Source: Joe Valtierra (Flickr)

Skinny Jeans: The Female Body and Space

The topic of female modesty has been beaten to a pulp in Islamic forums, scholarly circles, and within the confines of our own homes, often in the form of a parental scolding. It’s a sensitive topic for many of us. Our brothers and sisters are often well-intended, but alas, we do not exist in a vacuum. An innocent comment on our modesty can be perceived as a reflection of the relentless bombardment we receive from society of how our bodies should be and how we ought to present them. Then we are taught that our worth is hingent upon this. We feel like our bodies aren’t even our own anymore.

After I started wearing the hijab, I had a trial period where I switched in and out of different styles to find the sweet spot between style, comfort, and modesty. The whole time I kept thinking, “Guys are so lucky. Menswear has all three and does it so easily.” If I chose comfort, I kept my modesty but sacrificed style. If I chose style, more often than not I was sacrificing my comfort or modesty. One of my biggest enigmas was skinny jeans. I felt like no outfit ever looked good with regular jeans, and that skinny jeans were essential to my wardrobe lest I wanted to be The Girl Who Wore Sweatpants All The Time™. But something in me changed.

I started to think critically about the fashion industry and how it related back to women’s bodies and patriarchy. If I could do one thing in the world, it was link something to patriarchy. I started thinking about how women’s clothes never valued functionality unlike menswear. How they were about giving the appearance of perfection. It was represented in pockets that fit nothing but bobby pins. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they started giving us fake pockets. Our clothes are mostly restricting, tight, and require high maintenance to keep the intended figure. As I thought about all this one hot June day, I kept reflecting back to the skinny jeans sitting in my dresser and why I choose to wear these God-forsaken pants in this hell we call summer.

I think beyond me perceiving them as not being aligned with my Islamic code of modesty, it was about how I felt in them. Someone asked me once to describe my style and I said that I liked clothes that exuded dominance; where I’m the one wearing the clothes instead of the clothes wearing me. Skinny jeans fell under the latter category. They were made to reduce my shape, to synch me in, to accentuate my curvature. I don’t need that. I don’t want that.

Skinny jeans are marketed mainly towards women and I think they’re in par with the whole idea of women taking up less space, being more delicate, and being more exposed and vulnerable. The topic of women and public and private spaces is a difficult conversation to have since it is something very subtle and a perception and feeling instead of something we can measure. I think this quote from Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets sums it up quite well:

The containment of a woman’s body is demonstrated by the very tightness with which she holds herself and moves. The notion that such gendered body language is ‘natural’ is reinforced by observing other women we encounter.

…the average women will occupy the least possible space, rendering herself as inconspicuous as she can…on the other hand, the average man will spread his legs out, occupy more…

An argument can be made that hijab and modest clothing make women invisible, but the same counterargument can be made about mainstream women’s fashion. The sheer dysfunctionality and discomfort that comes with most womenswear renders a person invisible behind said clothes. The standardless, irrational sizes; what seems to be a complete disregard for basic female physiology; lack of functionality; the demand to become smaller to fit – the clothes start wearing you instead of the other way around. You lose control of your body and you start adjusting yourself to the clothes.

The way you carry yourself, as we all know, also affects not only how others perceive you but how you perceive yourself. Amy Cuddy says in her TED Talk “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”:

And what are nonverbal expressions of power and dominance? Well, this is what they are. So in the animal kingdom, they are about expanding. So you make yourself big, you stretch out, you take up space, you’re basically opening up. It’s about opening up. And this is true across the animal kingdom. It’s not just limited to primates. And humans do the same thing.

This sounds like the complete opposite of what clothes marketed towards us end up doing. I think this is quite a serious issue since submissive body language results in a submissive attitude. Whether that be in an academic, professional, or personal setting, such attitudes won’t be of an advantageous to us. Maybe I’m just reading into all this but wearing form-fitting clothes on a daily basis really does hinder me physically and psychologically. Constantly having to pull up, adjust, tuck in, hide. It’s exhausting and unnecessary. I need to focus my energy on better things.

It’s also about comfort of course and being in control of your own body. I can’t run properly in skinny jeans. I can’t kick as high. I can’t defend myself. It literally disarms me and I don’t think I need to incorporate something like that into my daily wardrobe. Like Shaijla Patel said in Migritude,

I swore I would never wear clothes I couldn’t run or fight in.

This is not to judge those who choose to wear skinny jeans or any such clothes, nor am I talking solely about skinny jeans. They just happen to be part of my own personal dilemma and a reflection of my general contention with women’s fashion. I can’t stress this enough that I am not one to participate in female body policing. I simply wish to bring a new perspective on the table about these controversial attires other than “that’s immodest!” and “you’ll burn in hell!” I think we can all start thinking critically about our clothes (and all the other little choices we make in our lives) and how it affects us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

P.S. I would like to give a shout-out to the inventor of boyfriend jeans and harem pants. Bless your kind soul.