Most women would do or pay anything to be that beautiful blonde in the bar, the one getting attention from all the men. And most women probably would not understand being blonde and voluntarily giving it up — covering up the blonde hair with a headscarf, voluntarily shedding the sexy outfit in favor of a long skirt and long sleeves, and wiping off all the makeup. But at least one woman, Lauren Shields of Atlanta, recently did just that.
“A lot of men approach me and start random conversations about nothing,” Shields told the Sisterhood in a recent phone interview. “Generally they’re trying to get my phone number, and that’s nice and everything, but I don’t actually want that kind of attention anymore.”
Shields, a film-editor-turned-seminary graduate, did not, at the age of 29, suddenly become a Haredi Jew or a religious Muslim. She didn’t turn Quaker or fall ill. She didn’t decide it was her responsibility as a woman to decrease men’s attraction to her by covering more skin. She was simply tired of feeling the need to dress a certain way, as dictated by society, fellow working women and her own rigorous standards.
“I had started to feel like the way I looked was not as much up to me as I would like,” Shields said. “I was starting to feel like it was a requirement to have a trendy haircut, to make sure that if I showed my arms or legs, they had to be super toned. If I showed my feet, they had to have nail polish on them. It started to feel like it wasn’t me anymore, it was me trying to look like everyone else.”
Over the course of nine months — she set the final date to coincide with her 30th birthday — Shields wore no makeup and no nail polish. She wore baggier clothing and covered her hair. The rules that made up her modest “Lauren Suit” came from various religious strictures as well as the aspects of her own dress that had begun to feel oppressive. She catalogued the experience in her blog, The Modesty Experiment and is working on a book with the same name. Her blog had a moderate following — about 1,500 readers total over the 9 months — until she published an article on Salon, “My Year of Modesty,”](http://www.salon.com/2013/07/02/my_year_of_modesty/) last week. Now, she says, her blog has had over 67,000 readers, and that number is likely climbing as more people hear about this American woman who has voluntarily rejected the demands of modern fashion for more modest attire.
When I read Shields’ piece in Salon, I expected it to incorporate lessons of decreased male attention and discuss what it was like to be viewed as a person rather than a sexual object. I assumed she would speak about the liberating effect of being seen without being checked out. Instead, Sheilds spoke much more about the freeing effect of not caring about how she measured up physically or fashionably, and of not equating her self-worth with her appearance. While she did admit in our interview that male attention definitely changed because of the experience, the experiment “was not supposed to be about whether or not men looked at me, it was not supposed to be about where or not I was desirable; it was about me separating who I am from how I look.”
The idea, simple as it may sound, has struck a chord. Her article has thousands of Facebook likes and hundreds of comments, and Shields is currently inundated with interview calls and requests for television appearances. Some women are emailing to share their own stories while others write in to say why they hate the idea. Either way, the concept is blowing open the door on an aspect of modest dress that isn’t usually addressed: Dressing modestly not because your religion or culture demands it, and not to be viewed one way or another by men, but because you want to view yourself a certain way.
This approach holds important lessons for everyone, especially Orthodox women. Too often, we are told that it’s important for us to cover our bodies for the sake of men — that men have inappropriate thoughts when they see women’s bodies and we can help them avoid those thoughts by making our bodies less obviously visible. We learn that the only way to ensure we are not seen as sexual beings is to cover up. These messages are so engrained that upon reading an article by someone who chose to dress modestly, I automatically assumed her reasoning must be related to sexuality.
Perhaps Orthodox women can be taught, instead, that modesty is not all about the men and it’s not all about being viewed sexually. It’s also about self-esteem, comfort and identity. It doesn’t have to have negative connotations but positive ones.
Shields also made me think in an entirely new way about how I dress. She told me that the reason she initially started the experiment was because, while she was busy toning her arms and worrying about what message her hair sent and walking in heels, she saw religiously-attired women — specifically Haredi women — and thought, “I don’t want to do this anymore, can I do that instead? I don’t want to adhere to this set of cultural standards, can I have a different one?”
That very comment put into sharp focus something that had been lurking in my mind while reading her article: While Shields was making her journey to rejecting her cultural norms and embracing others, I was enviously wishing I could make the same journey in reverse. Over the years, as I’ve had more and more control over my wardrobe — as I left high school, and then my parents’ house and started paying for my own clothing — I’ve toyed with certain modesty guidelines, trying to discover where I felt most comfortable while still trying to adhere to community standards. While Shields was thinking, “I wish I didn’t have to worry about wearing sleeveless and showing off my legs,” I was thinking, “I wish I didn’t have to wear sleeves in this heat, and I could wear shorts that I like instead of pants that cover my knees.” Shields was feeling oppressed by societal standards for appearances while I was feeling oppressed by my lack of options in clothing stores.
All of this made me think of an old cartoon, which I shared with Shields and which she has since posted on her blog. It shows a woman in a bikini and sunglasses passing a woman in a burqa, and each is thinking, “Everything/Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel, male-dominated culture!” To a certain extent, this is what Shields was attempting to show with her experiment — that the “patriarchal” demands of religion may actually be liberating, while the “modern, liberated” woman might be the one giving in to the patriarchy. But I also wonder if, instead of both Shields and myself feeling badly for the other, we were both somewhat envious of each other’s cultural standards, each seeing freedom where the other felt nothing but restriction.