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.
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.