Sunday, August 26, 2012

The American Burka

Homeschoolers and religious sectarians.  And the way they dress.  And the reasons behind it.  And the judgements implied against the rest of us.  These things offend me.  I'm in a mood :)

Homeschoolers in the U.S. tend to overwhelmingly lean toward the strictly religious and the political far right.  For the record, I have no personal problem with either of those things.  It's the trappings for the female half of those populations that make my hands involuntarily clench into fists.

Long skirts or jumpers (frequently denim) and long sleeved, high necked blouses.  That's the required uniform.  It is what I call the American Burka.

Also frequently, all the sisters in a family (or all the sister wives of religious sectarians) are dressed alike.  Same pattern of skirt, same material, same color.  Possibly variation of color in the blouse (although not always) but all sewn (often by the wearer of the garment) to the same specs.  Same hair.  Same allowed hobbies, skills and professional ambitions . . .

Modesty is a Biblical principle (as well as a principle in many other religions) and you'll find no argument from me about adhering to that.  The argument from me is how modesty is achieved--specifically in American culture.

My question is this:  at what point was it decided that the only accepted definition of dressing modestly for religious women in America is based on fashions of 1800s homesteaders?

In the summer I volunteer at the county fair helping my friend who is the superintendent of all the 4-H sewing projects.  Every year, kids (mostly girls) turn in garments to be judged and some to be modeled during the public contest.  Approximately 90% of the contestants are home schooled girls.  Approximately 90% of those girls dress in the American Burka.  Colorless, drab, matronly, frumpy outfits that work tirelessly to hide all traces of overt femininity.

One perpetual contestant has a penchant for period pieces.  She dedicates herself to hours of research in the styles, patterns, fabrics and sewing techniques encompassing the period spanning the Civil War up to the 1940s--as though broaching the styles of the happy-go-lucky 50s or beyond to the rebellious 60s is tantamount to rebellion itself.  Costumey and anachronistic, these are the everyday clothes she wears.

Her mother's eyes light up when, at a fabric fair for 4-H kids, this girl chooses yet another dingy, characterless calico.  "Oh--that brown is really your color!"  Why is it threatening to wear non-bleak colors? Is it possible to wear a cheerful yellow or a vivid blue without being construed as preening like a conceited bird?

We also have a family of 5 sisters who all sew, wear and turn in for competition ankle length denim skirts--each one as boring, plain and impeccably crafted as the next.  For special family occasions, the girls sew and wear identical dresses or skirt/blouse combinations.  Why must they all dress alike?  Is having no individuality part of being modest?  Looking at them (at the way they stand, walk and talk) and considering the other fair entries they turn in (paintings, food items) it is obvious that these girls are as different as any 5 girls you'd meet on the street--sisters or otherwise.  Why are they being trained to look the same when they are anything but the same?  Is that somehow modesty?

One of our American Burka-wearing 4-H families is actually quite prideful about their way of life.  Prideful about the daughter's sewing skills (which are remarkable,) prideful of how hardworking the mother is, prideful about one of their sons' woodworking skills (also remarkable,) prideful about being a "certain" kind of farming, homeschooling family.  Pride does not equal modesty, no matter how dowdy your clothing is.

Back to the accepted fashions:  why only skirts and dresses for these women?  Why are pants considered to be inherently immodest?  Yes, they show the shape of the legs and the hiney, but the mere fact of having legs and a hiney doesn't constitute being provocative.  Pants can be conservative, flattering--and convenient in a woman's life--without being vulgar.

Modesty in clothing can be achieved in a fashionable way.  Length and style of sleeves, style of neckline, darts, non-calico fabric can all be employed to make a comfortable, respectable garment that is pleasing without crossing the line to immodesty.

We non American Burka-wearing homeschoolers, obviously, are making a lot of judgements about the families who choose to dress like they belong in a little house on a prairie.  But make no mistake--they are making just as many judgements about us.  Judgements about how serious we are in our relationships to God, judgements about whether we're training our children the "right" way, judgements about whether we are valuing our girls above rubies (as though allowing them to be individuals is devaluing them.)  It becomes a very "us vs. them" sort of attitude on both sides of the coin.  It's destructive, really.

I started doing a little questioning about men and modesty and about the idea that perhaps it isn't entirely up to women to dress modestly; perhaps men bear a responsibility not to be pigs and to control their base instincts.  Poking around a bit, I tripped across this fascinating blog.  For your consideration:  The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker.

There's more going on regarding women's clothing in Indian culture and American homeschooling/religious sect culture than modesty.  The level of control that Indian women are subject to, and a specific section of American women are willingly subjecting themselves to, under the guise of 'modesty' is disturbing.  It might be said that putting so much focus on adhering to an unusual style of dress is taking focus away from other areas that might otherwise flourish.  AND it's interesting that by setting themselves apart from mainstream American culture, the broader principles that these families stand for aren't appreciated because of, ironically, their appearance.

Just a thought.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A monologue. About vaginas.

I am so over the overuse of the word vagina.  I've had this complaint for a couple of years.  I keep thinking constant references to this part of our anatomy will fade from our lexicon.  I keep being wrong.

Part of my irritation with the use of that term is that it is, more often than not, misdirected.  Most frequently when someone says vagina, what they really mean is vulva.  Sometimes they're so far off the mark, what they're really trying to talk about is the uterus, occasionally the ovaries or fallopian tubes.  Is this purposeful stupidity for effect or do we, as a culture, so severely lack accurate knowledge of the female anatomy?

A couple years ago at the gym I was subjected to an episode of "The Girls Next Door."  To celebrate Hef's birthday (and I just looked this up--it was his 82nd birthday--and may I just add a hearty blech?) the girls cast their private areas in chocolate.  Because really, what else would you give an 82 year old?  During the personal interviews, one of the girls waxed poetically about how famous she is for having such a lovely looking vagina.  No no no no no nooooooooooooooo!!!!  Not vagina--vulva.  Or labia--major and/or minor.  Or even clitoris.  But not vagina.  Dumb bunny.

I understand the origin of our current frankness and open conversation about the vagina (rightly or wrongly identified) stems, in part, from "The Vagina Monologues."  And I get that the play was, in part, meant to honestly and unabashedly dialogue about everything having to do with the feminine experience--warts and all.  I'm on board with that, but what I'm not on board with is how this sincere, funny, candid discussion has devolved into boorish, silly, childish, everyday slang.  Vajajay?  Seriously?

It is, to me, on a much smaller scale, akin to what has become of feminism.  The fight for equal rights, equal pay for equal work and freedom for women to express themselves sexually has become something so markedly different as to be unrecognizable.  To add insult to injury, we now don't know what our vaginas actually are, we are expected to keep our "vaginas" hairless like prepubescent girls and we are (according to popular culture) expected to allow our vaginas to be used freely without emotion or consequence.

Makes me so mad.  I just want to punch someone in the vagina . . . .

Friday, May 18, 2012


Not sure why all of a sudden.  Can't put my finger on when this started or what brought it on.  Out of the blue I find myself seriously missing the time when my kids were little. 

Because we were a homeschooling family, we had time together.  Lots of time.  So much time to explore and learn and just be.  During his high school years, Number One Son took a Great Books tutorial on-line.  The instructor encouraged the kids to take as much time as they could to do other things while thinking about the books they read.  He considered having that kind of time extremely important in everyone's lives.  He called it time to "Hmmmmm . . . "  I didn't realize it back then, but "Hmmmm . . . " time was one of the greatest gifts I have ever given my kids. 

When the older two were grade school age and my youngest was a toddler, we lived in a quiet community with forest all around us and a splendid beach just down the half paved lane from our house.  We took walks in the first warm rains of fall.  In nice weather we sat out on the big wraparound deck and read or else we would go out at dusk and watch the bats flitting around eating mosquitoes. 

We spent all day, every day at the beach during spring and summer.  Such a beautiful flat, sandy beach--the tide would go out almost an eighth of a mile.  We played in tide pools with tiny fish and crabs.  We waded and swam and the kids built all manner of sand structures.  We watched birds and took plaster casts of their footprints.  We took backpacks with sandwiches and apples and tried not to let the food get sandy while we ate.  We walked around our neighborhood and down to the tiny store that was the community hangout.

Coming home late in the afternoon, the kids would continue to play outside while I sat in our sunny living room reading and watching the birds at the feeders.  The kids climbed trees and built forts and picked the "hats" off the blooming poppies.  We also had slug patrol at sundown, salting the heck out of those garden ruiners.

I admit, there were many, many nights when we had mac n' cheese or pizza or chili dogs for dinner because I did not have it in me to cook after spending all day playing and reading and generally enjoying just being.  At the time I felt deep guilt for not being more structured about school and for not devoting a whole lot more time to housekeeping.  But if I had it to do over again, I'd do it all just like I did the first time.

My daughter's life is uncontrollably busy with the demands of her youngest child's disability.  My youngest son's time is also suddenly very taken up with doing yard work for other folks and school and sports activities.  My own life has wound up to a speed that I'm unaccustomed to.  And I miss that blissful, innocent time with my kids.  I wish so very, very much that my girl could have those long, sun soaked days with her own kids and that they could all "Hmmmmm . . . " together. 

Even back then I understood that not everybody had the kind of life I had and I was privileged to have those days.  I did appreciate it.  I knew it was special.  I knew it wouldn't last forever. 

What would I give to go back and relive one of those afternoons when my boys spent hours engineering perfect sand garrisons and my little girl wore sundresses and danced on tiptoe at the edge of the incoming tide?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

But wait--I have one last rant in me!

I am coming out of retirement today because I have something to say:  Happy Valentine's Day! 

Okay, yes, I am actually going to say more than that :) 

I hear and read a whole heck of a lot of complaining about Valentine's Day being fake and being commercially overproduced.  And frankly, I'm kinda tired of hearing about it.

People sanctimoniously go on and on about how insincere it is to show your love to the people in your life on one Hallmark kind of day.  I disagree with that charge.  I will agree that we live in the most commercial nation in the history of forever and any business wanting to capitalize on the potential river of money that will pour into their hands will unapologetically join the hype.  But I disagree that the sentiment behind most people's celebrating of V Day is artificial.

Why is it disingenuous to set aside a special day to remind your partner or child or parent or friend that you love them?  We have a few examples in our culture of choosing specific days for which to celebrate other important ideas, so why not for love and devotion?

  • Every November we set aside a special day to be thankful for all that we have.  Are we unthankful the rest of the year?  No, of course not.  But taking time aside from our normal lives to think about it, appreciate it and share it with our families is good reminder and a renewal of our commitment to be thankful during the regular days. 
  • Every December we set aside another day.  For those of us with religious persuasion it's to celebrate the glory of the birth of our Saviour.  You can't tell me that just because I choose to observe Christmas it means I don't care about the fact that our Saviour humbled himself to live in a mortal body like the rest of us on the other 364 days.
  • I can't speak for non-religious people as to their reasons to have Christmas festivities, but I suspect it's a season for family and joy and care.  Again, I'm pretty sure there's joy and care the rest of the year, but the annual symbolic reminder is a lovely time to gather and make peace and gain perspective. 
  • Easter, for the Christian world, is the time to rejoice in the miracle of the Lord rising from the dead.  For the secular world, it's a day of rejoicing in the energy and beauty of Spring and a new year.  Yes, Easter is also a little overly hyped with the candy and pastel everything, but don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.
  • We commemorate each other's birthdays.  Do we not care for each other every other day of the year?
  • As a nation we make a pretty big to-do on July 4th.  I would argue there are millions and millions of Americans who are thankful on more than just one fleeting day for the freedoms we enjoy and appreciate the fact that people laid down their lives for their belief that we, as humans, are entitled to those freedoms.  It's a sentiment deeper than a summer BBQ.
  • First day of school, anyone?  There are 180 days of school for our kids but especially on that first day we take pictures, have fresh haircuts, new clothes, the latest in lunchboxes.  It doesn't downgrade the rest of the school year just because we so honor the first day. 
  • In some parts of the country the first day of Boating Season is a *huge* deal, but we still enjoy boating during the rest of the summer.  There's Kentucky Derby Day, but people love horse racing all season long--not just on that one day.  There's Groundhog Day, for goodness sake, and nobody complains about that! (Well, okay, I admit that I actually *do* complain about Groundhog Day, but I'm like the only person in the Western Hemisphere who does.) 
  • And the big daddy of celebration days?  How about funerals.  It's not that we didn't love or care about the deceased while they were here, but we set aside a day after their passing to pay respect to everything we knew and felt and loved about them.   It's not fake or forced just because a funeral parlor, a florist and a caterer are making a buck on the proceedings. 
Every culture since time immemorial has had days of celebration to bring into sharp focus things that we do or have or appreciate every single day.  St. Valentine's Day is one in a long line of those days. 

So to all of you anti-Valentiners, I say this:  Don't be a hater. 

And happy Valentine's Day :)