Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Body-binding in Bali

Published: Jul 27, 2007

Megan Jennaway

Throughout Indonesia, as elsewhere, cultural practices connected with the body reflect general social values. Clothing, in particular, reveals the wearer’s wealth and social status. But on a more subtle level, the way clothes are worn can also provide clues to cultural attitudes regarding gender, health and sexuality.

As an anthropologist living in Bali in the early 1990s, I had to learn how to wear local dress appropriately. My Balinese instructors included young, middle-aged and elderly women from the mountain village in which I lived. They were all friends of mine who didn’t want me to go around advertising myself as sexually available, slovenly, or simply inept. They made sure I got it right.

Traditional dress

For women, traditional Balinese dress consists of four main items: a kind of sarong known as a kamen, a blouse (kebaya) and two cummerbands, a sabuk and a selendang. The kamen is a long strip of woven or batik cloth wound around the waist, hanging almost to the ground. It is secured at the waist with the sabuk, a wide sash several metres in length. The sabuk is repeatedly wound around the torso between the top of the hips and the solar plexus. The resulting ‘bandaged’ effect is covered by the blouse or kebaya, worn loose over the top of the kamen. Usually made of synthetic material such as polyester, nylon, or rayon, the kebaya is shaped, tapering in at the waist and flaring out over the hips. Frequently, a decorative outer cummerbund, the selendang, is also worn, to draw the kebaya in at the waist.

Custom dictates the proper way to wear traditional dress. There are rules about the appropriate length for the kamen (longer for women than for men) and on how to tie it tightly around the tops of the thighs so that the bottom is neatly encased. The sleeve length of the kebaya is also important — it must come right down past the wrist bone to be considered fashionable. An overly short sleeve indicates that the wearer has no dress sense. The style of the kebaya worn, too, betrays a woman’s level of chic. One style in particular has sides which do not meet at the front, leaving a 6-8 inch gap. The breasts are covered by a short connecting ‘bridge’ made of the same fabric which serves as a kind of narrow bodice. Depending on how the blouse is worn, and how wide the bodice is, a glimpse of the wearer’s midriff may be visible above the selendang. This style is popular among middle-aged and older women. Young girls, on the other hand, would never be seen dead in such a blouse. They consider it immodest. Instead, they usually opt for a kebaya which closes at the front, from the ‘V’ of the collar all the way down. Typically, this is fastened with press-studs rather then buttons. Girls who want to look trendy favour a more daring lace kebaya. Girls who wear lace kebaya often intend it as a deliberate ploy to attract male attention.

The kebaya is a relatively recent introduction to Balinese dress styles. It came with the Dutch colonial conquest of Bali. Before this, as can be seen from nineteenth and early twentieth-century Balinese paintings and photographs by Europeans, Balinese women typically left their arms and shoulders uncovered. The sabuk sufficed to hold up their kamen. Without the kebaya there was no need for the double-sash, which was only used in formal or ceremonial contexts. In everyday settings, such as working around the house, planting padi, or selling grain at the markets, the sabuk was firmly secured halfway up the rib-cage, leaving the breasts exposed. But on formal occasions, such as temple ceremonies and dances, more modesty was called for. A more decorative, second sabuk was wound up over the first and covered the breasts. It was wound so tightly that the breasts were pinned into a generalised mound. This practice is preserved in the standard dress of female Balinese dancers today. Legong dancers still wear a special gold-thread sabuk, wound so tightly that it restricts their freedom of movement. This is the only way to stop it falling down halfway through a lively dance performance. For dancers, the rigidity is worth the discomfort. It is better than toning down their dance steps, they say, for the highest form of compliment one can pay a joged dancer is to say that she is agile.

But the practice of winding the sabuk as tightly as possible around the female body is widespread among all women, not just dancers. The tautness of the sash is considered essential to achieving the desired look of slim, slender containment that goes with formal traditional dress. In this sense the sabuk is the equivalent of the Western corset. It binds and flattens unsightly flesh. More importantly, it is also an index of respectability. In formal settings, only loose women wear loose clothing.

No freedom to move

The constraints on Balinese women’s freedom of movement (they are also supposed to take small steps when walking anywhere, to run is considered ridiculous) are a metaphor for their social freedoms. Balinese ideals of gender require women to be passive and modest in their dealings with others. They should not venture far afield. Males, on the other hand, are encouraged to roam widely. They should be adventurous if not aggressive in their approach to the world. According to a familiar cultural script, women must wait until men court them. It is not appropriate for them to actively attract a man’s attention, much less to pursue him.

Restrictions upon female mobility have obvious implications for women’s health. In peasant villages such as the one where I worked, women spent most of their time engaged in everyday labours for which informal, loose clothing was appropriate. But as women ascend the ladder of social mobility their opportunities for physical activity decrease. Middle class Balinese women tend to have servants to draw water, cook and clean. For them, physical labour is stigmatised.

The tourist industry

On the other hand, restrictions upon women’s physical mobility may inadvertently offer a degree of protection against some of the health hazards presented by tourism. When tourism was at its peak, before the Bali bombing, Balinese women’s access to tourist areas was more restricted than men’s. During the nineties, it was apparent to me that men could operate more freely in areas like Sanur, Kuta, Candi Dasa and Lovina than women. At best, women were employed as servants, waitresses and kitchen hands in the hospitality industry, or worked as traders and purveyors of goods. In these roles, they could only prepare or sell things like sarongs, beachwear, hair-plaiting and massages. In a few rare instances, they also sold their bodies. But prostitution has not been common among Balinese women. Constraints upon their mobility and village sanctions against women perceived to be immoral discourage this.

What most women have not been able to do is interact freely with tourists as friends and acquaintances. Their opportunities for social intercourse with foreigners are limited by traditional restrictions upon women’s freedom of movement and association. Compared with men, they are less pro-active in their dealings with strangers. They do not act as tour-guides, for instance, as this would mean doing things at odds with their traditionally passive, stay-at-home roles.

Men, on the other hand, have unlimited access both to the tourist areas and to the tourists themselves. Typically, they work as tour-guides, since this is simply an extension of their traditional role as wide-ranging adventurers. In turn, tour-guides havh greater opportunities for forging friendships with foreigners. These friendships are often romantic.

Balinese men therefore are more exposed, through their greater level of contact with foreigners, to sexually-transmitted diseases, including AIDS. They are in the front-line of risk. Women sit somewhere towards the rear in this confrontation with foreign-borne STDs. They will not be the first to become infected, but they will doubtless suffer its impacts if it becomes endemic among their husbands and partners.

The perfect lover

The image of the female body as bound has interesting resonances with Balinese women’s notion of the perfect lover. The sabuk maangkihan — the breath-imbuing lover (maangkihan means ‘to have breath’) — is construed as a sash. It refers to the lover who will wrap his arms around a woman, binding her tightly to his body in a mutually-bonding embrace. Ideally, she will not run down to the tourist zones the minute he turns his back. She won’t want to. In theory at least, she prefers being tied down by him.

Megan Jennaway is an anthropologist. She can be contacted at

Inside Indonesia 75: Jul - Sep 2003

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