Lindsay Kite, Ph.D. Communications Student and Co-Editor of Beauty Redefined, Salt Lake City

The minute I found Beauty Redefined, I knew I’d found a site to take notice of. Giving active points about media literacy, cultural messages aimed toward women, body image, and beauty ideals, every post on Beauty Redefined went beyond merely stating, Hey, folks, there’s a problem here, instead presenting airtight breakdowns of scripts we might take for granted. More important, the site gives active points for readers on how to begin to reject the messages we’re surrounded with. The Beauty Redefined team also gives one-hour visual presentations to arm viewers with tools and countermessages about harmful media ideals, beauty, and health. 

When I learned that the incisive, dedicated, laser-sharp minds behind Beauty Redefined were not only two communication Ph.D. candidates at the University of Utah but also identical twins—well, how could I not want to interview them? Today we have Lindsay Kite, whose dissertation focuses on physical health and the ways media distorts our perceptions of what health and fitness entail—and ways to help people of all ages recognize and reject those harmful messages. (Check back tomorrow for an interview with Lexie, the other half of Beauty Redefined.) We talked about the limitations of academia in applied work, laboring to change beauty ideals as God’s work, and the number-one question she’s asked about being a twin. In her own words:

Photo by

Matt Clayton Photography

On Rapid-Heartbeat Moments

My very first semester of college, I was sitting in a journalism and media criticism class. At that time I didn’t really identify as a feminist or care about media messages. My professor criticized gender and violence and how those messages are perpetuated through the media, and how that affects our lives. When my professor was talking about advertising, particularly in women’s magazines, my heart started racing. I just felt it had affected me so much without me realizing it. It was a happy feeling. It wasn’t a feeling of fear or of, Wow, I’ve been so controlled by this. That was part of it, but I think I recognized there were strategies we could use to combat this. There are real solutions. So from there I was very much a feminist. I’d never quite known that; my mom always was but she didn’t know it either. We didn’t really have the name for it. 

I still take in plenty of media, but to be able to recognize why the women in TV shows and movies look the way they do is liberating in itself, because you have a critical view and recognize that it’s not real, that it’s meant to make me feel a particular way and I don’t have to feel that way if I don’t want to. That’s where the rapid-heartbeat moment came from, this feeling of: Yes, this has affected me, but I don’t have to be affected by it anymore. I don’t have to be brainwashed to believe that this is normal and natural and beauty has always looked this way and men would only want women who looked this way. My heart continues to beat rapidly every time I read books like The Beauty Myth and read scholarly articles about media criticism and feminist work that is trying to counteract these ideals. All these things make my heart beat just as fast and make me feel extremely excited about work that’s happening to liberate women from these restrictive cultural ideals. I love it.

On Accentuating the Positive

It’s a lot easier to criticize things than it is to find concrete actions we can take. It’s easier to get research on how women are affected by certain things—and these are sensational topics. The media likes to focus on dangerous things, the scary big shocking things we hear about women and their bodies and self-esteem and all that. But it’s harder to help people than it is to take apart media, or to take apart the way women feel about themselves. That stuff is easy to document. It’s harder to break out a strategy to combat those feelings and document the way women feel afterward.

If people feel bad about themselves, it’s this normative discontent where basically every woman is unhappy with her body and that’s something we all share, so it’s normal and taken for granted. We need to destabilize that. We need to recognize that this feeling isn’t natural. There are ways to do that; Lexie and I created our one-hour visual presentation for our masters project, showing the ridiculousness of beauty ideals and how money is behind all of it. We need to prove the effectiveness of that, but it’s hard. You try to get approval through review boards at colleges and universities, and that’s mandated by the whole academic system. It’s a process that takes time. So I’m working on how to actually measure the effects of our presentation. It’s hard, but it makes me so happy to see how it is used by other people, for them to rethink the way they think about appearance.

On Being a Twin

Our entire lives, people have been trying to find differences to tell us apart by appearance. So we’ve been picked apart our entire lives by strangers—we’ve received some comments that people don’t recognize are totally insulting to one of us. We’ve gotten really ridiculous comments, like, “You’re the twin who does her hair” or “You’re the twin with straight teeth,” things like that. People think they’re complimenting one of us, but really it means the other one doesn’t have that particular positive attribute. Being compared to your twin sister your whole life can make you a competitive person from day one. It’s led both of us to be like, I don’t want to be the one who gets all the comments from strangers. It’s not fun to be the twin who doesn’t do her hair. 

It’s funny how much I get the exact same twin questions over and over again. The number-one question I get is: When one of you goes on a blind date do you switch in the middle of it? All the time people ask that! I swear they got that from some movie, either the Sweet Valley High kids or Mary Kate and Ashley or even Tia and TameraThat’s where people are forming their questions for us, based on media. The whole twin comparison thing has really contributed to our ideas about appearance and its importance, and how free people feel about commenting on other people’s appearance. 

I just noticed this recently: I don’t necessarily have to look in the mirror to see certain things about myself. I’ll see it in Lexie and just assume I look the same way. I’ll see certain characteristics and think, I never noticed that about myself—but I’m not looking at myself, I’m looking at my sister.

Looking at another face that looks so similar to mine can affect how I would be objective about what I look like. Sometimes I see things on Lexie where she has made a complaint about what she looks like, and I recognize that I look the same way or have that same characteristic, and I’m able to stop and think, Well, I don’t feel that way about it, so there’s no reason that she should. We can keep each other in check and not take certain feelings about features or appearance for granted. I find myself getting offended when she says something rude about herself. Like, if she talks about how she feels so fat, I might feel insulted by that, particularly if at the time I know for a fact she weighs less than me. And I should also turn that the other way around: I should feel more of a responsibility to Lexie to not put myself down. Maybe subconsciously I have—I don’t often say very negative things about myself, just because I’ve found that I feel better about myself when I don’t say mean things out loud.

On Keeping the Faith

Lexie and I are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the church is very against pornography. We view that as something degrading that takes a sacred act between two people who are hopefully in love and hopefully married and causes the people in it to become objectified, dehumanized. So that’s framing our perspective. When we watch TV shows and movies that are just daytime TV—things that are rated PG, PG-13—and we see things that reflect pornography, that’s something that should be eye-catching, but it’s become normal.

We see this normalized pornography all the time, and we’ve become immune to it. We’re numb to seeing women half-naked, or almost completely naked bodies at every turn; it’s not something that’s a big deal. Most of the time the men near the women are fully clothed, and the camera isn’t panning up and down their bodies, zooming in on their parts, and other characters are not necessarily looking at them or commenting on their appearance. If we look at pornography in its strict definition as imagery that is engineered to cause arousal in people, then all of these images of women who are being objectified and stripped for no reason—that’s exactly what they are. We want to help people realize what pornography is—not something that’s acceptable for network TV during the daytime or the Victoria’s Secret runway shows that are a huge moneymaker for a family station like CBS during prime time. It’s not just present on dark corners of the Internet; it’s not something you have to seek out. We have to recognize that in order to escape the harmful consequences it can have on our self-perception and how we view other people. 

My faith has been the driving force behind everything I do related to this work. It’s something that fits in perfectly with my religion. I was actually pretty shocked to figure that out. I thought recognizing gender roles and ways women are held back but men aren’t was going to challenge my faith, but it actually strengthened it. In my religion, we view people as more than just what we are on the surface, more than just bodies. We view people as being able to go on and live forever and have eternal life, not in our own bodies but in a more perfected state. So when we’re so focused in this life on what our bodies look like, that’s actually a huge waste of time and holds people back in every possible way.

Doing service for others is a big part of living a Christ-like life, and when we are so focused on what we look like, that’s actually something pretty selfish—and that’s not helping people who really need help in more ways than we need to fix our hair or do these short-lived things that aren’t really making anyone all that happy. My faith has led me to honestly believe that I can do something to help other women feel better about themselves, so they can then go on and focus on more important things than their looks. If we can get women to accept themselves—and not necessarily just for what life they’re currently living or whatever state they’re in—well, women who feel okay about themselves are much happier and more productive, and they lead more successful lives in any way you want to define it. Beauty obsession stops all of that. 

I believe I’ve been led to this work by God, and as cheesy as that sounds, I really do believe that through his help I’m able to reach other women who are working for liberation from these painful circumstances. Every time I see somebody relay a positive experience of thinking of herself as more than just parts, as a whole person, I get that rapid heartbeat moment. And I think for women who can access that, it’s the happiest form of spiritual experience. As many times as I can help that happen, I will do it.


For more interviews on beauty, click here.

The Dating Game: Compliment Week*, Part III

Am I the only one who's just ever so slightly creeped out by this song?

I've been putting off writing about male-to-female compliments because, quite honestly, it’s touchy. I crave hearing compliments within my relationships, but I also know that when I’ve gotten them, I still feel dissatisfied. In fact, the compliments given to me by men I’m not dating tend to be the ones that stick. This is somewhat in line with research indicating that women are likelier to respond with a “thank you” to compliments from men than they are to those given by other women. The author of that study speculated that it was because compliments can indicate social status, and since generally speaking men are seen as having more status, women may treat compliments from them as coming from a social superior? Or something. Honestly, I think it’s more that when a guy friend compliments me, what I read into it is that he sees me first and foremost as his friend, but that sometimes I might do something with my appearance that reminds him, Oh yeah, you’re also a nominally attractive woman—and that he’s comfortable enough with our relationship to say something approximating that without it becoming weird. I take it at more face value than I would with a partner, or with a female friend, because I know from my own experience that giving compliments to other women has a different sort of function.

So when it comes to male-to-female compliments, I feel able to hear and accept them from male friends and acquaintances and not get all angsty about it. Not so for men I’m dating. Naturally, my interest was piqued when I came across this study examining the role of compliments in heterosexual relationships. (Unfortunately, the study didn't look at same-sex relationships; I'm very curious about how compliment patterns might differ between female friends and female partners.) The general body of research on this is minimal, but here’s what stood out:

  • Compliments between romantic partners frequently differ from compliments given to friends. The role and intent of compliments are always contextual, and nothing provides a broader context than culture. Intimate relationships are a sort of “microculture” that’s reflected in the form and content of compliments. In Japan, a statement like “Those earrings are pure gold, aren’t they?” would be taken as a compliment (according to compliment scholar Robert Herbert), whereas in the United States it would be more likely to be seen as a question. The form (roundabout) and content (wealth and taste) tell us something about cultural values in Japan. Similarly, in a relationship’s microculture, “There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be than in your arms” becomes a compliment despite not resembling one structurally; these emotion-based compliments were the number-one type recalled by participants of both sexes. Whereas compliments among friends are often roundabout ways of expressing “I like you,” in romances there’s freedom to say exactly that, and to still have it experienced as a compliment by the receiver.
  • Women are likelier than men to be aware of the presence—or absence—of compliments. But listen to the flipside: Both sexes equally value the role of compliments in relationships. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I’m guessing it has something to do with the traditional role of women as the gatekeepers of emotion, which would lead women to be more sensitive to all sorts of emotional indicators. Alternately, women’s heightened awareness of the role compliments serve with female friends and acquaintances might lead them to a similarly heightened awareness of compliments in their partnerships.
  • The more compliments, the better. The study found a correlation between relationship satisfaction and the number of compliments given and received—and also a correlation between relationship satisfaction and feelings about the number of compliments received. It’s unclear which comes first: Are we happier with compliments because we’re happier with the relationship, or are we happier with our relationships and therefore more likely to give and receive—or at least, remember giving and receiving—compliments? Whatever the case, it seems like it wouldn’t hurt to tell someone you love that, oh I don’t know, the brightness of her cheek would shame the stars as daylight doth a lamp, or whatever floats your boat, really.

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So this research is interesting and all, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of why compliments in romances can feel so fraught with tension. These studies look at how the interplay of compliments works within relationships, but in truth, my conflicted reactions to looks-based compliments has little to do with the relationship and more to do with my own insecurities surrounding my appearance. It shouldn’t be that way: By dint of being together, presumably people in relationships find one another attractive. But in my experience—and that of many women I’ve talked with about this—there’s frequently a gnawing sense that maybe that assumed attraction isn’t...enough. Compliments become laden with tension: Does “You look pretty” carry less weight than “You are beautiful”? Does “You are beautiful” become diminished if it follows “Do I look okay”? Does a dropoff in compliments mean that our partners are less attracted to us, or that they’re comfortable enough to express admiration in other ways, or that they don’t want us to think they only find us beautiful when they explicitly say so? Or does an unflagging stream of compliments mean that they’re uttered by rote and don’t “count”?

In truth, only the rare compliment can ever “count,” because the very thing we seek in a compliment—validation—is a host of ambiguities and contradictions. Validation, by definition, relies upon one party affirming something about the other that has not yet been confirmed, and the thing being affirmed must already hold some water. That is, you can’t validate something that neither party really believes is true, or even that only one party believes is true; if you tell me I’m an excellent cook but I believe I’m just doing the bare minimum, I might be pleased by your compliment but I won’t feel validated by it, because there’s no preexisting belief to be affirmed. Similarly, when someone confirms something we already know to be true, validation isn’t in play—I don’t feel validated by being seen as a woman, but a transgendered woman may well feel validated by being called ma’am. With beauty, most of us hover between these poles: We might think under the right light that we might not look half-bad, but we’re not necessarily entirely sure of it. In order for an act to be one of validation as opposed to confirmation or presentation, we need both the possibility of the quality being true and the possibility of it being untrue. In other words, if you’re seeking romantic validation in a compliment, chances are you’re never going to get it.

Not that that stops us—or rather, not that that stops me—from searching for validation in compliments anyway. I’ve dated men all over the compliments scale, from one who actually stopped and sighed while I was brushing my teeth to tell me how beautiful I was, to one who told me early on that he didn’t “do” compliments. Nowhere in there have I ever really found a comfortable place to exist with compliments. With the stingy men I treat each compliment like a rare jewel; with the overkill guys I become exasperated and begin to suspect their words are building a pedestal I don’t want to be on. And with the men who have a moderate, sincere, and appreciative attitude toward compliments, I usually just wind up feeling frozen. I'm not proud of this, and I don't think I've taken out my compliment complex on the men I've been involved with, but I admit it seems like there's no way for a partner to win here.

Yes, yes, it's me, not you, sure. Yet there’s an inherent paradox in compliments that can make them difficult to receive from those we love. The moment a compliment escapes the giver’s lips, a division is created: It’s a reminder that we are being looked at instead of being experienced as a part of a cohesive unit. A looks-based compliment is a reminder of the impossibility of merging with another person—and whether or not merging is actually your goal in a relationship, the whole "the two will become one flesh" bit is pretty much the basis of marriage in the western world.

More importantly, a looks-based compliment can be a reminder of the existence of our own feminine performance—our beauty work, our sleight-of-hand that supports the overall impression of beauty. If the end goal of feminine performance is looking beautiful, sexy, pretty, cute, and then we’re complimented for meeting that goal, it can be hard to shake the feeling that perhaps it’s the performance being complimented, not us. The first response I usually have après-compliment is not to feel pretty but rather to feel as though I need to keep on looking pretty. That is, my knee-jerk reaction is not to experience a compliment as an affirmation of who I am but of what I do. Continuing the performance is the only way to not reveal ourselves to be frauds, even if the fraudulence is benign and socially engineered; we’re not actually beautiful, we just look it right now. By calling attention to the end goal of the performance—a proper signaling of our femininity—compliments pull us out of the assumed nonchalance that makes feminine performance. Even if the goal has been successfully reached, part of the goal of feminine performance is to keep up the illusion that there’s no performance taking place.

No wonder, then, that so many women report ways of defending against compliments: One woman reports scrunching up her face whenever her boyfriend tells her she looks beautiful; another bats her eyelashes “absurdly” when complimented on her eyes; another says she feels “caught” for not being able to follow the compliment script when, in truth, she feels unsure of how to react when a partner says she looks lovely. The gap between the safety of love and the precarity of being seen as an image is a space of uncertainty—and in relationships that already host a good deal of uncertainty, that gap can easily become toxic.

I take heart, though, in one of the findings of the partnership compliment study: The number-one topic of compliments between partners was neither appearance nor skill nor personality, but emotions. Not You look amazing but You make me feel amazing. When I first read that this sort of statement was considered a compliment within the bounds of the study, I hedged—that’s a statement of love, not a compliment, right? But that’s exactly what compliments are: an expression of admiration, appreciation, or plain old liking—and perhaps, with the people we choose to really let in, an expression of love. And it’s not like I—or the women I’ve talked with who wrestle with looks-based compliments from their partners—value our appearance above those expressions of emotion. But framing these statements—which, in good relationships, have flowed easily regardless of the number of You’re so prettys that spill forth—as compliments helps put that urge to hear You’re so pretty in proper perspective.

In fact, it’s exactly that—understanding the true significance of any compliment—that might shoo away that urge for good. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, when people with low self-esteem went beyond merely hearing compliments from partners and instead described the meaning and significance of them, they started to feel better about the compliments, their relationships, and indeed themselves. In fact, once people with low self-esteem did this sort of reframing, they started to behave as people with high self-esteem do.

Now, I’m not sure where I’d fall on the self-esteem scale, but when it comes to my looks, it’s not like I’m always standing on solid ground. I’m hoping that the next time I long to hear a looks-based compliment from a partner, I’ll be able to remember what I’m really looking for: the meaning and significance of things like You’re so pretty, not the words themselves. That is, I’m looking to hear I am attracted to you. I want to be near you. I choose you; you are special to me. And with the right person, the reminders of these facts—for with the right person, they will be facts—should be just that, reminders. You’re so pretty, with luck and patience, can be put aside, where it belongs.

*"Week" is to be taken loosely, mkay? And with that, Compliment Week has finally come to a close. Part I, about the ways women use compliments in relationships with other women, is here; part II, a cursory look at compliment scholarship, is here.  

Sister Nancy Ruth, Life-Professed Member of the Order of St. Andrew, Hudson Valley, New York

Paul Hoecker, Nonne im Laubgang von Dachau, 1897

Every time Sister Nancy Ruth turned on the television, a nun would be waiting. “Movies, TV showsjust something about nuns whenever I’d turn on the TV. Every time,” she says. She took it as a calling to become a nun, but her family responsibilities meant she couldn’t live in a convent. “So I prayed about it. I said, ‘God, you know what my situation is. I can’t go into a convent, I can’t be cloistered.’ The very next day, I opened a magazine called the Anglican Digest, and there was an ad for the Order of St. Andrew. He answered my prayer.” She’s been a nun with the Order of St. Andrewwhich allows its brothers and sisters to live independently, hold jobs, and marryfor 17 years, and she became life-professed in 2000. In addition to her responsibilities within the order, she works as a pharmacy technician. We talked about the inherent femininity of a habit, the way our clothes might advertise our values, and where a gal can get a good vodka tonic. In her own words: 

On Femininity
I don’t think being a nun requires you to be unfeminine. I feel very feminine in my habit. I generally don’t dress for anyone but myself, so the idea of going out and trying to impress somebody else through what I wear just isn’t going to happen. Me in a strapless evening gown was never going to happen, whether I was a nun or not. It’s not because I don’t ever feel girly or sexy, but that form of sexiness isn’t going to be who I am.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever consciously tried to feel sexy. I’ve experimented a little bit more now that I’ve lost some weight; I’ve experimented with showing a little skin. Like, I have a dress that shows more cleavage than I’ve ever shown, and it’s a little uncomfortable to wear because it exposes more than I ever have in my entire life. But I found the right undergarment that gives the right kind of support, and I found the right necklace to go with it, one that sort of covers a lot of the area. The outfit isn’t necessarily revealing, but the effect is more intentional than anything I’ve worn before. I’ve survived! People have liked the look.

Makeup depends. Fingernail polish should be clear or very pale when you're in habit. Most of the sisters wear at least foundation. I normally wear eyeshadow, eyeliner, and mascara, but in habit I don’t wear any makeup at all. My eyes are one of my better features, so I like them to stand out. It’s just a way to feel girly, I guess. In the summertime I wear mostly dresses. They’re comfortable and cool without pantyhose, but I also wear them to feel girly. Feeling girly to me might mean a little bit of eye makeup, jewelry, perfume. My hair is short now, but I never had to cut my hair because I was a nun. I was worried about that because I had long hair when I first became a nun, but if you can keep it under the veil you can have your hair long.

Still, I don’t consider myself particularly feminine, at least not that classic Southern belle kind of feminine. I’ve always been very capable and strong, physically too, and I just couldn’t imagine acting like I wasn’t capable for any length of time. But as a nun, the first thing people see is that I am a woman. Having been mistaken for a boy on more than one occasion, it’s sort of nice to be seen as definitively female. Being a nun is a very traditional female role, and it’s an empowering role. People tend to think of nuns as being disempowered, but they’re not, not in my church. About the only thing I can’t do that a priest can is the actual mass, the different unctions, that sort of thing. But I can do sermons, I write homilies. I can counsel if someone asks meit’s not as formal as it would be with a priest, but I don’t feel in any way limited as a nun. Women can be ordained in the Episcopal Church, but I was called to be a nun; I’m not called to be a priest. In college, a professor put the words “I am” on the board and had us finish that sentence three times as a way of defining ourselves. I don’t remember what I put then, but the answer now would be: I am a nun, I am a woman. I am an Anglican would probably be the third one.

On Wearing the Habit
The first time I put on the habit, it was like stepping into my own skin. It was wonderful. The order was probably the very first group I’ve ever felt comfortable with as quickly as I did; within two hours of meeting everybody I felt so comfortable. And it’s still comfortable to be with the order, and to wear the habit. When I put on the habit, it’s like putting on a hug. It almost feels like I’m physically being held by God at those times, more so than when I’m in my street clothes.

I used to joke that I became a nun so I didn’t have to make a choice about what to wear. And there are times when I’d really just rather live in the habit. One of the things I love when we get together as an order is that for four days, that’s all I wear. It’s interesting in those situations because someone will say “sister” and we all turn around! But it’s wonderful because we know each other’s personality more than we know each other’s looks. Depending on when each of us get up in the morning, there are some sisters I’ve never seen out of habit. So you have to look beyond the looks; you have to know the person. It’s a little different with the guysthey’re all wearing habits but they don’t cover their heads, and hair is such a distinctive feature on people. But even with them you get to know the person as opposed to the looks, and it’s a perfect example of how you can be friends with members of the opposite sex, even when you’re both heterosexual. Some of my best friends are brothers.

As a nun I represent my order, and I represent Christ, so there are things I can’t do. Like, I absolutely cannot smoke. It’s not officially written down, but when your mother [in the order] says no smoking… And we can drink, but we cannot get drunk. Our order meets twice a year, and before I moved and was closer to the order I’d fly up. We’d all go to one of the airport bars and you’d see six or seven of us, all nuns and priests, sitting around drinking. That was probably pretty funny to seeus stepping up to the bar and saying, “Can I have a vodka tonic?”

The habit has left me feeling not particularly self-conscious about my body. I’ve never hated my body or anything; I’ve been comfortable with myself for a fairly long time. But I’ve lost 80 pounds since 2009, mostly for health reasons, and it’s a nice feeling to look at old pictures of myself and see the difference. I suppose I feel more positive in that respect. If body image comes into play it’s more that I can say I look good, as opposed to just feeling comfortable. I tend to hide my body a lot, and you could say that maybe being in the habit does that as well, but it’s also like being the only pink bead in a bowl full of black beads. You stand out in a habit. So I don’t really think of it as hiding my body. When I started wearing the habit, I stopped being the fat lady. Instead I became the nun. It frees you up from a lot of society’s expectations; you’re exempt as a nun. You don’t have to be a part of a couple; you don’t have to be that certain societally defined form of sexually attractive. You can be by yourselfyou’re expected to be by yourself, or with a group of nuns. So even though I stand out, I also feel less conspicuous. As a nun it’s not quite as uncomfortable to be alone.

On Modesty
Modesty is a Christian belief, in part because Christianity is about loving God and loving others as you love yourself. Being humble and not putting yourself first is probably the hardest thing a religion asks you to do. But at the same time, you have to value yourself before you can value others. So you dress in a way that shows you value your body, that your body is not out there for someone else to exploit. I see a lot of girls who dress in a way that looks a bit like they’re exploiting themselves. Sex is so much more intimate than whatever you’d wear to a bar. It’s so much more meaningful that I can’t imagine selling it that short, being that blasé about it. Your clothes are an advertisement of yourself: How do you value yourself? Are you modest? Are you for sale? The idea is that if you value yourself as a person, your clothes will reflect that. You’ll make yourself up because you want to feel good about yourself; you won’t wear makeup if you don’t really want to. And you’ll never make yourself up like a fool.

There might be some religious rules about not wearing makeup, keeping your head covered, not wearing jewelrybut that has more to do with showing off and being proud. In my case, I cover my head because it’s part of the habit, sure. But it also takes away from people looking at me as a sexual person. When I’m wearing my habit, I’m advertising that I’m a nunI’m advertising that I’m not really supposed to be seen as a sexual person. I’m supposed to be seen as more of a religious person.

I consider myself married to God. I’m not wearing my wedding ring today; the ring has gotten too big, and my last ring guard fell off this morning and I can’t find it. Nuns in my order can be married, but your very first commitment is to God, before anything else. But I’ve never really thought about dressing for God, because God knows your heart. God knows me naked. He knows me naked physically and emotionally and spiritually. He knows all the dark secrets, even ones that I don’t want to know for myself, and the fact that he still loves me is important. When people say to take pride in yourself, what I take from that is that God created you individually as you are, and you’re a good person, and he loves you as you are. Does that mean you shouldn’t get better? I mean, God loved me when I was 265 pounds, and he doesn’t love me better now that I weigh less. My love for God helped me say, “God made something really good and I’m screwing it up”; I really wasn’t treating my body well. But when you’re talking about appearance, there’s not really any changes I would make for God. I dress in habit, okay. But living as he would want me to liveshowing love to others, being humble, treating others with love and acceptance and patience even when it’s hardI guess that’s how I dress for God.

Invited Post: Beauty, Islamic Feminism, and Choice

Muslim feminism and beauty: "The timeless fight for choice." (image via)

"We are not reformists. We are revivalists," writes Nahida of The Fatal Feminist. The "we" she refers to are Muslim feminists, and Nahida's blog is a treasure chest of Islamic feminist thought. Whether she's writing about the concept of modesty, notable women in Islamic history, or giving wit to the question of whether mermaids are halal, the California-based blogger manages to be both provocative and welcoming, instructive but never pedantic. I was pleased she agreed to share her thoughts here about Islamic feminism and beauty. Enjoy!

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"Oh children of Humankind! Beautify yourselves for every act of worship, and eat and drink [freely], but do not waste: verily, God does not love the wasteful!"
—(Qur'an 7:31)

When Autumn invited me to guest post, I thought of two things: (1) whether it is possible to discuss beauty and self-presentation among Muslim feminists without resorting to the tired subject of hi'jab, and (2) overt ways in which modern Islamic feminists present their Islamic feminism. In fact, the rightful authority of woman over her own appearance is connected to the divergence of men who attempt to claim this authority for themselves.

The Qur'an says nothing about veiling: Men and women are both told to lower their gazes in (today, a shallow interpretation of) modesty and to cover their private areas. Feminism is built into Islam, but as patriarchy began to claim the religion over the next few centuries women were once again at the mercy of corrupted men deliberately twisting the words of God in a jealous attempt to seize undeserved power and turn the pursuit of women into degradation through sexual and political weaponry. This was accomplished with familiar methods: first, a deepened wage gap. With the expansion, men unlawfully took slaves, several of whom were women, and who then were unable to make demands concerning the protection and respect of their Islamic rights due to of lack of economic and social status. And then—forgetting their Islamic practice of modesty—men began to arrogantly police the bodies of women and forge their own laws over the word of God, enviously forbidding feminine beauty itself.

In the Muslim world today, feminine beauty is strictly defined as soft-spoken, patient, and obedient: characteristics that express themselves in a meek, humbled appearance. Any woman who confidently and forcefully challenges this, even with makeup and high heels and accessories that we correctly or incorrectly would define as distinctly feminine, is in fact not entirely viewed as "feminine" but is instead associated with unruliness—the opposite of femininity, according to patriarchy. She's already worth less than the value of a man simply for being a woman—and she doesn't even possess the worth of a woman, as she's rejected conformity. In the eyes of men, that is, not God.

In the past few years (or centuries) of Islamic feminism, most writings have focused on simply defying patriarchal standards of modesty. But there's an area that has yet to be explored: women dressing or beautifying solely to appeal to themselves. The closest we have is an example from centuries ago: A'isha bint Talha, a niece of the Prophet through her mother—and a woman of extravagant beauty—who famously proclaimed, "God the Almighty distinguished me by my beauty, and not to keep me hidden from sight! I want everyone to see this, and acknowledge my superiority over them. I will not veil. No one can force me to do anything." And in this it is clear that her only concerns were the will of God and her own desires—that of no one else.

She was a contemporary of Sakina bint al-Hussein, the Prophet's own granddaughter, of whom historian al-Zubairi writes, "She radiates like an ardent fire. Sakina was a delicate beauty, never veiled, who attended the Quraish Nobility Council. Poets gathered at her house. She was refined and playful." Her feminism did not only include refusing to veil: She decided where to live, demanded fidelity of her husband and that he never went against any of her desires, and promptly and publicly divorced men who betrayed her. Sakina was neither afraid of scandal, nor hesitant to let the world know of her wrath.

 Her influence was great: interestingly, not only did women imitate her hairstyles—but men as well! This demonstrates not only her position of incredible power, but power over both sexes, and an absence of the societal perspective that what is feminine must be undesirable for men.

But that was the 7th century. And these were wealthy women. The veil, in fact, was culturally expected amongst aristocratic women. Because the wives of the Prophet were advised against remarrying after his death, they veiled for the primary purpose of proclaiming that they were unavailable. Consequently, this became a societal expectation for their daughters and granddaughters, the first Islamic aristocrats, who promptly refused on the principle that it was their own choice, as God had not ordered them to veil and men could not pressure them.

Women today are told that perfume is a sin. That makeup is a sin. That they may not pray during their menses or show too much skin. That they may only wear nail polish while they are on their menses. That they may not show their faces at all. Women are literally reduced to material: fabric. These political laws and social pressures vary between countries. In reclaiming womanly beauty for women, Islamic feminists must now consider not only the intersections of class but also cultures, a delicate balance between denouncing burkas—and wearing them when they are banned.

It is the timeless fight for choice.

And so Muslim feminists wear lipstick and burkas. We paint our nails to proudly announce that we're menstruating and observe "traditional hi'jab." We wear miniskirts and high heels and jeans and headpieces and perfume. (My personal current favorite is Stella by Stella McCartney...a little thick for summer but a light spray is AMAZING.) We defy stereotypical expectations in every way possible, as fearless hijabis and scholarly femmes. We consider having Slutwalks in which the participants wear burkas. (Because, dammit, women are raped in burkas—in no matter what we wear.) Which naturally prompts the question: If everything about our appearances is symbolically a significant contextual rebellion—when will we be free?

We are choosing, at least, the ways in which we rebel. And despite the claims of evolutionary psychologists, global patriarchy, and a particular type of radfem, women are whole, complete agents in our own lives and can fully grant and deny consent as is our right. It is the rest of the world—men, society, other women—that judges what our actions mean.

In July, I wrote a piece titled "Reclaiming Femininity," which ends with the lines, "Satirists and the patriarchy scoff and say, nowadays everything is female empowerment. And I want to scream, And does that tell you nothing?" Indeed, it is true—for not only Muslim feminists but all feminists—that the very fact our movement involves so many seemingly contradictory angles is evidence of the infliction of enormous damage by patriarchy from every possible direction. Each angle is redemptive. It is a story that repeats for centuries, and yet over and over the point is missed: Let women choose.