Is The 'Modesty Experiment' really that empowering?

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Photo: Getty Images

The ‘I-did-this-charmingly-quirky-but-enlightening-thing-for-a-bit-and-this-is-what-happened’ memoir has become a fully blown sub-genre in female literature. Continuing the example set by books such as Eat Pray Love and Julie and Julia, is the soon to be published The Modesty Experiment which chronicles American blogger Lauren Shields’s foray into bucking Western beauty culture for nine months. 

“In America”, Shield’s blog banner gravely announces, “we see Islamic women all covered up and think, ‘That poor woman, made to be ashamed of her body!’ But is it any less oppressive to convince a woman that her uncovered body is never beautiful enough? Is covering enslavement... or freedom? I want to find out.” 

Shields spent nine months conducting her “experiment”, during which she “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.”

Lauren Shields, who wrote about her 'Modesty Experiment'.

Lauren Shields, who wrote about her 'Modesty Experiment'. Photo: Lauren Shields, via Facebook

It’s not surprising that Shields found the experience both “kind of brutal” and yet “really liberating.” After all, covering yourself in clothing from head to foot in the midst of summer is bound to feel stifling. But, freeing yourself from the demands and expectations of the dominant culture you are exposed to is also, by definition, liberating.

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Shields is railing against the Western beauty ideal that expects women to spend excessive amounts of time and money to dress in what amounts to “a Grown-Up suit.” In that I couldn’t agree with her more. However, Shields, who can only witness Muslim culture through her own Western lens, falls into the trap of romanticising the “modesty” of Muslim women for whom covering themselves is itself a religious requirement.

In doing so she strips Muslim modesty of its own cultural context and conflates not the option to dress modestly, but “modesty” itself with “liberation.” Yes, it is true, as Shields argues, that Muslim women often choose to cover their bodies and hair. However, it is a choice made in a very specific set of cultural conditions and with expectations of its own, none of which apply to her.

Where Western women face pressure to flaunt their sexuality, Muslim women are expected to conceal it. I don’t deny that many Muslim women find the hijab liberating, just as some western women find stripping empowering. That, however, does nothing to dispel the fact that both modesty and sexualisation can be equally objectifying.

Shields, like so many white westerners before her seems genuinely disillusioned with the limitations of her culture, leading her to look at the exotic “other”, as a means of soul-searching. Last year blonde, white New York blogger, Michelle Joni Lapidos, caused a stir when she documented herself wearing an Afro wig and hanging out with black people in various settings as a way of bringing, in her own words, “flayvah” to her life. 

Similarly, Miley Cyrus, bored with her Disney image, specifically requested her record company give her a single that “sounds black.” In the accompanying video, Cyrus wears a grill on her teeth and dances in the “ass popping” style associated with black women.

But as bell hooks explains in “Eating The Other”, there is a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Using their own white bodies as a canvas these women paint themselves only with those aspects of non-white culture they find appealing. In the process of giving themselves a splash of colour they then strip those very same cultural markers of all context and meaning.

So what we end up with is white women seeking their own liberation in the oppression of others. Cyrus glamourises the grill favoured by black rappers, without being encumbered by the fact that one in three African-American men can expect to go to jail at some stage in their lives. She can pop her ass to her heart’s content blithely oblivious to the history of the hyper-sexualisation of black women that leaves them at greater risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. 

Michelle Lapidos chronicles her life “Before and Afro” without ever exposing herself to the hatred black people were and still are subjected to because of their hair; without acknowledging that the Afro itself is a symbol of resistance against a dominant culture that marginalises black bodies.

And Shields can idealise modesty without ever having to make the devastating choices facing actual Muslim women. Her inability to grasp what Muslim modesty entails is summed up in this quote on her blog: “Islamic culture allowed adherents of both sexes to dress modestly for spiritual reasons.”

Firstly, Muslim culture does not “allow” for female modesty. It demands it. Whether or not a woman acquiesces to this demand is a different matter. A Muslim woman who does not dress modestly is considered to be acting outside the rules of her religion. Unlike Shields, who can slip in and out of her modest dress at will, a Muslim woman, when deciding whether or not to conform to the expectations of her culture has to consider such possible consequences as being shunned by her community, rejected by her family, condemned by her religion.

Secondly, the modesty rules for men are far less restrictive and barely policed at that. Just as Western society is rife with double standards, the young Muslim woman is saddled with these “choices” in an environment where her brothers are permitted to stay out all night, fool around, have non-Muslim girlfriends. While such behaviour is not encouraged in men, it is tolerated; a tolerance not extended to women except in the most liberal of Muslim families. (Of course, many enterprising Muslim women find a way around this, as the rising practice of hymen restoration indicates ).  

It's also important to recognise that in the West modesty has an added dimension. For some Muslim women the hijab is less an expression of spirituality than an act of political dissent. It is a response to a dominant culture that simultaneously objectifies them as women and marginalises them as Muslim. For these women, modesty is an affirmation of identity, a gesture of belonging.

If Lauren Shields wants to “find out” if modesty is liberating, she would do better to speak to rather than about Muslim women. Instead of playing fancy dress with their culture, she could ask those Muslim women –myself included- who have had to sacrifice their own families in order to free themselves of the shackles of “modesty”.

No behaviour or mode of dress is inherently liberating or oppressive. Wherever there is an ideal standard there is a corresponding expectation to conform. To romanticise Muslim culture because it appears to reject Western ideals of beauty is to strip it of its own history and deny the pressure faced by Muslim women to perpetuate an ideal they may not agree with.

 

60 comments

  • Other, hmm, I get that mindless misappropriation is not ideal, but I think that some form - at least symbolically - of accessing otherness is important for some kinds of personal change and development - and ultimately even broader cultural change and development. (Not sure why, still thinking it through.) And, I think with this blogger's 'modesty experiment' otherness is the point, rather than the modesty - it's not as if mainstream western culture is lacking in models and narratives of modesty or modesty-ish-ness - whether it's framed as 'dowdiness' (and how uncool would that be, I-did-a-year-of-dowdy), or unworldliness, or 'country' or even just conservative. But she didn't choose those, she chose the 'outside' model. The trouble with using otherness as a scaffold for exploring alternative ways of being I suppose is when real human experience is reduced to a one-dimensional symbol - and then those real humans find it dehumanising. I suppose it happens to us all in some degree - who gets to control what they signify? (Which sounds trite - I don't mean it to be.) I am aware that I symbolise some things to other people that I personally reject. I don't like it, But maybe we are all both complexity and more simplified symbolism at some level? Anyway enjoyed article - thanks!

    Commenter
    Elles
    Location
    Elsewhere
    Date and time
    July 18, 2013, 8:30AM
    • Is is lost on anyone that she "chose":to dress this way? If it were 40 degree heat, and she was required, either through male coercion or religious standard to dress fully covered, what would we say then? Interesting as an experiment, but you wouldn't want to live like this, simply from a comfort perspective. Yet our open mindedness has somehow closed our minds to the reality that many women in our society ARE forced to dress this way. None dare point this out lest they pose a cultural threat to the loony left, or become a physical target of the loony religious fascist.

      Welcome to Australian multiculturalism where, in 2013, oppression of women is okay if its "cultural".

      Commenter
      Malik the magic sheep
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 10:30AM
    • Ahem,in 40 degrees heat, let's see what is recommended: slip, slop, slap, in some permutation... Heretic as it sounds but wearing loose long sleaves and trousers is actually more comfortable on the full sun. Personal perference, of course.

      Commenter
      jungle monkey
      Location
      in a rainforest far, far away
      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 1:00PM
  • It all depends on how you have been brought up and what you have been taught by your parents what is modest wearing..... nothing is right and wrong

    Commenter
    Ares
    Date and time
    July 18, 2013, 8:32AM
    • Very good article. Women are horribly persecuted for not complying with 'cover up' ,. Several midd east women journos tv, hounded, sacked , attacked for taking off their head veils, recently. How many women have been murdered for the crime of uncovering? Only one good thing, I've heard is, when Lorna Logan was being raped at the Egypt protests a year ago, a phalanx of burkas opened, grabbed her and closed up again. The men could not enter.

      Commenter
      raymondvilla
      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 8:43AM
      • I don't know if Shields is romanticizing Muslim culture or using it as one example of a culture that covers up and rejects the typical Western beauty ideal and the related fashion/societal expectations. The photo used in the article definitely doesn't look like a Muslim ideal. Indeed, it looks closer to orthodox Jewish dress than Muslim. I'd be interested in hearing more about her experience.

        Commenter
        TK
        Date and time
        July 18, 2013, 8:48AM
        • " The photo used in the article definitely doesn't look like a Muslim ideal. Indeed, it looks closer to orthodox Jewish dress than Muslim"

          Yes @TK. My Rebbetzin and other married women at my synagogue dress like that too. Unmarried women (like me) can wear their hair uncovered.

          Commenter
          Alizah
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          July 18, 2013, 9:12AM
        • I thought it looked a bit EB or Jehovah except for the heels.
          Don't jewish orthodox women shave their heads, they used to. One reason Nazis (sorry a bit Godwins but relevant) did, to further humiliate them.
          I'm not a flesh barer but I'd hardly call my style modest, in the sense of boring.
          I don't understand why some women wear hardly any clothing and it's freezing or fat people in skimpy? Taking it a bit too far.

          Commenter
          LD
          Date and time
          July 18, 2013, 12:28PM
        • @LD - it used to be done more often than now. Although to be honest, I wouldn't know with my Rebbetzin and other members, I've bever seen their hair. My mother has her hair in a short bob cut and covers it with either a scarf or snood. Several other women I know have long hair and cover it with a snood - http://www.modestworld.com/

          I know that a lot of women who wear wigs often have their hair cut short. I also have other friends who are married who wear scarves or hats with some hair showing.

          Commenter
          Alizah
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          July 18, 2013, 2:17PM
      • Great article. There is a difference between 'sampling' elements of a culture that you want to try out, and 'immersion' in the life of a culture. By all means choose to dress modestly or not, but don't think it gives you any great insight into another's culture. Her experiment could just have easily referenced the Amish or any number of other groups and had the same result.

        Commenter
        Peter
        Location
        Craigieburn
        Date and time
        July 18, 2013, 9:04AM

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