Was there something inside of me that just didn’t feel like being devoured anymore? Or was there something inside of me that believed I was no longer devourable?
I got my first Barbie doll just before my 43rd birthday. Away on a girls’ weekend, I made the late-night fireside admission that I had not been allowed to have Barbies as a child. The next day when two of the women returned from an afternoon of antiquing, they presented me with Beach Fun Barbie, still in her original hot pink box. Blonde hair covered by a shimmery mesh bandana, she sported pink short shorts, a pink bikini top, and a flower tattoo on her bare left hip. My favorite part of the whole thing is that she is holding a bottle of what my children would now call sunscreen, but in my day—and certainly for Beach Fun Barbie—was called suntan lotion.
The fact that I was denied Barbies as a child plays well in this feminist era. My progressive friends assume that my mother was some kind of forward-thinking academic who didn’t want her daughters’ definition of feminine sexuality informed by the Barbie prototype. In truth, I think the decision was somewhat more complex on my mother’s part. Barbie was, in a sense, a Rated R doll, and my mother wanted us firmly in G-rated territory. Barbie’s bare body, heck, even her clothed body, speaks of sex. And although he lacks the equipment necessary to get the job done, Ken exists as evidence of that. What other doll comes equipped with her own male escort?
I recently started fretting over the length of my skirts and dresses. True, I am 5’11” and have been worrying over the length of clothing since having to buy men’s jeans in eighth grade. But before, when it came to skirt hemlines, my goal was to stay just south of some imaginary line on my thigh demarking indecency. Lately, though, I have found myself looking for new coverage. My imaginary line has descended a good two inches from indecent to something I deem “inappropriate.” I also have become acutely aware of my sleeveless shirts, tops that pull across my chest, or cut deeply into my cleavage (such as it is), and jeans that hug my butt.
The strange thing about this sudden inclination to cover up is that my body has not changed in any way that merits the increased modesty. As my third and final child entered full-day school, I returned to the gym and shed a lot of the lumpiness resulting from three pregnancies. My arms look really good right now, so why the sudden urge to cover them?
A magazine article featuring fashion models from an agency called Underwraps pushed the question for me. These models are hijabis, women who cover themselves with headscarves in the Muslim tradition even as they pose for pictures. The article featured striking close-up photos of the agency’s founding model, her flawless bronze complexion, dark full eyebrows, and electric green eye shadow popping forth from the white fabric that frames her face. Describing young female bodies as “morsels” for public eyes to devour, this model cited the hijab as an unwillingness to consent to being devoured. Her comments gave me pause: Was there something inside of me that just didn’t feel like being devoured anymore? Or was there something inside of me that believed I was no longer devourable?
When I was young, my mother became friends with an Amish family that lived near a cousin’s house in rural Pennsylvania. The father had suffered a stroke and had therefore been granted dispensation by the church to make and sell toys to “English” tourists. My mother became his Midwest distributor, toting his wooden trucks and blocks to craft fairs across the region.
In addition to the wooden toys that Mr. Lapp shipped to our house, his wife sent along her handmade Amish dolls. Made of fabric, the dolls were reminiscent of an Amish-clad Raggedy Ann with brown yarn hair covered by a miniature white prayer cap. Half the supply would arrive decorated with large black yarn eyes, and a sweetly stitched red mouth. The other half would arrive in the traditional Amish fashion, with no face at all: a completely blank slate where the eyes, nose, and mouth should be.
According to scholars there is not a single reason why Amish dolls are faceless. Many believe it is for religious reasons, to adhere to the commandment forbidding people to make graven images or idols. Still others believe that it is an affirmation of the Amish notion of modesty. To make and dote on a little replication of ourselves might encourage vanity and pride. Regardless, Amish dolls are the anti-Barbie—better designed as vehicles for playing house or farm. Unbraiding their yarn hair is an exercise in frustration (believe me, I tried), and there is no wardrobe change. These dolls are means to another end.
This past October my husband and I attended the Austin City Limits music fest. We had been to the fest six years prior, and at that time I had been obsessed with the sheer magnitude and variety of tattoos I was seeing. Six years later, that was old news; everyone had ink—2016 was all about body glitter.
This time, at 43, I felt old. But what, really, is the difference in those six years?Physically, in truth, not much. And yet it was there—the same instinct that made me drop my hemlines around my birthday, the same sense of “appropriateness”—origin unknown. All around me at the fest there was so much skin, bare arms and legs, barely covered boobs, tan chests and abs, necks and calves, thighs toned and thighs dotted with cellulite, butt cheeks in too-short shorts, bare feet, pierced ears and noses—some of it beautiful, some less so. I wore tank tops and shorts, and a cowboy hat for good measure, but I was conservative by comparison. I just didn’t have the energy, or the 22-year-old goods, to get in the game. Mulling it over on the plane ride home, I recognized a wistfulness akin to how I felt watching other girls open their Barbies at birthday parties as a child—as though there were a heady world of overt sexuality in which I was not allowed to play.
In the months since the fest, I have continued to be perplexed by the relationship between aging and my newfound modesty. Wondering, at the heart of it all, if this modesty is internally desired or externally imposed? Here’s the thing: With the guidance of the Underwraps model, I have decided that I want to believe that our choice, as we age, is not between Barbie and the Amish dolls. Between youthful sexuality and older self-abnegation. The premise is flawed; aging and covering does not render us faceless, leave us without a sexual identity or promise. Instead, I want to claim the power of these particular hijabis who do not see their head scarves as imposed upon them, so much as selected by them. Women who mete out their beauty in ways that make sense to them—ways that acknowledge their power of choice.
So, in the end, I want to say this: Our beauty is still in tact. Our bodies are still strong and alluring. I want to say that what has changed is that we know when, and how, and for whom, to put them on display. I want to say that, as we age, we understand the power in the choice to cover, and the choice to reveal.
Susannah Q. Pratt is a Chicago-based writer who has had work at Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and Third Coast review. Links to these pieces, and more about her view on writing, can be found at www.susannahqpratt.com.