By Sarah Schwartz
I love dressing up. This is, probably, why I am still working in the same company as a marketing manager for 10 years now. I am blessed to have a job that allows me to express myself however I want. You see, it is always self-gratifying to receive a compliment or two, on a dress you wore that day and being told how attractive or “sexy” you look. I mean, this is the reason why fashion was created for in the first place, right? Otherwise, we will all be wearing the same boring thing. Fashion is made to awe the eyes and the mind.
“We dress to impress or it is no dressing at all.” Those words keep reminding me while I struggle in front of the mirror every time. And being the only daughter and child in the family, I grow up in a household where I am treated like a princess. I get the new stuff all the time. My mom grew up in a conservative Christian family where a dress code was implemented by the religious norms. She felt that she had been deprived of her youth when she couldn’t dress the same as friends because her parents will not allow it. She didn’t feel normal growing up. She was bullied and discriminated. So, when it came to me, she allowed and encouraged the wear of trendy clothes. She would be the first to buy whatever is new in the market. To the people around me, I grew up in a different world, that’s what they said. But for my mom and I, I am what I should be- free. My mom and I were very hooked into fashion. Although she still dresses up a little less conservative after she married my father, but when it comes to my fashion choices, I am free to wear whatever I want. From jeans, to baby tees, to cropped tops, to mini-skirts and bikinis- she has always been my cheerleader despite the criticism she gets (or we get) from our religious community. But why is it like that? Religion seem to get in the way between our freedom of choice?
I was battling this idea in my head for years, and my mom’s refusal to abide by our church rules made religion an awkward discussion to talk about. In the whole community, I became a black sheep and my mom a bad sheepherder who allowed the sheep to go astray. My fondness for fashion grew year after year, but the issue of religion went to disarray. I couldn’t remember the last time I attended church because my mom did not think it was necessary. I mean, she encouraged me to worship God but not the way my folks did. I was not a practicing Christian.
But one day I was told to meet an international company whose business is about an organic skincare products. My mission was to provide the customer a marketing plan for their business and get them to sign up the deal. And as usual I dressed in my best self. And as I walked into the conference room, I was introduced to a lady and her husband. They are Muslims. The lady was dressed in a loose clothing of what they called an “abaya” and a head cover they called a “hijab”. In a few minutes we were joined by another Muslim girl who wore a printed maxi dress with a short jacket over it, and a pale-colored hijab. Both women looked so stylish in their own way. I sat there appreciating how they look in a dress that I never thought I would wear one day. And as much as I despise the idea because, again, how they wear their clothes is religiously motivated, I like the way they look. However, I thought, it’s just them. Not everyone will look as good in those dresses. The whole time I was sitting there was spent in appreciation of how decent they look and how feminine it is.
I went home and wondering “but, how free are they?”. I mean, our church demands us to wear long skirts below the knee (the longer, the better) and sleeves to pass by the elbows. But those women wore full-length, full-sleeves and loose garments and covered their hair. I thought about how much I spent in the salon just to fix my hair, but only to cover it? If my mom thought she was oppressed, what would she say if she saw them? Why in that moment when I was in that room, did I feel like I am the one who was?
The following day, I went to one of our IT personnel whom I never talked to ever since she joined the company three years ago. Her name is Farrah and she is a Muslim. I was curious and I wanted to know how she felt when her parents told her to wear hijab for the first time. Her answer stunned me. She said she was very happy when she worn the hijab first time when she was 8 years old. She felt that she finally belonged to her community and she can finally call herself a Muslim. But what about the clothes? What did she feel when she can’t wear the new trends while her friends did? She said it didn’t matter what others are wearing. I mean, I see her always in this black abaya thing like she never had any other clothes. For her, being able to wear what she wants and not attracting unwanted eyes to examine her body and her skin, when she doesn’t need to impress and attract people, is freedom. Her words hit me hard because she spoke the truth.
That was my problem all along. Whenever I put a dress on, all that comes to mind is “How sexy am I in this dress?” or “Do I look attractive enough” Although, I feel good about the compliments but picking a dress, planning what to wear every day, worrying about my excess fats, my legs, my arms, my bulging tummy, stresses me out. Do you know how much anxiety and frustration we have to go through as a woman? All that for people who don’t really need to know how sexy we are.
My mom may be right. But I think there is more freedom in being modest. The capitalist fashion industry demands you to buy the newest trend, and without you knowing, you become a slave in that system. And being modestly dressed protects you from attracted people’s attention especially men. Being modest means, you don’t need to wear loud make-up, you don’t wear very tight or skimpy clothes to call for attention, you don’t need to get a liposuction or Botox because you need to show your legs or waist, you don’t need to have a filler to flaunt your body on that bodycon dress. I am sure some feminist movements out there would beg to disagree, but the truth is, whatever you say, our purpose to dressing up is mostly to attract the opposite sex. Why do you think the slit is for? What is the purpose of a backless? Why the neckline scoops down? It is not because we want to have some air, it is because we are told that showing some legs, skin, the parts of the body that entices the other being is freedom. It is not. I come to a conclusion that being modestly dressed means decency, respect and socially responsible, and most of all- freedom.
I admire the conservative ones. I still admire my mother. She taught me how to free myself from the system. But there is nothing wrong with the church she grew up either. And indeed, there is freedom in modesty.