Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was a tomboy. The middle sister of three, I was always the more active one – even landing in bushes once with heavy scraps and thorny ends implanted in my shins, which required a prompt visit to the emergency room.
Not surprisingly, my clothing preferences were far from the girly kind. I always chose t-shirts and jersey shirts, jeans and shorts over skirts, frilly dresses and sequined tops. Sneakers, sandals and bare feet won over shiny patent leather party shoes whenever possible. If I could have attended a party in Lee overalls, a faded yellow jersey and suede desert boots, I would have done so in a pinch.
I was reminded of my early distaste for pretty things the other day, right here in Ubud. A group of students was streaming out of school on their way to the temple nearby. The boys, decked out in sarongs and udeng (headpieces), carried plastic bags filled with petals and incense. Their arms were draped over one another, in easy camaraderie.
But my attention was fixed on the girls, some of whom held offering boxes on their heads, while others intertwined their arms around backs and bent elbows. Most had their jet black hair neatly tied up in pony tails or high buns, fragrant petals of frangipani, gardenia and bougainvillea tucked in here and there.
It was their clothing that caught my eye most of all. They were dressed in dazzling colors, each one more stunning than their neighbor. Kebayas in nearly-fluorescent teal, phosphorescent pink, pumpkin orange, brilliant yellow, purple and white too. Sarongs hung from (mostly) tiny waists, wrapped tightly with sashes in equally bold shades. A few wore flip-flops while other nearly toppled over in high heels.
Among the group, I spotted a few ducklings (I won’t precede that term with ‘ugly’ because they were not, nor could they be, dressed as they were) among the elegant and lithe swans. They looked shy, self-conscious, awkward in their beauty. Some looked decidedly uncomfortable, as if they would have clearly preferred to be wearing t-shirts and shorts.
But in Bali, unlike in Canada, you don’t have a choice about these matters. From a young age, Balinese Hindu girls (and boys) are dressed up for temple; from childhood, they own at least one set of traditional dress. The littlest girls are dolled up in kebayas decorated with cartoon characters (I recently spotted these Angry Birds embroidered into the cloth), in colors that are always bright and cheerful. They attend temple ceremonies, festivals, processions and ritual gatherings in these same lovely outfits.
Perhaps it’s this norm, the way that Balinese Hindu society and tradition dictates proper dress and etiquette that relieves the girls of some of the awkwardness and timidity. They don’t have to make the choice whether or not to wear a frilly top and patterned sarong – because their culture instills compliance with that requirement.
In Bali, the girls who might look nerdy, homely or heavy-set can’t hide away; they have no choice but to wrap themselves up occasionally in adat – traditional dress. Even the tomboys among them have to concede once in awhile by virtue of the community-imposed obligation; it’s unacceptable to deviate from the norm.
When the tomboys and erstwhile ducklings lay aside their scruffy tops and cut-off shorts, this long-honored custom actually gives them the freedom to shed fears and self-criticism en masse; a safe opportunity to blend in with the others; and the gift of assuming a new – albeit temporary – identity that hints at their blossoming femininity.
In the Balinese sea of beautiful flowing kebayas, these girls – on most days, perhaps more like diamonds in the rough – are swept into a multi-coloured chorus of color, imagining themselves as the future beauties they’ll one day become.