What Might a Burqa Wearer and an Anorexic Have in Common?

What might a burqa wearer and an anorexic have in common? Usually, not much. They can be at opposite poles. A student from Iran once told me that the loose clothing (not burqas) Iranian women wear can lead to weight gain. “You just don’t have to worry about your weight,” she said, “because you’re so covered up.”

But the two can overlap in surprising ways.

Some burqa wearers and some anorexics are responding to the same thing: difficult aspects of a culture that judges women by their appearance, and that sexually objectifies them.

But they are responding in very different ways.

Some anorexics conform to the cultural notion that beauty equals thinness, and embrace the view to extreme. Others are hoping to rid themselves of the curves that make them into sex objects, often because sexual abuse began when the curves appeared.

The burqa wearer may also have a strong reaction to beauty judgments and objectification, but she simply covers what could be judged or ogled. One woman who commented on a post on burqas told me, “I am a typical American woman who lives in Texas. I own a burqa. I have worn it out numerous times, mostly as a way to see how it feels to be out and about and not be seen as a face or body. Because I live in a culture that values youth and beauty and where people don’t hesitate to judge you by your appearance I have often wished that there was a neutralizing agent, like a burqa, that could help dissipate those judgments.” 

At the same time, the burqa wearer and the anorexic are both disappearing. The burqa lets the wearer escape into a mesh of unshaped fabric.

And consider these words from a recovered anorexic:*

When I graduated from college crowned with academic honors, professors praised my potential. I wanted only to vanish.

It took me three months of hospitalization and two years of outpatient psychotherapy for me… (to accept) my right and my obligation to take up room with my figure, voice, and spirit.

A few days ago I watched the movie Penelope. Penelope, played by Christina Ricci, is cursed with a snout instead of a nose. Her parents hide her at home. She finally escapes but uses a scarf to cover her snout. The spell is broken when she finally comes to love herself as she is.

We live in an imperfect world. People objectify and make judgments.

But how would we learn and grow and gain inner strength, character and compassion if there were no need to strive to improve the world or to grow in self-acceptance? 

Georgia Platts

*Abra Fortune Chernik. “The Body Politic.” Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation, edited by Barbara Findland. 1995

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on July 26, 2010, in body image, feminism, gender, race/ethnicity, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Georgia,
    I want to preface my response by noting that I am neither Islamic nor claim to know much about the religion and its practices. However, I am currently writing an essay using Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story “The Black Minister’s Veil” to understand the issue regarding France’s recent burqa ban. So the topic interests me.

    While your argument is intriguing, I believe you disregard some important differences—most notably, the idea that veiling is an act of worship. On one level, to put on a burqa in the morning is like a Catholic saying a Hail Mary: they are both recognitions of God’s love and will. Anorexia involves no such act. Indeed, your argument approaches the burqa from an objectifying perspective and disregards other important aspects. While this approach has merit, I ultimately feel it over simplifies the burqa-wearing situation. Just because two things have similarities doesn’t make them the same, or similar. I fear that’s what your article implies. Your argument reminds me of a John Donne poem. In it, he compares his love for his wife to that of the two ends of a compass. This is what’s called a metaphysical conceit. The two have little in common, and are quite illogical comparisons. It provides for beautiful poetry, but I’m not so sure it provides for sound science. Interesting, nonetheless.

    • Yes, I agree that the two are not equivelent for the reasons you give. I was responding to a Christian woman from Texas who wants to wear a burqa with the express purpose of hiding her body. I was responding on that narrow point. Perhaps I should edit the post to make that more clear.

  2. Ranu Aggarwal

    Surely you are not suggesting that skin exposure and exhibition is about self acceptance as a corollary of covering up about wanting to vanish. I for one never, as a matter of choice, wear a bikini on the beach or something akin to underwear parading around as a ‘sexy’ outfit or off shoulder tops halfway down the chest, held up by configuration and double sided tape – not because of poor self or body image but because it is limiting and uncomfortable to have to worry about wardrobe malfunction at the back of the mind in going about my business plus revealing skin for the sake of revealing skin is not what I would consider attractive, as a result of my own acculturation that I am perfectly comfortable with.

    When I look around, clearly that is not a view shared by a number of other women and how they feel about such attire in a culture where fashion, sexy and liberation equals maximizing skin exposure, the same way that burqua wearing might equal character, and holding one self together, some place else.

    There are many variables to social dynamics that interplay and perceptions driven by this sort of fixing of types and pieces of attire in and as of themselves as a reflection of some specific state of mind with categorical thumb rules of ‘x’ type of attire = ‘y’ sentiment or status, seems somewhat of an oversimplification and reductionist. Besides, it is not for the ‘non’ burqua wearer to judge what the ‘burqua’ does or does not do for the ‘wearer’ – In a large part, self determination and freedom is a function of being allowed and honored to express for one’s own self, one’s own experience and aspirations. In that regard, whether it is clergy impressing upon women the virtues of covering up head to toe with adverse consequences for deviation or ‘liberated’ women elsewhere unilaterally making it about vanishing and insignificance etc. – what is the difference?

    • Re: Surely you are not suggesting that skin exposure and exhibition is about self acceptance as a corollary of covering up about wanting to vanish.

      You’re right. I don’t.

      More on this later.

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