appearance. In fact we all know how the last couple of decades have seen an unprecedented growth in people willingly spending hoards of money in self grooming even to the extent of getting “under the knife” and having parts of their skin crafted and re-crafted to get that perfect nose , the perfect pout , those perfect thighs and what not.

Naturally, people like us stand out as a sore thumb, the aunties, the behenjis, the simpletons, the ones who to put it in very, very simple words are just ‘being themselves’.

Strange! Because in the self-help/motivational section of any bookstore, one can find so many glossy written ‘self-help’ books which are peppered with sentences like , ‘Love yourself the way you are , be comfortable in your own skin and be comfortable with yourself rather than doing what others do. Listen to your heart and be yourself ‘ etc. Ditto with so many motivational speakers. I knew this way before anyone ever told me and contrary to what the jeweler man thinks or the second year boys think , I don’t or would not want anyone to consider  me or others like me any lesser to a smartly dressed woman/girl with salon treated hair and an immaculately made up face.

I’d rather age gracefully and look my age at all points of my life than try to be someone I don’t want to be and if and when I do want to do something different, like piercing my ears for a third time (and I did successfully get them pierced by the same jeweler after successfully overcoming all my apprehensions), I will go ahead and do it.

Till then and beyond, more power to us behenjis and more power to the people who continue to remind us that we are behenjis. As Kurt Kobain, the iconic late frontman of the grunge rock band Nirvana  famously said , “I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not”.

Pic credit: Ind{yeah} (Used under a Creative Commons license)

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  1. Many women don’t respect those who are not ‘stylish’. To them I say, I don’t have time for those who judge people based on appearance. Enjoyed reading 🙂

  2. I enjoyed your write up. The smartest Indian women whom I have encountered are the ones who are deceptively wrapped in cotton saris and wear their hair in long plaits. People who judge others by their appearance are shallow and insecure. The most important tool in fashion is being comfortable in your own skin. Vidya Balan, in the teeth of Dior and Versace cocktail minis, chose to dress in Kanjivarams, thus achieving iconic status amongst her fans. Modernity means being confident of who you are and not depending on what others think of you.

  3. I am totally with what the writer says, and the couple of comments here. Further, I even consider this a non-issue. 🙂 It’s as SIMPLE as that! 🙂

  4. Nice write-up 🙂

    Apt ending “I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not”

  5. partial disagreement here. Properly groomed, well dressed can’t be equated to being decked up just like being simple be equated to being a behenji. Behenjihood is mostly the mindset, of trying hard to standout in a crowd. that could be over dressed as mush as being under-dressed.

    What stops you or for that matter any human being from trying to look good. Judging people by their looks is bad but intentionally trying to look a misfit by being unkempt, that is not desirable either. Sonia gandhi ( not going into her political credence) in her simple cotton saree would stand out even when surrounded by D&G fashion models. But will anyone call her ‘behenji’. No, because she knows how to merge with the surrounding and simultaneously look glamorous. Author confuses simplicity with behenjihood when we all know they have nothing in common

    • Thank you for the very interesting comment even though I don’t quite see myself on the same page as you , and this has no importance whatsoever , but I presume you belong to the opposite gender :).
      If you read carefully , nowhere have I indicated that me or others like me are “deliberately” being ourselves because we want to be noticed for that precise reason. Oh! Trust me , there are numerous other ways in which one can get noticed or stand out in a crowd :).
      I don’t think anyone is trying to be a misfit by tying her hair up in a pony tail and letting it stay naturally frizzy and wearing a comfortable kurta and patiala shalwar. Misfits is an altogether different concept and at least according to me , they are best found in the contexts of movies and literature. In real life , each one of us is a misfit in one way or another.

      The whole idea of triviliazing a person (and I even include men here) or thinking he or she has a “scope for improvement” just because their appearance is conventionally underwhelming is what I don’t somehow fathom.
      But that said , the point of this write up was clearly to make a very personal observation and not in anyway to undermine people who take grooming very seriously. As one commentor has said , this is a “non issue” , but still the kind of non issue that makes you sit up and think :).

    • How do you define ‘aging gracefully’? You choose to be “simple” and good for you. Nobody should judge you or advice you to wear fairness cream, thread eyebrows or look “fashionable”. But there are women who love dressing up in Pradas and Diors and good for them too. A saree clad and a sleeveless top/skirt woman can equally look good as long as they can carry it.

      Indian men online often comment that they like typical desi girls and not the red lips, tight jeans clad girls abroad. Well! they should know that women don’t dress up to attract them. Stop being judgmental…period.

  6. you have company. I feel uncomfortable on seeing someone overdressed and decked up let alone being fashionably dressed up myself. My daughter on the other hand though not fashionable likes to dress up for an occasion. I thought I was weird. Glad to know you are the same though we may be a generation apart. I only means that the world is a mixture of both sorts.

  7. enjoyed reading; even same thing surprise me often that ths days women are ready to spend lavish on hair straightening, hair coloring etc, whereas it looks fake on most of’em.
    These days its simple to live complicated and quite complicated to chose simplicity, it not only requires awareness but educated well balanced n satisfied mind which knows where to say the ‘NO’…

  8. Sharing this post sparked off an argument on my Facebook wall 🙂 I agree with you, we should be who we are comfortable to be. I love how you said “more power to us behenjis and more power to the people who continue to remind us that we are behenjis” Lol, that just says it!

    • I am not surprised 🙂 , most of my opinions tend to produce polarized reactions and this one even in my own life story has been a subject of many a debates.

  9. absolutely loved reading this!!!!! this is something i have experienced for years, and all such comments do is make me laugh, and if possible, care even less about changing the way i look… short, fat, long haired, wearing specs, simply dressed, people look up when i say i write a travel blog and am a freelance writer, and ask, “Oh! you write!” and the implication is always there, that they expected me to be the housewife slogging away in the kitchen all day! a couple of years back, people were surprised when i cut my hair and they still ask me why i let it grow… why i dont style it… why i am so unconcerned about the way i look.. that i am comfortable with the way i look and dress is something i have stopped explaining! but this came as a lovely read!

    • Anuradha , that smile on your face says it all my dear 🙂 . Be just what you are and thanks for the lovely and honest comment.

  10. Loved your line – “…yet the gleeful sadist in me refuses to transform myself from an ugly duckling to a sparkling swan.” I know that “sadist” very well….resides within me too 😉 That’s why – even after my mother’s constant jabbering, my friends’ suggestions, my neighbor’s comments – I still wear the old salwars which are out of fashion, wear spectacles, don’t wear shoes to match dress etc 😀

    As Anjan has earlier said that it’s not desirable to be unkempt purposely and I agree with it too. But what everyone fails to understand that the ‘sadist’ within wants other people to like/dislike/admire/ hate us for what we really are instead of judging us with the tons of make up. :O

  11. This is one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t things. If you’re “modern” “hip” whatever, society sees you as threatening. In fact, I remember when my aunt was arranging a marriage for my cousin, she kept talking about how his fiance was a “simple” girl, thus implying the likes of us, non-simple girls, were not required for her son. I kept asking “what do you mean, simple?” but noone answered and now they are shocked the “simple” girl actually has a few views of her own. But it seems “simple” also has its perils in our society. Hmph.

  12. I personally enjoy grooming myself and looking after myself but that’s because I like it and do not do it for others. Some days I cannot be bothered and go with my mood and energy levels and dress rather sruffily and actually feel very comfortable in it. So I think everyone has the right to dress up or down according to what pleases them. I agree that society as a whole, Indian society in particular, gives more importance to external looks of a woman. A woman’s worth is based on her looks according to them which I find very insulting. Women are part of this too, not just men. They tend to judge themselves based on their looks and compete with each other. I too picked up this pattern as a child because I did not know any better but now I consciously stop myself doing this.

  13. Very true! I have come across this situation often.

  14. It is tragic than in India, dressing in a traditional way is considered unattractive. Even my friends keep addressing a lot of young women as ‘aunties’ and I keep asking them, “What do you mean,man? She is totally hot!”

  15. Dat pic at the top! While society calls her a ‘behenji’, I wanna see the rest of her. Don’t mind if I objectify a bit, but these traditional-looking women are smoking hot. 😀

  16. I completely agree that one should not be judged on the basis of their looks and that simplicity in attire can never be equated with simple-mindedness. Although, nothing is wrong with the latter either. Each to their own.

    However, I don’t quite agree with this: “Naturally, people like us stand out as a sore thumb, the aunties, the behenjis, the simpletons, the ones who to put it in very, very simple words are just ‘being themselves’.” That suggests that the ones who dress up, wear make-up, etc are not being themselves. According to that logic, you stopped being yourself the moment you got the piercings. People express themselves in different ways. The ones who like grooming themselves may not be any less comfortable in their skin than you are. Each to their own.

    Yes, people ridicule ‘behenji’-s and props to you for being so self-assured. That’s fantastic and commendable. However, it sounds a little like you are putting down well-groomed women as people who are pretentious and who mindlessly follow the crowd in order to please everyone. They may simply be doing what makes them feel good, same as you are. It sounds a little like you are doing something similar to what those who mock ‘behenji’-s do: putting others down to feel better about yourself.

    • Shurjotopa, thanks for the interesting comment. But, as I mentioned in another response comment above, “However, it sounds a little like you are putting down well-groomed women as people who are pretentious and who mindlessly follow the crowd in order to please everyone.”, wasn’t at all the purpose of this post. Rest assured. I am a little surprised you felt that way. It was in fact quite the contrary. It was more like, to quote you, “Each to their own.” People can be their own selves in numerous ways, absolutely.

      But, the problem arises when one’s personality is solely judged on the basis of how well presented they are. That again, as I mentioned in my comment above is what I don’t agree with. Just because, I am dressed in regular clothes and have a regular hairstyle and don’t wear lipstick/makeup and like to leave my hair down with their natural frizziness, doesn’t mean I am left open to suggestions from all around as to how I need to be doing all that to look more presentable. Sorry, but I don’t agree with that.

  17. According to me, begenjis are those girls/women who have a very orthodox or illiterate thought process. For eg the other day i met a woman who mentioned that children born by the process of IVF are better endowed in terms of looks and intellect compared to normally concieved children. However smartly she dresses, i would consider her a behenji.

  18. Situation today appears to be different though…
    More girls/women (and even men) are being judged for their dressing as…’loose” ‘slut’ or whatever… These are two extremes… Nobody need to tell others.
    Each for her/his own.

  19. Thanks for posting this interesting blog. I Really don’t understand why people have to give advice when not asked. I have been soberly dressed whether it was traditional or western outfits when I was in college\school. I used to get to hear from people that I should be trendy, dress up my age.. Blah…. Dress up like delicate girl as if they were so concerned about me..hahaha…people like to give free advice… Tuck in your shirt’s, wear sleeveless, wear tight fitted tops that can show figure.. Blah blah.. That’s dressing smart as per these people…It affects me if these are the criteria for friendship’s, companionship or getting a job.
    What kind of pleasure these people get when they want to pull you down.. Why they cannot respect people for what they are. Honestly I can’t understand fashion much.
    I think what is comfortable on your body gives you that confidence to carry yourself wherever you go.

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