The way the online community reacted to one woman's decision to give up cosmetic indulgences for nine months leaves a lot to think about.
When Kjerstin Gruyes blogged about her year without mirrors, it was seen by the general public as a fascinating social experiment.
When Phoebe Baker Hyde wrote about her year without makeup and beauty treatment, she faced a bit of flak from some circles but was lauded for the most part.
I decided to find out why this was so. At the surface it seemed like all three women were testing the same hypothesis – the lesser you obsess over your looks, the more you accept yourself and get your work done. Their means varied but their intentions seemed on similar lines.
Why the exhibitionism?
They all started their respective experiments in a quest for personal growth, so why not just do it silently? I presume they decided (and rightly it would seem, judging by the support they received) that their experience could enrich similarly-unsettled people all around the world so they wrote books about it.
But there’s another way to see this. In writer Marianne Kirby's words:
“Some people feel so locked into looking a certain way that they can't just stop looking that way or moderate their efforts. They have to make a statement out of it, out of being noncompliant.”
Dissecting the psychology of these experiments however is not the purpose of this post. What I want to do is simply understand why so many are calling Phoebe and Kjerstin brave but Lauren vain.
There are, of course, always people who belittle all such “modesty experiments”. Why go through all the trouble? It is what it is, and the lure of consumerism is far too strong for some scattered dissent to harm it. Besides, these cynics say, women look prettier with make-up anyway.
But this group was equally critical of all three cases.
The group of detractors that seem to have taken less kindly to Lauren Shields than to the other two is more important to me than the rest – the feminist bloggers.
Lauren’s “Modesty Experiment”
Lauren Shields was sick of having to look appealing to be taken seriously. Moreover she wanted to prove that being able to dress sexily did not necessarily mean you are more liberated; in fact it could be implying the opposite.
She talks about how cultures involving modestly dressed women (Jews, Arabs etc.) are often interpreted as being male-dominated, but in reality need not be so – especially looking at women who choose to adopt that lifestyle on their own.
“And then, as I sat on the couch…tummy sucked in so I looked thinner, makeup on my face to hide my blemishes, wearing uncomfortable shoes because they matched my outfit even though I had to walk three miles in them, hair with enough $15 product so it laid just so…I thought, “Is this really any better?””
So for nine months, the normally-stylish Lauren kept all her hair covered, wore no fitted clothes, and did not expose her knees, her shoulders (except at home, of course). For the most part she wore no makeup or nail polish either.
It was difficult – she is not hesitant about admitting that – but it was also “liberating”. People who actually mattered took her much more seriously and she met her fiancé.
Why aren’t people buying it?
“It sounds like Lauren didn't enjoy her experiences with dressing modestly -- though I think she expected to.” – Marianne Kirby on xoJane.com.
“Shields' project is superficial and silly, especially since she was putting just as much time and energy into her appearance as the vain women she pities” – Katie JM Baker on Jezebel.com.
The fact that Lauren’s experiment was modelled upon Jewish, Muslim and some Christian modesty practices seems to have irked people. Her conclusion that being modest did indeed help her feel better about herself was interpreted as being pro-Hijab, though she dedicates lengthy blog posts clarifying how that wasn’t her point at all.
Then there is the bigger matter of the term “modesty” itself. Does showing no skin automatically mean you are being modest? Do people who wear loose clothes necessarily have no intention of looking sexy? Is Lauren sure that while choosing headscarves, long skirts and nose rings, she was not still trying to make herself look good? If not, then does it make sense for her to make the conclusions that she did?
Moreover, some people are offended that she seems to be belittling all people who do dress up. Lauren seems to have unwittingly assumed that all women who wear makeup and are fashionable are doing so only with the intention of looking socially appealing, as Marianne Kirby explains in her blogpost.
“Those of us who are firmly in the ‘I wear makeup because it's pretty’ camp forget that our position is not the default position… I wear makeup because I like makeup.”
So does Lauren deserve the backlash?
Not entirely. I think these experiments shouldn’t be seen beyond being a journey of self-discovery for the person involved. All of them involve an appreciable degree of conviction and courage, and as long as none of have explicitly set out to define feminism, or the ideal woman, there’s no harm.
They all encourage dialogue and if we need more of anything, it’s dialogue. Sadly, it’s become far too easy for people to pass judgement or feel vicariously liberated, even without having any real idea what these women went through.
(Nandita Jayaraj writes about her encounters with the strange and interesting. You can send her feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also tweet her @nandita_j)