I was involved in a powerful perceptive experiment last week, contributing to Yao Chen’s (Betty) photography project for college. She studies the art at UvA. The theme was CONTRAST, and she was manifesting it through psychological biases we nurture. These biases are in-built, and we assume them without question. This makes it worthy of thought. What if you are presented with a conflicting situation, and then you realise that it is only your perception and your pre-conceived notions, that is leading to the conflict?
Betty had been scouting for material. First was the human association of toys with children, and she wondered if they can be paired with the elderly. Then the association of freshly dug earth with flowers, but what if the flower is man made and plastic? She was targeting the society’s tendency to assume, based on part information. Toys are assumed to be for kids, and that fresh earth is for flowering plants. Which is why any alternate to this story is a surprise.
Society’s deeply personal associations and assumptions are centred around gender and sexuality. Colours, type of clothing, intonation and even gait are being thrown into subconscious discrimination buckets. This seemed apt for her project. And my involvement started with her quest for a man’s hairy legs, because she wanted to pair them with dainty high heels.
“Do you have hairy legs?” She asked.
“May I have a look?”
I smiled a sheepish one, pulling up a leg of my trousers.
“Hm.” She approved.
“Have you dressed in drag before?”
“I have not, and do not intend to either. I am doing this as an art form, to understand at a personal level how much do clothes really matter.”
And that was it. I had loved this idea for a CONTRAST shoot since there was simply so much to assume, even for me, at a personal level. And that initiated the conflict – since I was a heterosexual man wearing a woman’s clothes, and that was the end of it. Any stigma associated with cross dressing and any relation to fluid sexuality was unnecessary.
“How do you feel?” She was looking at me, curious and unsure.
I moved about, feeling layers laying gently on my body. Skirt and a blouse. Tight at unusual places, frills tickling my thighs.
“I am comfortable because the clothes are soft, but this is not something I would want to wear,” I replied, looking at her and at myself. “My body moves the way it always does, I sit and stand the way I always do.”
“How do you feel?” She asked again.
“I feel the way I always do.” I was struggling to find words which could describe the utter lack of emotional impact these clothes had. “Except, perhaps, for the clothes which I never imagined myself in. Perhaps.”
“Why did you do it?” She popped up the question again. We were sitting at a fancy theatre café, after the photoshoot. I looked up from my plate. “It seems that I am so comfortable in my masculinity, that I believe wearing woman’s clothes does not change anything.” She nodded, always a keen listener. And then she nodded again, beetle black eyes returning to her delicious apple pie.
I love how Betty is a sincere and an adorable bundle of shy energy. Through her project, she offered me an intense peek within my own thought patterns and the way I experienced this world. Never had I realised that clothes are, after all, nothing more than fabric covering the body. It is only an indulgent conversation with a person that truly establishes what they are made of.