On a regular September morning, actress Samyuktha Hegde and her female friends were practicing hula hoops at a park in HSR Layout in Bengaluru. This morning activity turned into an unpleasant event of moral-policing by a middle-aged woman, Kavitha Reddy, a Congress party leader. In the videos that were uploaded on Samyuktha’s social media, Kavitha is shown reprimanding the women for doing “nanga nach” (naked dance). This necessitates a much needed discussion on the public (read, male) gaze on women’s sportswear, especially the sports bra and how it translates to a mechanism to police women’s bodies and obstruct their basic rights such as being out on a pleasant day in a public park.
Social research suggests that in a capitalist or a socialist society, sports is mostly male-dominated and patriarchy endorses sexism thereby monitoring the sporting practice for women through formal sports organisational bodies and informal sports exercise. Therefore, the choices of women’s sportswear are rather subjected to public scrutiny and its appropriation is layered with complexities. The debate around wearing a sports bra in public is in the eye of the storm again since the case of Samyuktha Hegde’s moral policing incident went live on Instagram.
Samyuktha Hegde along with her friends were practicing hula hoops in a sports bra to which Kavitha Reddy reportedly physically assaulted Samyuktha’s friend and verbally abused them for being inappropriately dressed. However, the mob at the park that was reportedly instigated by Reddy blamed Samyuktha for wearing indecent clothes in public and she was warned that she could be raped for wearing the attire she did. Following the events, Kavitha Reddy issued an apology for her behaviour which was accepted by Samyuktha Hegde over Twitter posts. The case indicates that wearing just a sports bra for a workout without another layer of covering like a shirt or sweatshirt seems contentious in India much like many other countries in the world.
Forbes in their Daily Cover titled ‘Women Supporting Women: The Inspiring Story Behind One Of The 20th Century’s Least-Appreciated Innovations—The Sports Bra’ recognise the efforts Lisa Lindhal and Hinda Miller who invented the first-ever Jogbra in 1977 which is recognised as the world’s very first sports bra. The sports bra has altered women’s participation in sports by liberating millions of female athletes around the world and has transcended into a prevailing symbol of female empowerment. Embry Roberts, Style Writer at Today (American NBC News portal) in her dress-code experiment at the gym discloses that working out in a sports bra is a gradual process and may at times be subjected to confidence-shaming rather than body-shaming.
Also read: Patriarchy And The Politics Behind Policing Women’s Clothes
Brassiere, Sportswear And Activewear: Unpacking The Public Gaze
Bra, short for brassiere became a popular undergarment in the early 1900s and gained acceptance into English Oxford Dictionary in 1911. Typically undergarments or inner wear serve multipurpose ranging from providing support to specific body parts, keeping warm, absorbing bodily excretion by coming in direct contact with the skin. Bras go beyond serving a practical purpose as a garment to cover and protect the tender tissues in the chest region and are used by many womxn for aesthetic reasons like accentuating breasts or fit into the ideal feminine body shape. Corsets like modern day bra were a predecessor to brassiere that were worn by both men and women and became an essential part of the women’s wardrobe over the years. The idea of corset was primarily to slim the body to conform to an acceptable silhouette. By and by, lingerie as an intimate-wear has transcended practical use and is commodified as a fashion accessory.
If the modern-day Olympic Games were to apply the rules of ancient Greece the audience would be witnessing naked participants partaking in the international sports event. Eventually, wearing thin loincloths became a norm and it is interesting to note that the words gymnastics and gymnasium are derived from the Greek word gymnos, which means lightly-clad or naked. Osipuss, a sprinter and the winner of one-stade footrace recognized that a naked man could run faster than a sprinter impeded by a loincloth.
The modern-day sports events maintain a dress code for almost every sports category. The uniforms for sports, particularly kickboxers with their exclusive cuts and styles necessitated the recognition of active sportswear as a new variety of outfits for sports. Sportswear comprises of clothing and accessories for specific sports that take into consideration the requirements of specific sports activity. For instance, activewear, provides style along with ease and function which includes clothes like hoodies, pants, sweaters, sneakers, neck fleece among others preferred by people who generally socialize in a casual environment and lead an active lifestyle.
My hangup about working out in a sports bra was not unlike the intimidation many feel about going to the gym in the first place. We don’t need to meet some arbitrary, non-existent standard when, in reality, nobody cares as much as we do.
Also read: Analysing ‘Women Are Women’s Worst Enemies’ Or Patriarchal Bargain
Samyuktha Hegde’s case is a reminder to many vigilante groups and individuals who indulge in the act of moral policing and go to the extent of physically assaulting people who do not fit into the pigeonhole of personal moral values. Surely, “The future of our country reflects on what we do today’’ and the incident that befell at the park was in all sense ‘wrong’.