The first Facebook message from my high-school bestie gave me the kind of delight I usually associate with a free dessert, baby goats or discovering a forgotten $20 note in an old handbag. “Because Manesh and I are having a Hindu wedding, I would love if my best girlfriends could walk down the aisle with me,” it read. “Manesh’s mum is going to buy some saris for us girls and I would love if you had one too! Can you let me know what your colour preference is? Woop!” Yes, I told her, I would love to; woop! One of my oldest friends wanted me to be a part of her wedding, and I would be able to fully sate all my bowerbird tendencies in what I imagined would be a Bollywood whirl of sparkles, colour and swishing around in a glamorous fashion. What could possibly go wrong?
The second Facebook message from Kristina made it clear exactly what could go terribly, horribly wrong. “Manesh's mum is going to get the tops made that match the saris. If you can, send me through your measurements – like boob, arm, waist.” And just like that, it suddenly hit me: you have to wear a crop top under a sari. I would be wearing a crop top—a bedazzled one, but a crop top nonetheless—and exposing my midriff to 200 strangers as I tried not to trip over. And I would, in no way, have the stomach for it.
I’m not one of the women who embraced the crop top trend when it reappeared in 2013 on model middles who strode down catwalks for the likes of Miu Miu, Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton, before eventually filtering down to the fashion chains. Hell, I can still remember the sinking feeling I felt as a pudgy nine year old, during its first Nineties reign of terror, when my skinny friend showed off her Beverly Hills 90210-branded crop top (I ended up with the grey marle bike pants from the range, which I wore with a baggy Hypercolor t-shirt, covered from neck to knee).
The crop top wasn’t made for women like me, women who are still holding onto a suitcase full of size 10 clothes “for when I lose weight” but who haven’t been a size 10 for almost that many years. And even when I did fit into those clothes, I didn’t have the confidence to bare my midriff beyond the bikini-mandated zones by bodies of water. So I’d scoffed when I saw sleek tanks hemmed high in the shops, just like I’d chuckled knowingly at floral leggings, babydoll dresses and those tattoo chokers—dismissing them as unfortunate reincarnations of my style when I was too young to know better. I knew better now, but I still felt sad when I saw younger friends pairing peekaboo tops with pencil skirts, making a slash of skin look surprisingly chic. But, I told myself, someone who’s a size 14 and over 30 just doesn’t do crop tops.
Until their friend asks them, sweetly, if they’ll put on a sequin-spangled one and accompany them down the aisle, that is. I had seven weeks to prepare, and I started a new diet that day: no sugar, alcohol, dairy, grains or, essentially, fun. I upped my workout days. The Crop Top became motivation for every gym session I sweated through and every glass of wine I turned down. But when the wedding week arrived, my efforts had barely made a dent in my weight-loss goal, the paltry two kilos I’d lost hardly giving me abs to make the ladies from All Saints (my crop top inspo) proud.
So I did what any woman does in the face of showing barely-seen skin: I got a deep spray tan, the kind of brown that the naturally pasty could never achieve through exposure to sunlight alone. I may have even asked the lady who sprayed me while I stood in a paper G-string, hair bundled under a shower cap, if she could ‘contour’ my stomach.
On the day of the wedding, I rocked up to the bride’s house with a bag full of freshly-baked croissants in what now seems clear was a subconscious attempt to make everyone as fat as me. But my slim friends stayed slim, and my stomach remained flabby (but now expertly contoured). We laid out our tops and swathes of sari fabric on the carpet, coveting the different shades and details: Millie’s intricate beading, Fuyuka’s rich turquoise hue, Tsukasa’s ability to make mustard look amazing. I wasn’t the only one nervous about showing off my stomach, and when the aunties who had arrived to tie our saris asked who wanted to go first, we all hesitated.
By the time it was my turn, though, I’d watched several girls in trakkie daks emerge as Bollywood goddesses. I analysed how each one had positioned the sari fabric like a sash, and the perfect angle to cover the maximum amount of stomach, how high each had managed to hike their skirt. Finally it was my turn. I stepped into the plain cotton skirt, tying the drawstring tight. I scooped my arms through the cherry red blouse, cropped to hit the bottom of my rib cage, and fastened it at the front, thanking all the Hindu gods that it fitted. I sucked it in, sucked it up and surrendered myself to the middle-aged women who’d been origami-ing saris for decades and who now held metres of deep purple fabric embroidered with gold thread in their arms, ready to wrap me in it. “I’m a little scared about showing off my stomach,” I confessed to the aunty working on the shoulder folds. “But you have the perfect figure for a sari,” she said, safety pins in her mouth as she deftly tucked and pleated. “Voluptuous, and a lovely waist.”
I felt a small glow of pride (or it could have been the reflection from all the tiny sequins). I wanted to hug her. But I didn’t dare, with all the painstaking work that was going on by my shoulder. When they were done, I went straight to the mirror. And I wasn’t horrified by what I saw. My stomach was out and proud, sure, but there was something about the sari that amped up the hourglass aspects of my curves, the folds on the skirt flattering my figure and giving a flirty fan at the bottom every time I stepped. It changed the way I moved: I stood taller to ward off stomach rolls and kicked out my foot rather than stepped regularly as the aunties instructed.
As I looked around at how beautiful my friends looked—the bride in her heavily-beaded crimson sari and the rest of us in our rainbow hues—I almost forgot I was showing off my stomach willingly. I loved how I felt as we made the final preparations to leave the house and head to the ceremony. Glamorous, with a swishing skirt; feminine, with curve hugging swathes of fabric; fun, with the bright colors and shimmering beads. The back fat was still there, and so were the belly rolls. And yes, I fiddled with the front sash to cover most of my stomach, sucked in when I sat down in the taxi and fretted over how I might look next to my thinner friends as we walked down the aisle ahead of the bride.
But when that moment came, I cared less than I thought I might. I felt a hell of a lot more confident than I ever imagined, more womanly, more beautiful. And after I watched my gorgeous friend kiss her new husband and it came time to change into our ‘regular’ dresses for the reception, I felt sad to fold up my sari—crop top included—and leave it behind.
This story was originally published in the May 10, 2015 issue of Sunday Style.