I have been accused of being overly concerned with personal ornament and style. My wife has *really* been accused of it. We both got accused of it recently. “I *am* a Leo cusp,” the agnostic who nonetheless sort of believes in astrology likes to respond. But actually, she has another, more compelling line of reasoning for it, one that gets my brain sparking. I’m going to share it because, well, I can. L'Ailee is happy that I respect her intelligence (there's so much to respect!), but requests that I remind the reader that we were both starting PMS week and going through another fatherless Father's Day yesterday. I'm perfectly okay with being emotional; she's, well, less so.
She grew up in Russia, at the end of the Soviet era. She had to wear a uniform to school. The rules were much stricter than most American schools with uniforms. Students were not to wear any jewelry, not even a watch. Girls could get humiliated, even hit, if they outgrew their uniforms and couldn’t get another one fast enough. (This was very likely to happen. “One poor girl was called a whore because she got breasts, boom, almost overnight, like some girls do, and her shirt got too tight.” L’Ailee noted. “Not that I noticed.”) Even out of school, kids and their parents got questioned if their hair looked too punkish or their skirts were too short or they, like L’Ailee, had a habit of embellishing and altering their clothes. There was, in her words, “almost no selection” of clothing or cosmetics. Most Western cosmetics were banned. So were any and all Western fashion magazines, ostensibly because they encouraged materialism.
“I get impatient when people tell me that clothing and appearance are not important,” L’Ailee said. “If it was not important on some level, the Soviet government would not have cared so horribly much about it. They would have allowed us to dress as we wanted. But they were threatened by even a bit of hairspray in a boy’s hair, a bit of embroidery on a girl’s shirt. Free societies don’t care about that kind of thing.”
I thought about peer pressure. “At least not officially. People do let their expectations be known.”
“Well, there are ways that various groups of people enforce their own norms.” She warmed to her subject. “We both have expectations of what we should wear to work, for instance, even when there are no official rules. A rapper does not wear J. Crew. A socialite does not go to WalMart. You sometimes feel like you stand out in New York because you like your bright colors and organic cotton. But most of these are things that we choose. Even if you must wear a uniform to work, you chose to work there and you can work some other place. You can also dress the way you want to after work.”
“Whereas in some places, you don’t have that choice. Like the Taliban, who put barbers in prison for giving the wrong haircut or cut off a woman’s fingers if she had nail polish on them.”
L’Ailee winced. “Those people always made me so sick! And yet some people here get upset because Vogue magazine set up a beauty school in Afghanistan. They make me sick, too. Women need food and doctors, but they also need to feel good. They need to have jobs. The Americans who ridiculed that beauty school, they can go to a thousand salons whenever they want. They did not have to spend years of their lives looking like circus tents and not being able to see when they needed to leave the house.” (L’Ailee actually spent a day off wearing a burqa, a few months before 9/11, to see what it was like. She almost got hit by cars twice. And then she donated a hundred dollars she couldn’t really afford to the Feminist Majority’s sub-charity for Afghan women and asked others to do the same.) “They have a job to do, they have choices.”
“So it’s not fair for them to deny those things to others, is what you’re saying.”
“Exactly right, sweetness.”
“But you know, it’s not just vigilantes in Iran hitting women because they’re showing their ankles or whatever. There are places in America where people aren’t free to express themselves through clothing and makeup and all that.”
She knew exactly what I was thinking of. “That poor gay boy in Tennessee, and all the other kids who have to be in that horrible place. I wore school uniforms in America, too, remember? I never went to school without one. But I liked wearing the uniform here because I looked like the richer girls and I loved going to that school. I even asked to go to that school. I could put on jewelry or wear heels. And nobody told us not to wear a certain brand of underwear or highlight our hair.” She frowned. “Again, if appearance is not important, why do tyrants always treat it like it is so important? The people at that awful so-called ‘Love’ place are not tyrants like strict Muslim governments, but that’s only a matter of power and size. If they could become bigger and affect more people, they would. They work with political people who would do that. At any rate, they make the people who they can control suffer. There are many large ways that they control their clients, but controlling how they may look is definitely a part of it. They want to limit choices. They do not want their clients to choose for themselves or to express themselves as individuals. They would be happy if their clients cannot recognize themselves in a mirror, so that they become a blank sheet of paper for them to write their hateful new ideas for the poor client on.”
“Hopefully they’re really a palimpsest,” I murmured.
“What is that, exactly?”
“Paper was expensive in medieval Europe,” I began.
“Oh, a history thing.”
“Hear me out. Paper was expensive, so the medieval scribes didn’t want to waste it. They recycled it. What they did was scrape off the old ink—mistakes or banal things like inventories, that kind of thing—to make the page blank again. Only they couldn’t always get all the ink off, so sometimes you could see a bit of the old writing under the new. That’s a palimpsest. You see what I mean now?”
“Yeah. That’s awful. I hope that for them, too—that they can see who they really are underneath the new things—but that is awful. That is exactly what they do, is scrape away.” I hugged her. She looked so troubled. “I can’t understand it, sweetness. I can’t understand why even in a free country, some people have to be so terribly controlling.” She teared up. “I can’t understand why anybody has to be that controlling.”
“Darling, if I knew that one, I could solve half the world’s problems right here and now.” We cried together for a bit. Being the stereotypically lachrymose Pisces and the one who doesn’t pride herself on being tough, I did more crying than she did by far, but a few of those teardrops were hers.
“Not important, my fat white ass,” I muttered.
“The next time someone tells me I am being trivial because I care about this sort of thing, I will ask them if I can do their makeup and their hair and buy them a whole new wardrobe, with their credit cards and no input from them,” L’Ailee decided. “If they say anything but yes, then they are hypocrites. And they can kiss my…” She couldn’t quite complete it. She doesn’t cuss very often.
“Skinny white ass?” I offered.
“Yes, except that I wouldn’t really want their lips there.” She smiled wanly. That was a variation of her usual response to my invitations to kiss various parts of my anatomy. “It’s just…I know there’s no way that I can *make* them do this, but I want people to think a little bit harder about what they say sometimes.”
“Don’t we all,” I sighed. And that’s why I posted that whole conversation here. :-)