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Rithu_PortraitLook-01
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RITHU, SHE / HER

I always felt that I stood out too much just because I was brown. People automatically assumed I wasn’t from the United States because I looked different. They would ask me where I’m from and when I said Cincinnati, they would say, “No, I mean where are you originally from.” And while my ancestors are from India, a part of me felt insulted to hear that question. I’m born and raised in Cincinnati. I’m a US citizen. So why am I still treated like a foreigner?

Rather than question the way people viewed my differences I did everything I could to fit in. I hated going outside and tanning. I hated sunscreen, but would lather it on. I hated wearing Indian clothes. If I was going to an Indian festival or function, I’d make sure to bring a set of American clothes to change into afterwards, because there was no way I was stepping into Target in a lengha. There was no way I was going to make myself feel even more like a foreigner. Now the sad part about that is I love Indian clothing. I think the style is beautiful. I’m a huge fan of the bright colors, the skirts, and the large jewelry. Everything that isn’t common in American fashion. Everything that brought scrutinizing looks and negative attention.

DESCRIBE LOOK 1.

My first look was what most people would describe when they think of a “strong” or “badass” woman: pin-straight hair, blazer, pants, and stilettos. A neutral outfit that conveyed strength and power. One that screamed “you need to listen to what I have to say.” I wanted to express this stereotype and what many women dress like in order to be taken seriously. 

We have come to a point where women need to adopt men's attire to be viewed as an equal. When I would walk into work, this is the kind of outfit I would wear, something to be taken seriously in and commanded a presence. Yet the outfit was all neutral tones. It was powerful because the outfit also let me blend in. If I didn’t want to be noticed in a room, this outfit allowed it. In an office building, almost everyone is wearing a blazer and pants, and almost every woman is wearing heels. Attention would only be brought to myself when I spoke, and then people would be listening to me because of what I was saying or doing, not because of how I was dressed. 

DESCRIBE LOOK 2.

Look 2 was the complete opposite. The lengha, a type of Indian dress, had peacock designs with bright colors. It had an orange shawl draping across the front, and I wore large gold earrings, jhumka, with it. I had applied henna, something I often get questions about when I’m wearing it out in public. 

Everything about Look 2 was “exotic” and never ignored. It was impossible to blend into the background because it was too different and too bright. On top of that, it was so different from the power conveyed in Look 1. Yet I felt powerful in this look. I felt powerful and beautiful. Strong yet feminine. I wanted to be able to walk out of the house in this and see that everyone thought I was just as strong as the woman who walked outside in a blazer. I wanted to be able to walk out of the house and not get a 100 questions and a 1000 stares. I wanted to feel as comfortable in this dress out of the home as I did wearing it in the home.

IN WHAT WAYS HAVE YOU BEEN SCRUTINIZED?

Ever since I was little, I was different from everyone else. Not only was I too dark-skinned and too short to fit in, but I had a different culture that was a part of me, no one I surrounded myself understood. It felt weird walking out of the house in any kind of Indian garb, I didn’t want that kind of attention brought upon myself. This project meant so much to me because I could showcase how uncomfortable I felt accepting my culture in American society, and how ashamed I felt by rejecting it.

IN WHAT WAYS HAVE YOU FELT EMPOWERED BY YOUR BODY + STYLE?

I am not sure if I've come to terms with this side of my personal style. I still feel uncomfortable in certain settings in an Indian dress, because I know that some people view the “ostentatiousness” of it as distracting. But I’ve definitely gotten better, more empowered.

A good example of this is my now modified vision of a “strong woman.” When a person imagines what a strong woman looks like, rarely will they describe a woman in a dress or a skirt. A strong woman is a woman rocking a pantsuit in stilettos. A woman who walks into the room in a feminine version of a man’s attire. But I don’t understand why it has to be this way. A woman in a skirt is just as powerful as a woman in pants. I think a big part of my style is conveying an image of strength and confidence no matter what I wear. Rather than shying away from bright colors, skirts, dresses, jewelry, and other feminine objects, I embrace them. I incorporate them into my looks as statements. As attention that can be brought to myself in a positive way. Attention that conveys the idea that even though I’m a woman in a skirt and heels, I’m still a force to be reckoned with.

HOW IMPORTANT IS STYLING TO YOUR IDENTITY?

Styling is important to me because it not only can convey your agenda, but it also builds confidence. My personality changes when I’m in different outfits. A pantsuit means being more stern. Being confident and powerful, but maybe not the most open and inviting. It means being on edge, while ready to make split second decisions. Being in a dress or a lengha means being able to be more carefree and trusting. To be able to show myself and have fun with whatever I’m doing. My outfits give me confidence to be who I want to be in certain situations, but the problem is I don’t want to be viewed differently based on what I wear. I need to be able to wear a lengha, be a more open version of myself, and still be considered as confident and strong as the woman portrayed in a pantsuit.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF FROM THIS EXPERIENCE?

I came to this idea when I realized that I tend to deny my culture in the name of fitting in. And a big part of that came into what I wear. I’m always more comfortable in American clothes. I hate the stares that I receive when I’m in a lengha, salwar, or sari. The stares aren’t always negative, sometimes they’re just curious, but they make me feel uncomfortable nevertheless so I tend to wear what can easily blend in. 

I always wanted people to get to know me based on what I said and my actions rather than what I wore, and to me the best way of doing that was wearing something that didn’t draw too much attention to myself. Indian clothes did the opposite of that. People would tend to focus on my attire, and then ask questions about my ethnicity and background rather than my passions and ideas. I wanted to exemplify that concept through Dress. Code. because one day I want to be able to have an eye-to-eye conversation that has nothing to do with my background with someone while wearing a lengha.

I learned that there’s still room to grow and fully get comfortable with this side of myself. I was always one for women empowerment and truly believed I was at a certain point in my life where I wore what I wanted, styled items the way I wanted, and loved it. I didn’t realize there was any part of my style (or lack of style) that I was unhappy with. By thinking about this and what I wanted to do, I realized that I completely ignore my Indian culture and heritage through style because I want to fit in. It’s not something I want to do any longer.