Saturday, March 04, 2017

Modesty Culture - and other odd revalations from World Hijab Day

I've been reading Miyam Bialik's blog Grok Nation lately, and as a practicing Orthodox Jew, she occasionally has mentioned on the blog, and in her What Not To Wear appearance, that modesty is very important to her. I found this very intriguing. As an actress, I am very comfortable being unclothed in rooms of people, and I am very comfortable (in character) showing lots of cleavage, leg, or whatever the costume/role calls for (I play a lot of gun molls). As a normal person, I tend to wear a lot of skirts, I love a zip up turtleneck, and there's usually tights and a sweater. I don't think about this very much. I live in the Pacific Northwest. It rains 9 months a year here, so my winter clothes are nearly worn year-round, with a little careful layering.

In the costume shop yesterday, we were discussing hijabs, and it came up in conversation that the WHD site had asked that women wearing the hijab please dress modestly that day. Which strikes a modern, western woman weirdly at first read. The notion of "covering" seems very antiquated in our culture, and our women's lib movement has worked very hard lately to convey the notion of consent, and there is no such thing as "asking for it" based on what a woman is wearing or not wearing. I agree with all of those things. I also noticed, as I was choosing something to wear with my own hijab, that (outside of bathing suits and some formal wear), I don't own anything that wouldn't qualify as "modest." The girls and I were talking, and several of them realized that they also don't wear anything that wouldn't count as "modest." One comment that had come from many women on the WHD forum was, "why do Western Women think that the only way to be empowered is to be naked? By covering, I choose how I present myself, and I choose how much of my body I allow people to see." This was a new thought.

What I realized about myself from that experience is: I, too, choose to cover.

I've spent some time trying to delve if this is something I consciously choose, or if it is in my upbringing. I haven't come to firm conclusions, but I have figured out a few things about it:

I do come from a religious background, I was homeschooled (sort of), but we were not a particularly conservative family, and were kind of the liberal ones of the homeschoolers I knew. I don't remember my parents ever tacitly trying to instill "modesty" into me as a child. I liked wearing dresses - I wore them through junior high daily. I felt stupid in jeans for 4 years in high school, and finally discovered vintage fashions in college and hardly ever went back to pants.

As a short woman, who tends to be on the curvy side, I am aware of how easy it is for people to see down my shirts so I have a collection of lace edged tanks that add a pop of color and keep my breasts under wraps.

I get cold easily. I tend to like a lot of lightweight layers (rather than one heavy sweater) to keep warm. On an average day my layering will include sweater tights, knit socks, lace edged tank top, real knit top, sweater vest/wool vest, pleated wool skirt, cardigan, pashmina.

I don't love my knees. They're perfectly functional knees. They bend and everything. I kind-of agree with fashion designers going into the 1920's thinking "why would anyone one to show their knees - they're very unattractive?!" My skirts tend to cover them. Luckily I love vintage, so all of my skirts sit just below my knees anyway. I don't wear longer skirts, 'cause I am short - but I love a good 80's pleated plaid skirt (thank you, You've Got Mail), so I wear them almost daily. If I'm wearing a knit dress, there's usually a skirt under it to add a few more inches.

I love color. I love lots of color, and I love to combine it, layer it, coordinate it with one piece of my ensemble that has all of the colors mixed. I spend the winter in slightly steampunky space outfit recombinations of my vintage pieces and knitwear. I have steampunky belts and a collection of book and geek themed jewelry. I want to be River Song when I grow up, so that's part of it, too.

In doing my research for World Hijab Day, I was struck by women telling me that it was ok to NOT want to show my body off. I found other women in my own culture, who also don't feel the need to reveal themselves all of the time. And these are not "repressed" women. These are not frumpy women. I am not a frumpy woman. I am a What Not To Wear fan. I know how to layer, and fit, and find clothing that fits me. We all work at a costume shop (some of the most quirky dressers you will ever find!). I dress people for a living. We are modern, liberal, feminists that (we hadn't realized until we noticed that any or all of our own clothing fits the "modest" bill) feel empowered in clothing.

So, the flip side of this discussion ... we, as liberal, western women, should examine our own knee-jerk reaction when we see a woman in a hijab. I know my "repression" alarm goes off. And it doesn't need to. Just as wearing a piece of fabric on my head doesn't make my brain turn off, wearing clothes that cover me from my neck to my toes doesn't make me ashamed of my body, or less of an independent woman. There *are* women who are "forced" to hijab/dress modestly/stay at home/etc. We should continue to advocate strongly for a woman's autonomy. But we should also be ready to address our own pre-conditioning, and realize that as part of a woman's "right to choose" she may also choose to cover.