The Sliding Scale

by Tabitha Kidwell

During the 4 years I lived with my sister Katie, any time I was getting dressed for a special occasion (and sometimes when I was getting dressed for downright everyday occasions), I would model the options for her. She did the same thing – making decisions is neither of our strong suits, so it took two of us to make final wardrobe decisions.

So, I am in big trouble now that I live in Indonesia and Katie lives in Denver. Now, not only do I not have her input, I also have to negotiate a totally different set of clothing norms. The first week I was here in Salatiga, before I started teaching, I went into the office to work wearing what I thought was a very appropriate outfit. One of my counterparts (the female one) pulled me aside.

“Tabitha,” she whispered, “you cannot wear that shirt to campus!”

I was puzzled. What could be wrong with the long sleeves and long pants I had worn on this hot September day?

“You can almost see your breasts.”

I looked down at what I considered to be two very well covered breasts and wondered exactly whose breasts she was talking about. I was exposing maybe 5 or 6 square inches of skin below my neck, however, and that would not do. I was mortified. They had informed me that I needed to be covered to the ankle and to the wrist to teach at this Islamic University, but they had neglected to tell me that I also needed to be covered to the neck, maybe thinking that no self-respecting young lady would do something so lascivious as to show a peek of her clavicle. I left at lunch that day, feeling frustrated with the overly rigid social norms in an Islamic society.

Indonesia, is an incredibly conservative society. This is especially true in a smaller city like Salatiga. Most people get married before 23 and have children before 25. Most mothers stay home with the children. Restaurants don’t serve alcohol, bars can only be found in big cities, and wine and spirits are next to impossible to find. I only go to the fancy hotel pool on weekday mornings so that I won’t be gawked at by the fully clothed and headscarfed ladies watching their husbands and children (and me) swim. I’m still coming to understand the meaning of the headscarf, so I don’t intend this to be a commentary on the repression of women. Many Muslim women begin to wear the headscarf at puberty as a sign of their devotion to God, It has a joyful and meaningful connotation to them. They are accustomed to wearing the headscarf and clothing that is comparatively modest. They would feel as uncomfortable going out with their hair on display as I would wearing my bikini to the grocery store. It’s just a different scale. What is perfectly acceptable (and even modest) in western countries is provocative here. And, incidentally, most of the clothing they choose (cotton shirts, long flowy skirts, headscarves with a little visor built in) has the added benefit of protecting the body from the hot tropical sun.

I put that shirt away and didn’t wear it again for a few weeks. During those few weeks, something shifted in my sense of social appropriateness. I put the shirt on and looked at myself in the mirror.

“ Oh no!” I thought.

“I can almost see my breasts.”

One Comment to “The Sliding Scale”

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