Five years ago, Lauren Shields, then a blogger, former seminary student and unordained preacher, wrote an article for Salon called “My Year of Modesty.” It chronicled the nine months Shields spent literally under wraps, having shed the makeup, short skirts, spindly heels and other trappings of conventional Western femininity for loosefitting, trailing skirts or jeans and a head wrap.
Why did she do it? “Many of us have come to accept ‘hotness’ as a substitute for power,” she wrote at the time. She dismissed that idea, which dates roughly from the time Madonna was a girl, as “nothing more than misogyny disguised as feminist rhetoric.”
Her objective, she wrote, was to free herself from a conventional Western beauty ideal that in its way was just as potentially stultifying as a nun’s habit or burqa. “Is covering enslavement or freedom?” she pondered. “I want to find out.”
There was blowback. Her readers, mostly young self-professed feminists, argued that Shields had merely replaced one set of rules dictating how women should look in public with another. Charting her progress was a form of humble brag, some said; others accused her of — you should forgive — naked self-promotion.
Their reactions sent her reeling. “The idea that I was attacking women everywhere for wearing makeup and doing their hair was a misconception that I ran into from both genders,” she recalled. “It’s one I still encounter.”
Her retort is “The Beauty Suit: How My Year of Religious Modesty Made Me a Better Feminist,” a book published this past spring. In it, Shields elaborates on why she discarded the Suit, an amalgam of sexy clothes, lipstick and labor-intensive grooming; expands on her original arguments, and continues to explore the ways in which her feminism intersects with her Christian ideals.
She talks about her struggle to stop “performing” femininity, details her unorthodox views on fashion, and takes on her most vociferous critics.
Q: Was your project triggered by a specific incident or event?
A: In my first year of seminary, we had a lecture by a woman about wearing the hijab. I thought she would be the typical white feminist who would argue that being veiled is a form of submission to patriarchal religion. But that wasn’t at all what she said.
She explained how potentially freeing it could be to wear loose clothes and cover your head. At the time I was wearing a skirt that pinched my waist. I was constantly rearranging it to cover my thighs. I thought: “Ugh, I can’t move in this. I can’t bend over.” I thought, “Am I that liberated if I have to wear this whole package just to leave the house?”
Q: You’ve listed some common trappings of Western femininity: spike heels, brief skirts, skimpy lingerie and the like. How did you come up with an alternative?
A: I wrestled quite a bit. I thought, “Oh, what if I wore Indian clothes?” But I decided against that. Indian is not my native culture. I thought for me that would be a costume.
At the time I lived in Brooklyn and noticed that Orthodox Jewish women there dressed modestly in a way that didn’t look like a costume. So I basically began dressing like an Orthodox Jewish woman. The big difference is that instead of a long skirt, I was usually in jeans.
Q: Were the jeans some kind of statement?
A: No, jeans are comfortable. I basically wanted to spend less time in the morning thinking about what I was wearing. You can put on jeans, and boom, you’re out the door.
Q: You were looking to simplify and streamline the way you dress. Yet you added a head wrap. Why?
A: My hair was short. It was cut in a pixie; it was definitely a style. What I thought my hair said about me was really central to my identity. I couldn’t think of a way to get past my obsession with my hair without covering my head.
Q: On the web, your noisiest critics have been female. Why?
A: I resist judging other women’s choices of how they move through the world. But if you question those choices, you raise alarms. I think that speaks to how ingrained the idea is in women’s consciousness that how we look is who we are.
Q: Haven’t you been told that what you now call the Experiment was just another way of drawing attention to yourself?
A: That was one of the hardest charges for me to get past. Because I heard it a lot. Because accusing a woman of being vain is one of the worst things that you can say to her.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the poles that women are supposed to live between. I concluded that I could use what I have to explore the tensions between those poles, to look more closely at the issues that are really important to me. Still, I had to ask myself: Did I really do this for attention?
Q: Has the passage of time since you published “My Year of Modesty” permanently changed the way you dress?
A: I completed the experiment at 30. I’m 36 now. Between 30 and 35, you start to see aging happen. I began to wish I hadn’t dressed when I was younger to flaunt my sexual attractiveness. But when you hit 40 or 50, it gets harder to do that. Your appearance changes and you start to feel, “Who am I?”
These days I like to wear secondhand clothes. I’ve dropped the head wrap. I think wearing it would be pretentious when I don’t have a good reason. I haven’t worn an above-the-knee skirt in years. I can’t remember the last time I wore a spaghetti-strap top. I only expose my arms when I’m working out. I like how they look. They’re awesome.
There are days I miss the Suit. But the Suit doesn’t function for me the way it used to. It isn’t as satisfying. My pants are usually jeans. Day to day, I wear a lot of graphic T-shirts; they’re simple choices, I guess. I want to get on with my day.
Q: Is the way you dress now really so different from the way many of your contemporaries are dressing?
A: Maybe not. Somewhere out there, women are getting sick of having to wear the Suit and have a job and raise the kids and be a good partner and look like they’re 20. It’s exhausting.