Sunday, December 2, 2012

In Defense of Modesty

If you're a woman who has body image issues (and really, what woman doesn't?) Southeast Asia can be either heaven or hell.

Heaven because the cultural norm here is to cover most of those problem areas with calf-length skirts and sleeved shirts. Swimming with your clothes on is de riguer for most local women visiting public pools and hotsprings.

Hell because there are swarms of twenty-something European backpackers here defying the said norms and barely covering their tiny frames in ass-hugging short shorts and tanktops. And really, who can blame them for wanting to go back to Norway with a tan that will be the envy of all their pale friends?

Me, that's who.

How they see us

Now, I admit I'm an approval junkie and diligently conform to cultural relativity wherever I go. If I were in Saudi Arabia and were handed a burka I'd probably meekly slip it over my head and spend the day stumbling into things. Also, I'm a smug bitch who takes a certain amount of pleasure for being more appropriate-than-thou. When I watch alarmed monks sidle away from said backpackers or when they're handed ugly green robes by temple attendants to hide their inappropriateness I smirk. I am wearing frumpy safari pants and a long-sleeved cotton shirt. I'm not getting hit on, but I am treated with a little more respect by the locals.

And my modest clothes have begun to feel comfortable to me in a way I didn't anticipate. It's not quite the same as when I was thirteen and I wore a baggy Cowboys sweater every day to hide my figure. It's more like my body is a mystery that only a few select people have the right to know about. It's nice. I'm understanding in a new way why some Muslim women call themselves feminists despite wearing clothing Western women consider symbols of patriarchial oppression. They feel more comfortable, more in control when they're covered.

On laundry day last week I wore a tanktop out in public and for the first time since my arrival I felt unwelcome, obtrusive, vulgar. It may have been my imagination, but I felt as though I were received totally differently. The people I interacted with were less responsive to my smiles, less likely to meet my eyes. Were they reacting to my wardrobe or to my own discomfort? It's hard to tell. All I do know is that I felt a lot better once I was able to slip on my frumpy long-sleeved shirt.

I'm reminded of a morning a few months ago, when I stopped by my grandmother's on my way to work. She goggled at my (very flattering) green blouse, asking if I was going to change before work. I asked her why.

"Oh my, fashions certainly have changed since I left the workforce, I suppose."

She left the workforce in the early '60s.

"What? Is it the ruffles?"

"No, I just can't believe they let you go to work in something without sleeves."

At the time I found her fashion advice stodgy, if well-meaning. Now it hits home how much our own social norms have changed over the years. Workplace casual in the United States has come to mean almost anything short of lingerie. Appropriate clothing for social gatherings is almost anything-goes. And thank goodness for that. We live in a society of free speech, and if visible thongs are a symptom of that, I'll take it. As a big woman I've zig-zagged in either direction, from that bulky Cowboys sweater to a bustier. I've made peace with my ass and in the good ol' U.S. of A. I'm not afraid to show it. Still, thanks to my new Southeast Asian friends I've learned that there's something to be said for preserving some mystery as well as dignity.

In Laos, even the crosswalk sign lady is appropriately dressed. Doesn't she makes ours look naked by comparison?



  1. "Henchman Of Justice" says,

    Maybe the funny looks had to do with "lack of respect for another culture?" - HOJ

  2. Soggy says,
    Thank you for your time!