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When it comes to the landscape of my mind, worries grow like weeds. Ridding my thoughts of fear, doubt, or anxiety does not come easily for me. I’ve always had a tendency to entertain worry. It was my first imaginary … Continue reading →
I’m going to ask some questions I don’t have the answers to: Where does one draw the line between modesty and shame? Who decides what is appropriate attire? How does a piece of apparel evolve from indecent to provocative to fashionable to ordinary? Does it just take time? Is it an inevitable progression? In the timeline of clothing, does scandalous inevitably becoming commonplace or stylish?
I live in New York City. Very few things are universally taboo here. The hotter it gets, the greater the number of body parts going public. Summer is a season during which the clothes get thinner and shorter and smaller—some even disappear altogether.
To be honest, I don’t know how to feel about it. I grew up with very clear and insistent instructions on what to wear and what not to show. Underwear was meant to be just that. It was to be treated like classified information—for my eyes only. I heard clothing commandments from the older women in my life: Thou shalt not allow bra straps to slip into view. Honor thy body and modesty by wearing a slip with unlined skirts and dresses. Thou shalt only wear shorts and skirts longer than your hanging arms can reach. Remember that after Labor Day, white shoes, purses, skirts, and pants are wholly inappropriate.
Everywhere I look now, however, I see those commandments getting broken. It’s been confusing—disorienting. Some of the rules I happily unlearnt and relinquished. Others felt unbreakable—important. For instance, I wear a lot of skirts, but I don’t own any slips. However, by popular standards, I suppose I lean towards modesty. I like to keep my private parts private and my intimate attire inconspicuous. They’re top secret, and only my husband and I have the clearance the see them.
Some of what I choose to wear is rooted in personal preference, and some is fueled by insecurity. On the personal preference side, I don’t find being naked liberating. I like the sensation of wearing clothing. Even if I could delete all my inhibitions, I wouldn’t enjoy being nude. I don’t believe there’s anything about the bare body that’s shameful. I just think living naked would be uncomfortable and impractical—potentially dangerous even.
However, I can’t blame all of my internalized clothing commandments on standards of modesty. There are parts of my body I hide (or hid once) because of shame or self-consciousness, not piety. It wasn’t until I was in college that I felt comfortable in a tank top. I was embarrassed by my veiny, muscular arms—too masculine, I thought. I still prefer to wear board shorts with my bathing suit. It’s partly because I refuse to put a razor, molten wax, or laser near my bikini area, but it’s also because I don’t really like the way my naked upper thighs look.
Then there are the gray areas for me—where what to wear comes from indeterminate measures of shame and modesty. For example, I don’t often show my stomach. You won’t catch me in a bikini. But I can’t tell if I’m embarrassed to bare my belly, or if it just feels like something that should remain concealed. Similarly, while I would never tell anyone to hide her breasts, I don’t like showing cleavage. That’s primarily a personal and aesthetic preference, but perhaps there are also some latent insecurities left over from puberty, a season in which I felt ambushed by the rapid expansion of my chest.
Most of my clothing choices are made in my subconscious. These habits come from rules I internalized so long ago and deeply, I can’t tell where they originally came from. Now, as I try to parse out why I wear what I do when I do, the motivations aren’t always clear. And context matters, of course. I’m comfortable wearing completely different things in private, running errands, going to church, and on the volleyball court. The line, especially for women, between what we hide out of modesty and what we cover out of shame or insecurity is constantly moving—at least for me.
I see women walking the streets of New York in shorts that are so short I can see the cheeks of their buttocks. At first I thought it was a mistake. I thought perhaps they lived alone and only saw themselves in the mirror from the front. I wondered if I should tell someone that her butt was hanging beyond the margins of her hem. It took a while for it to occur to me that this look was intended. (Actually, I’m still not convinced.)
And who am I to judge? Things I consider appropriate, others would find offensive. The hemline has been rising throughout history. Ankles used to be on the cusp of indecency, then knees. Now women wear skirts so short I don’t comprehend how the fabric could possibly accommodate sitting.
Many of us wear sleeveless, even strapless, shirts and dresses without a second thought to weddings and work. But you don’t have to travel back in time, just to certain countries or places of worship, to find that shoulder coverings are required.
The other day, rushed, I left the house in a pair of shorts I normally only wear at home. I wasn’t comfortable. My long legs felt over-exposed. I asked my husband if my shorts were too short. And that got me thinking: What does too short even mean? Too short for what? Who is measuring? Was I afraid of being indecent or judged? Was I worried that the shorts were simply unflattering or too provocative? And that’s what prompted me to explore the dynamics between my modesty versus my shame.
I don’t want to tell other people how to dress. (Actually, I do, I just know that I shouldn’t.) When I see someone sporting something I wouldn’t wear myself, whether it’s unflattering (in my opinion) or too revealing or suggestive (in my opinion), I usually think the same things. First I wonder how that woman/man sees herself/himself. Then I feel both judgmental and jealous. I judge the immodesty, but I’m also jealous of the confidence.
Based on what I’m seeing, I think this generation of teenagers and young adults is less body conscious. They wear crop tops whether their stomachs are svelte, paunchy, or muscular. They will wear shorts that are so short, they seem hem-defying—cellulite be damned! They will wear shirts and dresses that show every contour, ripple, bone, or bulge in their bodies. They proudly display not just their bra straps, but sometimes the majority of their bras. And part of me thinks, “Good for them!” Your body is nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t get trapped on the hamster wheel of attaining the “perfect physique” or thinking that only certain bodies should wear certain things. Be perfectly content with the body you have. Wear what fits you, and “fits” is however you define it. You’re not obligated to conform to anyone else’s aesthetic.
I can champion those who are comfortable enough in their own skin to wear whatever they want. I also believe that maintaining one’s modesty has value. And just as I am trying not to judge those who are comfortable exposing more than I am, I won’t apologize for revealing less. I won’t be shamed for dressing with discretion.
There is a difference, however, between modesty and shame. Modesty is nothing to be embarrassed of. It is rooted in standards, not insecurity. Hopefully you are keeping things covered with confidence and not because you think that part of your body is unworthy of going public—just best kept private.
As I make decisions about what to wear each day, I don’t know exactly where to draw the line between my shame and modesty. I don’t know who gets to decide how much of the body is decent or appropriate for public viewing. But, at least in my opinion, it’s not about being taller or thinner or curvier or more muscular or policing who can wear what. It’s about embracing the body you have, and dressing it however you want.
I do it all the time, but I don’t enjoy multitasking. I like to give things my undivided attention—assuming the thing in question is something I enjoy or find interesting. There is a beauty in allowing an activity, thought, or experience to consume—fully consume—you. This is one of the reasons I love playing volleyball. Few distractions reach me on the court. Nothing exists beyond my teammates and the endeavor of winning. I’m not updating my status or trying to get more work done. The game demands my full attention. There are no to-do lists or chores. My brain and my body are working towards only one goal.
Distractions can be dangerous. Too often I see someone behind the wheel of a moving vehicle with his/her eyes trained not on the road, but an electronic device in his/her hand. The desire to constantly be doing more (or achieving more) doesn’t allow some people to focus on a single activity—not even when lives are at stake.
We are a culture too often defined by distractions. We disengage from the people around us to interact with others remotely. We take our eyes off of once-in-a-lifetime events to tell our friends/followers we’re there. And yet, in stopping to “share” or “check in” we’re taking ourselves out of the experience we claim we’re having. I’m amazed at how often I’ll be watching a sporting event on TV and see members of the crowd watching the live event through the viewfinder of their smartphones or tablets. They’re there, and yet they’re not fully there. They’re at the epicenter of the action, but they’re watching it on a screen just like I am at home. I’m not saying that taking photos is foolish. I’m all for memorializing milestones and special events. I just find it interesting that in trying to create souvenirs from our experiences, we must miss a portion of the event we hope to maintain as a memory. Our participation is paused while we’re recording.
I’m guilty of it myself. I have neglected to be fully mentally or emotionally available because I am not giving anything my full attention. I have to consciously remind myself that most things can wait, and some things are worth experiencing at a level of one hundred percent present. Distractions are for chores—they help make the tedious and mundane less boring. But even so, I don’t want distractions to occupy so much space in my life that they leave no room for deep thought. Epiphanies can come while folding the laundry or waiting for a train. Revelation tends to wait for silence and your undivided attention. When I’m too busy, I stay too shallow in my own thoughts. When I’m distracted or multitasking, I’m not getting any deep work done.
There is a beauty in singularity. Going for a walk without listening to a podcast or talking on the phone. Eating a meal without having the television on—facing yourself (or another person). I like allowing my attention to be fully captivated by something. Certainly there are times when multitasking is called for and even beneficial, but to live in that mode permanently is to live in fractions and shallow portions.
Sometimes writing feels effortless—neither my fingers nor my mind grow fatigued. Instead of being painfully aware of each minute—each second—time passes without my noticing or counting. I’m somewhere else. I’m fully absorbed and reside in the process. Sometimes (rarely) I’m so engaged I forget to remember to eat. When I finally stop, it’s like waking up from a dream.
Sometimes writing is work; it’s an onerous chore. Instead of a stream of thoughts, words come in a lethargic crawl. Finding a phrase or sentence to add is like coaxing a suspicious and timid animal into eating out of my hand. Adding another paragraph is like finding a contact lens at night on the beach in the windblown sand.
Sometimes I can sit at my computer and write without ceasing. My brain doesn’t self-censor. My mind doesn’t grow weary. Once in a while a topic moves me—sets my thoughts astir, and then those thoughts set my fingers to typing more and more. I find myself lost in an idea. I write without being self-conscious or self-aware. Words become the strong current of a river carrying me forward. Instead of feeling like a beast of burden, I feel like a productive conduit.
Some days writing is simple. I get consumed by an idea, and it feeds me. I can write for hours at a time without any barriers or shackles around my thinking.
Other days writing feels futile. The task is never truly done. It’s shoveling my car out only to be buried again by a passing plow. I feel like Sisyphus—except my boulder is words, and the blank page is my mountain. Finishing a work requires starting anew. Reaching the end is finding a bare beginning too.
Sometimes writing is like skating on ice—the slightest effort propels me forward and far. Other days it’s like slogging up a muddy hill wearing flip-flops—progress is clumsy and arduous.
Sometimes writing is sitting down to a banquet—a feast of ideas for me to choose from. I feel nourished. My head is full. Other days it’s like looking at a barren landscape or searching for water at the height of a drought. Coming up with a new idea is like harvesting a field during a famine. My mind is dry and empty. It’s a well with no water to offer up.
Some days writing draws me in—attracting me like a magnet—luring me closer like the Sirens’ call. Other days I feel repelled; writing is an opposing force.
But whether it’s an endeavor I savor or suffer, whether the words ease or are eked out of me, if I refuse to abandon the effort, my work will produce something . . . eventually.
I have two buttons that, when pushed, elicit a strong emotional response. I hate being interrupted (or talked over) and I detest being shushed. At the base of these pet peeves (or emotional allergies) is a common root: I have a need to be heard. When I’m speaking, I want to feel listened to.
Being shushed brings me back to my childhood. As a kid who loved and respected her parents like they were celebrities or gurus, feeling as though I’d disappointed either of them crushed me. I didn’t require spankings or time in a “time out.” A look of displeasure or disappointment from my parents (or a teacher) left me in a tailspin of remorse and shame (albeit a temporary one). In the moment, I wasn’t always able to separate their distaste for my actions from an aversion to me. In the moment, I became convinced that I’d lost their affection and would need to re-earn it.
Much like my mother was, I am an exuberant speaker. As my passion for whatever I’m talking about increases, so does my voice’s volume. The school I attended trained me to speak up to be heard—to make certain I got credit for my thoughts and words.
My father, on the other hand, is a soft-spoken man. I’ve heard him be stern, but in thirty-five years I’ve never (never!) heard him yell—not in pain, not in celebration, not in anger, not even for a taxi. His name, Clement, does mean temperate. I suppose in naming him his parents were a bit prophetic. I don’t know how he manages it or where his anger goes, but his temper is uniformly clement. He’s always in control.
Perhaps he doesn’t have to raise his voice because he grew to be so tall. Perhaps he can speak softly because he’s too big to be ignored.
I’m short. I have to try to be heard. And every now and again, when I was a child, my father would shush me. Now while I imagine he was simply trying to teach me to act in consideration of my surroundings (and to stop me from disturbing him or others) a “shush” from him was a devastating blow—emotionally, it hit me hard.
Being shushed by my father made me feel as though he’d caught me doing something wrong—found me wild, uncivilized, and out of control. I felt sure I’d disappointed him by being too raucous to be his good little girl. His shush saddened me because I thought it carried his disapproval. It stung like a slap. It reeked like rejection. I felt emotionally disowned or abandoned—as though the sound of the “shush” stood for the distance he wanted to put between us.
As I got older, I learned that a parent’s love is more indelible than that—it’s permanent, in fact. I’ve learned that anyone who truly loves me will continue to love me even if they dislike some of my actions. But, to this day, my first response to being shushed is a regurgitation of the shame my childhood reprimands brought up. It’s an emotional smack that gives my sensibilities a jolt. It causes a number of my old insecurities to resurface.
When puberty developed my body, it also made me insecure. Already an introvert by nature, I got quieter. But that could only last so long. Athletics and academics wouldn’t let me stay silent. I wanted to be a good sport (and team captain). That meant cheering on my teammates and being vocal when I was playing. I was a perfectionist as a student, and class participation mattered. If I wanted the A, I needed to speak up. So I rediscovered my voice in the classroom and on the volleyball court.
While it doesn’t affect me as deeply as being shushed, I also have a strong aversion to being cut off. I assume you’re not listening when you ignore or interrupt. For me, being heard is akin to being seen. When I don’t feel listened to, I feel invisible—or like I’m being erased. All I hear in your interruption is, “Your words and thoughts don’t matter as much as this.” It’s as though you see me as small or you’re trying to shrink me down. I feel like a lost child going against the current of commuters at rush hour.
Here’s the thing though: I’m such a hypocrite. Even though I hate when it’s done to me, I interrupt others relentlessly. One of the academic survival skills I developed was how to cut someone off like an assassin. Whether consciously or not, I’ll identify points of verbal weakness in my target (be it classmate, teacher, or companion). That pause to collect his or her thoughts, or that beat to take a breath—stop speaking for just a moment, and I’ll start shooting my words in. I occupy conversations and stake my claim on every silence. And I rarely retreat until my words are acknowledged. And if someone tries to cut me off, I’ll raise my voice until I’ve silenced him or her.
I’m working on it (really), but I’ll cut you off verbally in a heartbeat. Say something that excites me or inspires an idea or memory and, more times than not, words will come spilling out of me. I also have this horrible habit of finishing other people’s sentences. In my excitement (or impatience) I’ll jump in and try to predict your thoughts like I’m a Wheel of Fortune contestant. And I’m a complete jerk about it too. So much so that I once found myself interrupting a girl with a stutter. I was mortified, but I still couldn’t (or didn’t) stop myself. (My belated and heartfelt apologies to her.)
Given how much I like to talk and my deep desire to be heard, it puzzles me when I don’t speak up—when I hold my tongue. On more than one occasion, I have been a silent victim. I have been pressed body to body with strangers on a crowded subway train and then felt something hard pressing into me. (What is that? Why is it moving?) Silence. (Is that someone’s penis!?) Silence. (No, it can’t be.) Silence. (Quit your denial and say something!) Silence. (Yell! Scream!). Silence.
I felt trapped and muzzled in my violation. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t see who it was. I could barely turn around. (Should I turn around? Or will that only make it worse?)
I still don’t fully understand why, but the few times this form of sexual harassment happened to me, I held my tongue and suffered silently. I’d slide my bag down to create a barrier, but not once did I say anything to the offender.
Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I speak up? Or, better yet, why didn’t I take “matters” into my own hands (with a forceful twist or pull)? Instead of suffering in silence, I should have made those perverts yell.
Some days I just don’t feel like writing. I search the horizon of my mind hopeless that I’ll find even the slightest speck of an idea to pursue. My head is empty or too full. And though my fingers feel restless, they have no coherent purpose—no expository reason to move. I am out of ideas and will never have another one again. My brain is a desert. My thought-well is empty. All that my mind can muster is worthless and trivial. Cover my writing life with a shroud; it is dead.
Some days I just don’t feel like writing. There are no interesting thoughts pressing for expression. My mind feels shallow and blank or constipated with the inconsequential. Every good thought I have belongs to someone else who already wrote it better. The only sensible thing to do is curl up on the couch and hope I fall asleep for long enough to take writing off of the day’s agenda. The thought of trying to squeeze coherent ideas into readable sentences makes my inner child want to throw a tantrum. I pound my figurative fists. I throw things—hurling insults at myself like (or as) similes. Watching you try to write is like watching an epileptic frog try to thread a needle. This is as futile as dancing to feed the hungry or drying the ocean with a paper napkin.
Some days I just don’t feel like writing. I’d rather face a firing squad than an empty document and that infernal (and smug) cursor blinking at me. I read through my collection of unfinished beginnings and systematically disown them. Procrastination’s siren song begins to bewitch me. Wouldn’t you be more inclined to write if you were rested? Perhaps you should take a nap. Better yet, watch some television. You’re probably missing something very important on Facebook. Better go online for a few minutes that can easily turn into an hour or two. Aren’t you hungry? Thirsty? Hydration is important. Now that you’ve had something to drink, shouldn’t you go to the bathroom and sit there daydreaming? Static body, stagnant mind—you should be exercising. Check your e-mail…again. Balance your checkbook. Clean the litter box. Do the cats have enough food and water in their bowls? You’d better go check and get distracted by something else in the kitchen. That white stove of yours could use a good wipe down. Maybe you could wash the dishes. There’s quite a bit of laundry to do. And since a wash load lasts only twenty-six minutes, there’s no sense in trying to do any writing in the interim. When doing chores begins to sound desirable, I know the throes of my procrastination have reached a chronic level.
Some days I just don’t feel like writing. And some days (most days, if I’m being honest) I don’t. I find other things to do. I defer. I conjure up excuses. I distract myself. I take exorbitantly gratuitous naps. I convince myself that even while my mind is otherwise preoccupied, I’m ruminating. Writing is hard work. Coming up with that first word or idea is difficult. It can bring me to the brink of despair. Facing the void, I start to consider alternative options. Is it too late to become a struggling actress? Why couldn’t I want to be something else like a veterinarian, photographer, or phlebotomist?
Some days I just don’t feel like writing. But then there are those days when (whether I want to or not) I face the blank page and wait for a word. Blinking cursor be damned! I’m facing the emptiness head on. I troll my mind for an idea—just one simple sentence that will probably get cut later on. If I can get anything down, anything at all, even just a crumb, then I can coax more out of myself like a cautious kitten that wants to come. If I persevere—if I hold on against hope and put anything on the page—then I rediscover what I’ve already learned: No mind is completely barren, even if (at first, second, or third glance) it looks empty. If I can come up with one thought and turn it into one sentence, I will inevitably write more. Sometimes the words will flow fast and fluidly, other times they’ll be sluggish and halting. I accept whatever comes—even if it leads me to write about writing.