On Jan. 1, 2011, Lauren Shields began a nine-month personal experiment where she only wore clothing that covered her legs (above the knee), shoulders and hair, and she also went without makeup.
“I say I'm a feminist who doesn't buy into the beauty myth. But facing the realization that I won't be 'hot' forever fills me with terror, and suddenly I see that for someone who believes she's above Western culture's emphasis on appearance, I sure do place a lot of importance on how I look,” Shields wrote on her blog.
Shields said the idea for her “Modesty Experiment” began when she worked in New York City and felt the pressure of dressing up each day. She felt as though she were putting on a costume that she called her “grown-up suit,” according to Salon.com.
“Every morning I would shoehorn myself onto the train with thousands of expensive-smelling, coiffed women who somehow managed to keep their hair looking great under wool caps in winter and despite hot, stinky gusts of subway backdrafts in the summer,” Shields said in an article on Salon.com. “It was an army of ladies sporting fitted waistlines, toned arms, blown-out hair, full faces of makeup and heels (which was incredible, considering all the walking we all had to do).”
Two years later, Shields was a student at Candler Theological Seminary in Atlanta. There, a woman gave a lecture about modesty requirements for many Muslim women, and namely, the hijab. The woman talked about “how much she had enjoyed (and admittedly sometimes hated) dressing in accordance with modesty rules,” according to Shields' article.
The lecture intrigued Shields, and she began to see that her commitment to fashion and beauty as defined by advertisements controlled her appearance.
“And then, as I sat on the couch at one of the best seminaries in the States, tummy sucked in so I looked thinner, makeup on my face to hide my blemishes, wearing uncomfortable shoes because they matched my outfit even though I had to walk three miles in them, hair with enough $15 product so it laid just so, and my whole 'look' completed with a scarf that was always in my way and skirt arranged to look natural but that was actually perfectly placed to cover my knee socks — pinched, pulled, painted and still not good enough, I thought, 'Is this really any better?' Shields said.
Shields said her fear to let go of some of her clothing and her makeup encouraged her to embrace her fear.
“I designed the Modesty Experiment, in which I took my cues from Jewish, Muslim and some Christian modesty practices in order to loosen my death grip on the idea that youth and beauty were prerequisites to relevance,” Shields said. “I started a blog and a journal to stay accountable, and I gave away more than a third of my clothes. The clothes I couldn’t wear during the Experiment because they had no sleeves or were too short or tight, I gave to a friend, along with all of my makeup. It was hard — I actually cried on the way home from the clothing drop box.”
As Shields recorded in her article, some days her experiment proved to be “brutal,” but it was also “really liberating.”
Shields’ experiment taught her to not feel trapped by fashion expectations, but she still said that there is self-confidence that accompanies taking care of one’s appearance.
“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,” Shields said. “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.”
The Modesty Experiment has received criticism about Shields’ coupling of religion and modesty as well as her intentions with the experiment.
“There is a difference between being a slob and being comfortable, said elizzybec, a commenter on Salon.com. “I'm wondering how much of her decision to leave trendy fashions, which is always a good idea anyway, was based on philosophy or just plain practicality.”
Others praise Shields’ nine-month experiment as a positive story that promotes natural beauty and simplicity.
“Would that more women learned this lesson, said Serai1, a commenter on Salon.com. “It would save them a ton of money, boost their self-confidence, and start to dismantle the billion-dollar 'beauty' industry, which is more about selling women colored mud and quack nostrums than anything having to do with beauty.”
Currently, Shields is writing a book about her nine-month period called “The Modesty Experiment.”
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