Blogger's ‘Modesty Experiment’ Kinda Misses the PointS

Lauren Shields swore off makeup and covered her hair, arms and legs for nine months for "The Modesty Experiment," during which she took cues from a hodgepodge of Jewish, Muslim and Christian modesty practices "in order to loosen my death grip on the idea that youth and beauty were prerequisites to relevance." But Shields spent more blogspace complaining about how onerous the experiment was than enjoying the process — except for the part where she met her now-fiancé, who was "powerfully attracted" to her commitment to pretending to "liberate" herself from caring about her physical appearance.

Shields' recent piece in Salon, "My year of modesty," seriously aggravated me, because it's just as sexist to belittle women for dressing up and wearing makeup as it is to belittle women because they don't dress up and wear makeup. I'm into the concept of disengaging from self-consciousness — that was the goal behind Autumn Whitefield-Madrano's fascinating month-long mirror fast — but 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.

For nine months, Shields covered all of her hair, didn't wear makeup, and "wore nothing that was so fitted that I felt like I had to sit or stand funny to look good, and never exposed my knees or my shoulders, except at home." That sounds like a lot more work than shimmying into a tank top and heading out the door — especially for Shields, a grad student at Candler Theological Seminary in muggy Atlanta — but don't take it from me. Take it from her.

The majority of entries on Shields' blog, The Modesty Experiment, are about how excited she is to be done with the eponymous project. In a 2011 post called "Ten days. Ten days. ZMGZ, ten days," she seems to understand why her project is, well, pretty pointless:

I'm looking forward to it being over. Not just because I miss exposing my hair and arms and stuff, but because in my case, dressing modestly has become a real pain in the butt. Used to be, I just spritzed my hair with water, blow-dried it, and was done (this was when I had short hair, of course). NOW, I gotta find a hat/ scarf that matches (woe is ME!); plus, it's friggin hot down here, and when classes started I began having to walk to and from the bus/ class/ etc., and when you're dragging a backpack with you... it gets gross. Just sayin.

Also, in ATL heat, not being able to wear tank tops while covering my head... man. Not being able to wear tank tops, period, in ATL heat... miserable. Utterly miserable. I keep wanting to slip on a sundress, but noooooo. I had to be all counter-cultural! Pbbbbbt.

So once again, I seem to be finding that dressing modestly, while simpler sometimes, is in some ways more of a pain in the butt than dressing "normally." You still feel the need to match, and you still feel self-conscious when your hair pokes out from under your headscarf.

In ten days, though, I'm having a Labyrinth-themed masquerade to celebrate my finishing this thing out. I'm SO EXCITED, both about the party and being able to go back to dressing "normally," that it actually keeps me up at night. Wheeeee!

Shields also blogs about getting a nose ring, fake hair streaks, and wearing "a skirt with a long slit up the side (ok, I cheated)." How is that not caring about your appearance? One thing's clear: dressing modestly will totz land you a husband, because men don't like women who paint their faces like whores. "I even heard from a lot of guys who swore that the more made-up and 'rich' a woman looked (think the Kardashians), the less inclined they felt to take her seriously, either as a co-worker or a dating prospect," she writes. Feminism! Eventually, Shields met a guy who told her that her "commitment to shedding unnecessary entrapments was powerfully attractive to him"; we learn via Salon that they're now engaged.

According to Salon, Shields is working on a book about the "Modesty Experiment"; maybe that's why yesterday's op-ed is significantly more cheery than her blog:

...in nine months, I learned that yes, you do get more done when you’re not obsessed with your shoes, but you do still need to look put-together for your own self-confidence. I learned that looking good isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it becomes the cornerstone of your identity — like the advertising industry tries to convince us it is — then you’re doing nothing but damage to yourself.

I learned that if you put down the Beauty Suit you will be ignored by people who think you have to look a certain way to be worth their time (men and women included), and that that is a small price to pay for not having to put on a costume every time you think you’ll need to impress them. I learned that you will feel invisible until you open your mouth, and then people will be amazed at what you have chosen to do in protest of the Western beauty ideal. And then those people probably won’t date you because you’re kind of outspoken. Or whatever.

That's a far cry from the woman who wrote that she "cannot WAIT until I can wear short skirts and tank tops again, because I swear I have never been so friggin hot in my life. The headscarves make it worse."

I'm all for protesting the Western beauty ideal. But Shields just replaced one set of rules dictating how women should appear in public with another. And judging by her blog, she didn't feel all that fabulous about it, except when her antiquated, mishmashed concept of perfectly modest femininity was validated by a man. How radical.

[Salon]