Random style note from the Moscow metro

Elderly woman gets in at Teatralnaya, on the green line. Hair in an elaborate, bouffant hairdo, covered with a black and white polka dot scarf. Loose zebra-print walking coat. Skinny blue jeans. Black patent leather ballet flats.

What I like about this relatively mild period in autumn is that such gorgeousness isn’t hidden under bulky winter coats. Although something tells me this woman has something lovely to bust out for when the temperature drops below zero.

What I also like about sights such as these is that it’s an example of someone who’s past retirement age – but still going strong. If I had a good camera handy, I would have asked to take her picture, and submitted it to Advanced Style. They need someone to represent from Moscow.

The delightful priggitude of the American workplace

There’s nothing quite like the righteousness that many Americans express when it comes to office dress-codes – so readily illustrated by the comments to this older Salon advice column I noticed a while back but never commented on, until now.

As the column and the comments illustrated – a woman who works in your average office has two options: be sexy, or be taken seriously. This is actually an oversimplification, when you think about it: a worker can be sexy, as long as she follows certain norms. Cleavage, particularly if the breasts on display are substantial (smaller-chested women can get away with so much more – as one of my mother’s well-endowed friends once said to me, “but I envy Tatiana in the summer. She can wear a tiny tank-top without guys yelling ‘ho’ from cars.”), is a no-no, but heels, on the other hand, tend to go over OK. Dramatic lipstick is more tolerable than dramatic eye-makeup. And so on.

Though then again, there are exceptions, and it all depends on who is looking. In another, recent piece on Salon, Beth Aviv writes of the young woman who replaced her on her teaching job:

…All I have to say to my girlfriends is, “knee-high boots, four-inch heels,” and they scream: “We hate her.”

The truth is, I can’t really say anything bad about Alex, who’s smart, hard-working, and liked and respected by her students and the teachers in our department. Except maybe she’s too pretty or dresses too sexy to be a high school English teacher….

Aviv’s piece is beautifully written and heart-breaking, and what it’s REALLY about, I think, is the crappy job market that teachers all across the country have to deal with, but its hook is the idea that an older woman was pushed out from a job by a younger, prettier woman. Even when we realize that Alex was most likely hired instead of Beth because Alex’s salary would be lower, that aftertaste remains.

Americans tend to view physical beauty – particularly physical beauty in women – as something extraordinary and even suspect. It can’t simply exist, it must have a purpose – usually, a nefarious purpose. Or just a slutty one.

In this situation, beauty also has a tendency to blind. As one of the commenters to Aviv’s piece pointed out – it’s very likely that pretty Alex is a recent graduate with oodles of student debt (a situation I am more than familiar with). But her skinny jeans have the power to obscure her possible life challenges. Aviv is too good and too self-aware a writer to outright trash Alex, and she explores her own tense, disappointing working situation wonderfully, so I don’t have a beef with her (and let’s face it, most Salon commenters are way more sympathetic to men who get “distracted” by pretty women at the office, as opposed to women who get overlooked in favour of them). I do think it’s important to note that Alex is a real person.

When we use words such as “tasteful” and “appropriate” to discuss workplace attire, what we are really doing is pointing out certain class-markers. It’s “trashy” women from the lower classes, or else powerful heiresses and entertainment figures and the like, who are expected or, at the very least, allowed, to put the goods on display. Madonna has spoken about eating popcorn out of her cleavage during business meetings – and there’s a reason she can get away with it. Madonna will do anything to get attention, but that’s because attention is a career strategy. Continue reading “The delightful priggitude of the American workplace”

You know what? I don’t need pants. I’m in Ukraine.

I have a long, warm coat to keep me comfortable for when I am outside. When I get inside, and take off that coat, half the time, I am no longer wearing pants. That’s right. I have begun pairing long tank-tops and tights. I wonder what took me so long, to be honest.

This is something I would never get away with in the States, which makes the experience all the more meaningful. It’s like, “so what if the ice hasn’t been cleaned off the street in a month? So what if I was having a cigarette outside the theater today, and someone set a pile of trash on fire in broad daylight? So what if the Mayor doesn’t even give a crap about the stray dogs overrunning the city? AT LEAST I DON’T NEED TO WEAR PANTS.”

It looks good with a pair of boots, but most importantly, nobody cares. And if they do care, they do so in an appreciative way. I can enjoy a pants-free existence at the movies, I can enjoy a pants-free existence while buying cold medication. I went and lit candles in church today, pants-free beneath my trusty coat.

Suck on that, Western Civilization.

As amusing as it may be to watch two non-Muslim women duke it out over the veil…

… I have to say that this argument between Naomi Wolf & Phyllis Chesler mostly depresses me.

When it comes to Wolf, I think she had her heart in the right place, but did make a few claims that rather romanticize the idea of hijab. For example, when she says:

It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.

On one hand, I think Islam (at least classically speaking) is more more tolerant of the human body than, say, Christianity (being at least a nominal Christian myself, I do often think about this divide). Yet you can’t deny that not all aspects of veiling or purdah are all about celebrating family, some of them are there to celebrate prudishness, sexual anxiety, dehumanization of women, gender apartheid, and The Grand Tournament of Punishing Sluts. Who are sluts? Well, any women who don’t fit into whatever arbitrary standard of what is “appropriate” out on the street today. Something tells me that Wolf has never overheard, say, a clutch of women loudly discussing another for looking like a “slut” because her hijab does not cover her eyebrows. Maybe she will one day, and a dash of actual complexity will be introduced to her further writings on the subject.

Also, this:

…the Taliban were demonised for denying cosmetics and hair colour to women

No, just no. The problem with the Taliban is that they argue, via a barrel of a gun, that women are not human beings. I don’t believe it’s actually possible for an outsider to “demonize” the Taliban either, as they do a pretty good job of that themselves.

Of course, I agree with Wolf about the aspect of choice. I don’t care what Phyllis Chesler, or anyone else, feels about the veil, the burkini, the hot-pink catsuit I saw a woman wear on the bus today… You don’t get to tell anyone how to farking dress. I don’t care what you may think their reasons for dressing this or that way are.

Chesler’s attacks on Wolf framed the issue of “Burqa as ultimate feminist choice,” which was a smear tactic if I’ve ever seen one (could it be because I’ve experienced something very similar once upon a time?). Wolf may be a lot of things, but an idiot she is not.

Chesler does, however, have a point when she says that the Muslim world can be just as “debauched” as anything you’d ever see in the West; people just hide that sort of thing better, they don’t flaunt it, it’s all very surreptitious, but it happens. Closed societies deal with repression in all sorts of colourful ways. Considering the amount of so-called Muslim men that regularly tried to solicit sex from me while I was in Jordan, I just don’t buy Wolf’s insistence that society is somehow purer and human interaction is less explotative when most of the women are veiled. I found Wolf’s own wearing of shalwar kameez and headscarf in Morocco to be touching. Personally, I’ve worn the veil to escape sexual harassment, and no, it was not a “calming” or “serene” experience, it was an “oh crap, now I get to pretend to be someone else just for a scrap of respect around here” kind of experience.

I don’t like Chesler’s blanket, baiting statements about Islam, especially as Islam does often get confused with culture, but I’m not going to sit here and say that trying to pass as a Muslim for fear of something genuinely bad happening to me was a bit of wonderful cultural exchange I’d gush to my friends about. It would be as silly as expecting a woman who is, say, forced to take off her headscarf for fear of Islamophobic attacks to gush about it as well. I don’t mean to say that Wolf has no right to frame her experience as she sees fit – hey, I’m glad she enjoyed, I wish I could have felt the same, if only for a moment or two – but I do hope she at least realizes that when she says “choice is everything” she has to apply that to her own situation as well, and perhaps realize that choice can have a bit of a gray, fuzzy area around it.

Do you actively “choose” something when you are being bullied? Do you “choose” it when you are afraid, or even just annoyed?

I think it would be fair to say that we all make our compromises. I “chose” to step into a pair of high heels today to go shopping, I didn’t really want to wear them on this particular occasion, though. I had mean blisters on my feet, and knew they’d open up in those particular shoes. But I wanted to wear a short skirt and look taller, and I went for it anyway, and I paid for it too.

The little situation above might lack the drama and gravity of, say, veiling in order to not be beaten, but, regardless of what we wear or how we wear it, we make compromises and deal with consequences. And for women, both compromises and consequences tend to be just a little more severe than for men.

The publicity must be pretty good for both Wolf and Chesler right about now (and awww, look, isn’t it sweet? They both agree that porn is ba-yud), but if I was a Muslim woman watching all of this, I’d probably feel as though I was in a room full of people who were telling me to be quiet when the adults are talking.

Monday Music: the Chestnuts of Kiev Edition

It’s good to be da king. And it’s good to be back in the city of blooming chestnuts, for a bit. Everyone’s talking politics and, despite the crisis, the bars in the center appear packed. One of my grandmothers has fallen in love with Susan Boyle, the other one is drawing upon her extensive experience with highly dangerous infectious diseases to opine on swine flu. I have achieved my dream of going on in a mini-dress, with huge sunglasses to match, and feeling rather vintage. I only wish that women could still wear mini-dresses without it making some sort of statement.

Because of Eurovision, you already know how this week’s Monday music is going to open up:

Continue reading “Monday Music: the Chestnuts of Kiev Edition”