“The idea for my modesty experiment began when I worked in New York City….Every morning I would shoehorn myself onto the train with thousands of expensive-smelling, coiffed women….  It was an army of ladies sporting fitted waistlines, toned arms, blown-out hair, full faces of makeup, and heels….Everyone looked good and we were all stylish…. I hated every second of it. It felt like putting on a costume…..Still, given where I worked, I had to look like that. Every. Damn. Day.
(Lauren Shields, My Year of Modesty)

The title of the article on salon.com piqued my curiosity. I had to read it, if only to validate my kneejerk suspicion that the article would essentially be a trailer for yet another My Year of book in the making.  You know the kind of book I’m talking about. You may even have read one of them.  They’ve practically become a genre unto themselves (and one writer in particular has made a career of it):

“My ______ (year, month, or some other arbitrary and extended period of time) of ______:

– trying to obey certain religious scriptures as literally as possible, including the orders to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers; to play a ten-string harp; to stone adulterers…[1]
– reading the entire ENCYLOPEDIA BRITANNICA [2]
– following the advice of every health, nutrition and exercise “expert” on the market [3]
-trying to outsource every aspect of my personal life as an experiment  [4]
-eating fast food for every meal [5]
– living sans car, utilities, running water, and any modern/electrical technologies [6]

…which I did with the guarantee of a book and/or movie deal which would allow me to present the surprising (to me, you see, I was such a cynic, going in!) spiritual journey [7]of the endeavor in a manner both comical and profound, reverent and irreverent, personal and universal, which will enable you, the reader, to see

– arguably the most influential bronze age scriptures ever written
-really big reference materials
-the all tater tot diet

with new eyes!”

My suspicions were correct. Behold, My Year of Modesty, wherein the author “…swore off makeup and covered my hair, arms and legs for nine months.”

And – surprise! – the author found the experience of doing so to be ____

(1) compliant and odiferous
(2) truculent yet bovine
(3) frightening and liberating
(4) mellifluous and stomach-turning

It’s (3), DUH. Haven’t you been paying attention?

Anyway…. The author designed what she calls The Modesty Project (which, as she admits in her blog, she hopes will be a hook to attract an agent). She decided to be the project’s first participant :

“I took my cues from Jewish, Muslim and some Christian modesty practices in order to loosen my death grip on the idea that youth and beauty were prerequisites to relevance.…I gave away more than a third of my clothes….And for nine months, I covered all of my hair, wore nothing that was so fitted that I felt like I had to sit or stand funny to look good, and never exposed my knees or my shoulders, except at home. With rare exceptions, I wore no makeup or nail polish.” 

I agreed with many of the points the author made in the article, including how important it is to realize that “…the beauty industry is a ploy to keep us from thinking about how to break into the boys’ club of corporate America,” and that  “obsession with your appearance is frivolous and time-consuming!” and that it can be a good thing to decline to “…endorse Western Imperialism and the sexualization of (women’s) bodies,” and that women should resist “… the pressure to be scrutinized against Western standards of beauty. ”

But when the author whined, “How nice would it be not to have to think about stupid crap like the latest accessories and whether my hair had gone limp?”, this cranky middle age feminist felt like having her sit down on a comfy cushion while I used my there-there, it’ll get better voice to give her some basic advice:

Well then, why don’t you just choose to stop thinking about stupid crap like that?

Many of the points she makes in the article are oh-so-valid.  Then, there is the “choice” she speaks of, wherein she takes cues from culture and religions that require “modest” dress.  Choice, schmoice — it is is simply another standard by which women will be judged. She’s just choosing a different trap into which she’ll be pushed (or, in this case, into which she’ll enter voluntarily).

Attributing any characteristic (modesty, sexuality) to your attire and/or appearance ironically causes you to focus upon the very characteristic (e.g. Western beauty standards) you supposedly want to counteract. Also, it leads to just plain silly and arbitrary boundaries and “standards.”  Are uncovered shoulders “immodest,” and if so, in whose eyes?  Are your elbows allowed breathing room, or your earlobes, ankles, wrists, knees….?

By following any standard uniform, whether that of the Fashionista-I’d-Like-to-F*** or the Modest Muslim, you are inviting the judgments and expectations that people associate with that uniform.

You can refuse to buy into Western (or any compass direction’s) standards by…wait for it… refusing to buy into the standards.  Forgo makeup, or just don’t wear as much.  Have one pair of sensible “dress” shoes.  Wear comfortable, practical, durable, weather-and-work-appropriate clothing.

Why go from one extreme (the “costume” she decries) to another?  Oh yeah, that’s right – because there’s a book and/or movie deal waiting for you if you go to an extreme and then tell everyone about it.

IMHO, articles such as the one in question perpetuate, even if unintentionally, this perception of extreme options for women:

(1) We’re either obsessed with fashion/our bodies/our appearance, or we must be in order to play The Game and have any kind of power, credibility or visibility in this society, or
(2) We must veil our physical attributes entirely to escape or subvert The Game.

To me, [8] both options seem equally and ultimately powerless.

Were you consulted when the rules of The Game were written?  No? Me neither. Then they don’t apply to us.  We can choose to help rewrite them and/or not to give a shit about them.  Wear whatever you want, and deal with the consequences.[9]

*  *  *

Smile!  You’re:

-on Candid Camera
-on massive amounts of Happy Pills
-a blithering idiot

In Honor of the anniversary of Declaration of Independence, it seems that this is turning into the Feminist Rant Blog Post.

But, I digress.

Dateline: a couple of weeks ago.  Riding in the car, returning from a friend’s dance recital in Portland.  Five of us are in MH’s Honda Fit, thus the Biggest People (MH and our son K) are in the front, while Belle, a Visiting Relative and moiself sit tush-to-tush in the back seat.

Belle wasexhausted from a long day of working at the zoo, followed by this social event which she seemed to enjoy but was in all likelihood doing for the family/social obligation.  She sat, peacefully, quietly, holding on to window the arm strap. She was not smiling.  She was not frowning or looking unhappy, but she was not smiling.  VR began to pester Belle, teasing her about why she wasn’t smiling and repeatedly asking (commanding) her to smile….

For what reason?

This has happened before — VR and the teasing/smiling thing, and with both of the kids, but particularly (as in, waaaay more often) with Belle.  I could see Belle getting annoyed, but since she is seventeen and not seven I gritted my teeth…and said nothing…and let Belle handle it… even as I wanted to say to VR, “With all due respect, WTF?!”

Silly me.  I forgot about The Law of Non Threatening Female Countenance, which Belle was clearly violating. It is mandatory for women to always have an idiot grin a smile, or at least a friendly expression on their faces, lest people think they are…I don’t know:

– tired (which is why they are looking tired)
– reflecting on the problems in the Middle East (thus the contemplative/hopeless frown)
– thinking about the latest Neo-Con male spouting nonsense about women’s reproductive health issues (thus the threatening, get me a red hot suppository poker grimace).

What is it about a serious-looking woman, or one whose expression is merely that of repose, that so many people find unnerving?

One of the myriad of reasons a former boyfriend of mine achieved Former Boyfriend © status involves an argument we had about the TV show Hill Street Blues.  FB and I were both fans of the show, and were discussing it one evening when he mentioned how he liked all of the characters…except for Joyce Davenport.

JD was one of my favorite of the show’s characters; thus, I had to ask why he didn’t like the intelligent, witty, crusading public defender.  His less-than-illuminating answer:  Because she was “a bitch.”

Mind you, this was a man who would have accepted and even embraced the moniker “feminist man.”  Yet he repeated the term, twice more, when I asked for and then demanded clarification.  I pointed out to him that if he didn’t like a male character he would state specifically what about the character he found offensive, rather than merely name call. Ok, you find Joyce Davenport a “bitch” – is it because you think she is nasty and/or vindictive toward her colleagues or criticizes her peers without reason or provocation or blames others for her mistakes or….what?  Specify, please.

No. It was none of the above. None of anything, really. Here’s what it came down to:  He found Joyce Davenport to be a bitch because “She never smiles.”

Really, truly, at first I thought he was joking.  He was serious. He wanted to see her display a more sunny attitude. Joyce Davenport was such a downer.  Joyce Davenport needed to smile more often.

The character of Joyce Davenport was a public defender serving an urban war zone of city. She defended thieves, rapists, drug dealers, child abusers and murders.  She also had to contend with the police officers, detectives and District Attorneys who cared not one whit for the supposed innocence of her clients and who were determined to convict the rare clients she had who were actually innocent of theft, rape, drug dealing, child abuse and murder. Imagine a man in that position, with that job, walking around with a grin on his face. Imagine anyone admonishing a man in that position, with that job, that he should smile more often.

Excuse me, Capt. Furillo, you’re doing a fine job managing this crime-ridden, gang-infested, shithole of a precinct, but we’d all feel better if you’d flash your pearly whites more often

*   *   *

No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.
(Barbara Ehrenreich )

“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
(James Baldwin)

Happy Independence Day Weekend to us all, and may the truly patriotic hijinks ensue.

Thanks for stopping by.  Au Vendredi!

[5] Supersize Me by someone who is not A. J. Jacobs

[6] Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by someone who said, hey, I better write about this before A. J. Jacobs does.

[7] and of course there will be a spiritual journey.

[8] Me, whose idea of fashionable grooming is to remember to brush my hair before 3 pm…you can guess which sides of this issue get my sympathies.

[9] Unless what you really want to wear are those homie gangsta clown pants with the magical gravity band that keeps them perpetually hovering mid butt crack.