Who’s Repressed?

Epiphany passed me by recently, dressed like a Somali woman. It occurred to me that with her cultural requirement to wear a head covering in public, she is free from stressing about hairstyles. And with her long and shapeless body covering, she is immune from fashion police and probably never wonders if she missed a spot when shaving her legs. For the first time I saw comfort and freedom in her clothing rather than only repression.

Growing up fundamentalist, my textile signs of repression included long skirts, culottes, and nylon stockings. To prove I was free from this bondage, I spent many of my early adult years wearing blue jeans or shorts just about everywhere. I avoided nylon stockings and knee-length skirts, sure that would be the same as wearing a sandwich sign entreating, “Blow me a kiss, I’m a fundamentalist.”

Then came the hippie feminist years, when makeup and shaving were the symbols of my captivity to The Man. To declare my independence, I dumped the mascara and left alone the leg hair, though I was still chained to the need for smooth armpits.

Somewhere along the way life normalized and my statements and declarations morphed into nothing more than habits, some of which I continued and some of which I changed, without attaching much of a larger meaning to them.

photo courtesy djcodrin, freedigitalphotos.net

It goes without saying, in my estimation, that women just about everywhere and throughout all time are repressed. My Somali neighbor must dress as she does to be accepted in her community. In mainstream western culture, where women have been liberated from stringent dress codes, they have been subjected to ever more ruthless standards of slender bodies, large breasts, firm smooth ageless skin, perfect hair, etc.

I’m not done thinking about it, speaking out against it, trying to pass on to my daughter – and my son – some sense of healthy female body image and gender equality. But I marvel regularly at the resilience of the human spirit that is alive and well in women everywhere, who play by the patriarchal rules, or don’t, but still manage to do what needs to be done, day in and day out, and add their own strength and spark to this shattered, shining world.


  1. What came to mind when I read this was a conversation I had with a young man from my church about a year ago. He was soliloquizing on his girlfriend’s beauty, feeling thankful that she was attractive, and asked, “Do you think people are ugly as a result of the Fall.” I told him I thought it was more likely that we only think people are ugly because we have fallen.

    I’m willing to bet that even women in burkas find ways to make physical comparisons between themselves and other women. As guilty as I am of doing it myself, I long to be free of that bondage.

    Would love to hear more from you on feminism; this is a topic I’m newly exploring.

    • Well-chosen response to the young man’s question!

      Physical beauty is an interesting thing to ponder. I am more appreciative of beauty now than I have ever been, I think – and my ideas about what is beautiful have expanded and deepened (look at the photo in the post – the light in the woman’s eyes, the lines recording the habitual movements of her face over a lifetime). I reject the idea that beauty is only skin-deep, or the sentiment that what’s inside is all that counts. I also reject a monotonous standard for beauty. There are so many ways beauty expresses itself. I do believe some people are more physically beautiful than others, and I love that my husband and I peaceably agree that every day we see images of and actual people who are more beautiful than we are, can enjoy that beauty, and still fully and exclusively embrace the beauty in one another.

      While I’m rambling, I’d like to throw in one more thought – I disagree that men are somehow biologically “visually stimulated” creatures. I readily admit that I am no scientist, sociologist, or other specialist. But I have noticed that men have historically made the rules and dominated most fields including the arts, and men historically (for the most part) are attracted to women – therefore, images of women have always dominated culture. Men and women both are immersed in imagery of the feminine form from infancy, and – predictably – men more than women have become accustomed to being visually stimulated.

      Hmm, more on feminism – here’s a smart-mouth soundbyte i have posted in my kitchen that i love anyway – “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” I find it helps to just remind myself each day that I am, indeed, human, just as much so as any and all of the wonderful men I know and love, read, quote, listen to. (Dorothy Sayers wrote a book called “Are Women Human?” and that reminds me i want to reread it – and also that she’s British and needs to be in my new song!)

      • I’ve only dabbled in Dorothy Sayers but have been meaning to read more of her work. Thanks for the suggestion; I’ll add it to my reading list. And thanks for humoring me when I put you on the spot. πŸ™‚

        There could be truth to your theory. But it’s inconvenient to lose the “visually stimulated” argument because how then will we justify culottes?

        Oh, I’ll stop now; I’m straying into snide.

      • Is this Dorothy Sayers of Dorothy Sayers Mysteries? Lord Peter and Harriet??? After your All Things British song, maybe you could do one about Lord Peter and Harriet. Yeah for the BBC!

        • yes, the same Dorothy Sayers. I’ve only read the book i mentioned, but mean to dig into Lord Peter some day.

  2. Julia, I don’t remember if I told you that I spent a couple years managing those apartments on St Paul Rd. This was many years ago. It was almost entirely inhabited by Somali’s. I got to be friends with quite a few of them, they would have me over for dinner sometimes. One time, a woman named Hawa was serving me and her husband plates of food (goat, if I remember correctly, you eat meat and rice with your hands), anyway, her head thing came undone. She had TONS of hair underneath. They were highly educated and progressive, she was embarrassed but her husband did not seem angry at her. I guess to conservative Muslims seeing a woman’s hair is akin to seeing her undressed. Someone suggested to me later that she did it on purpose! She was beautiful.

    Anyway. Great comments. As far as your “hippie feminist days,” I would suggest you still retain much of that!

    Regarding shaving. Most of the world’s women don’t. I could tell you about…no I better not.

    I don’t think women should shave at all. I like foreign films, especially ones with lots of sex scenes. I’ll give you one: “Lust/Caution,” it is a Chinese film. It does have some intensity and violence, and an unbelievable sex scene. I relay this because in the middle of this scene, you can see the woman’s lengthy armpit hair. This caused me no trouble whatsoever.

    This hunter/gatherer recommends all women reject Hugh Hefner et al ideals of feminine grooming. And Brazil’s.

    • Nnox, Nnox, you hunter-gatherer! Thanks for weighing in.

      I took a local community ed. class about Somali culture, from a Somali woman, who showed us slides of everyday life for her community. Some of the pictures showed women at home, with their hair down, and I too was impressed with the long and beautiful hair I saw there!

      Not long after i stopped shaving my legs, Nathan and i went to visit a friend in the Netherlands. I had grown up hearing that European women didn’t shave their legs (said in disgusted hushed tones when the missionaries to Germany came to show slides at our church), and so I was eager to discover if it was true. Apparently not anymore. Everywhere I looked, not only in Holland, but Germany and Sweden too – i saw smooth-legged women. But you’re still right – we wacky westerners are not most of the world anyway.

      “I don’t think women should shave at all.” I think women should decide for themselves πŸ™‚ Personally, I got tired of being stared at and feeling intimidating in this small midwestern town, and – i freely admit – felt a little prettier after the shaver did its work.

      But if all women did reject those stupid Hugh Hefneresque ideals – then those smooth-skinned pits and legs would look pretty silly!

  3. Thanks for this post, Julia. It took me almost half a century to be comfortable with myself (and to not care if I missed a spot when shaving – smile). Having grandchildren who accept me as I am definitely helped (thanks to you for that). It took me too many years to grow to the point where I believe that I am one-of-a-kind and don’t have to look or act like anyone else. I can just be me and enjoy the woman that God designed me to be. I have a goofy laugh, a classic sneeze, a squishy belly, a dark streak in my curly gray/brown hair, slanty blue eyes and strong arms— and it is good! Thanks for the peek into the life of our Somali neighbors. I think I met Hawa once; that names sounds familiar to me. Thanks for a place to ramble— and for a thought-provoking post.

    • Yup, your grandchildren have had that effect on me too πŸ™‚ It’s hard to feel anything but perfect when Silas buries his face in my hair and covers me with sloppy three-year-old kisses!

  4. Makes me think of Pedro The Lion.

    “I don’t like girls the way they are
    so shave their legs, and make them look like movie stars
    then we can pretend it’s natural.

    Put on whatever makes you attractive.
    If it’s not you, then do it for the sake of fashion.
    Your friends like a certain you. That’s who you’ve got to be.”

    • Yes, actually, hearing about that song helped fortify me back in my no-razor days!

  5. RE: “I don’t think women should shave at all.” I suppose even Nnox, despite his pretensions to progressive thought, deep down would like to control what female humans are up too…lol, I think….

  6. Oh yes, LOL, friend. I suspect you want to control what all humans are up to, just like the rest of us πŸ™‚

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