The Pressure to Look ‘Right’


By Maryam Sakeenah

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 12.37.56 AMIn her article The Balancing Act of Being Female, Lisa Wade discusses the daily-battle women face in their struggles to conform to the expectations of an over-sexualized society. From dress to demeanor, all is sized up and judged for social appropriacy; when being flirty is appealing, and what crosses the line into ‘asking for it.’ At the workplace, she ought to be ‘proper’ but not in the least ‘prudish,’ and a slight misdemeanor may just spill over into inappropriately ‘cheeky’ and wholly undesirable.

Unfortunately, many women subject themselves to these pressures as they dress to convey the attitude the occasion demands. Often, this pressure goes unnoticed and is mistaken for the woman’s freedom and natural right to look good and feel desired. Sadly, this makes women spend more than they’re able, attempting to get the right look and hoping to win the nod of approval from a society that objectifies their femininity.

That said, the pressure it builds on women who are unable to conform to these expectations is brutally oppressive. One of my students stopped me on my way to class, holding back her tears, and desperate for help. She expressed that wished to end her life because ‘everyone hates me and makes fun of me because I am ugly and I am not feminine enough.’ The girl was intelligent and hardworking, but suffered terrible pressure from peers because she did not dress, wax, or style her hair like other girls. I was revolted by our inability to accept human beings as they are without trying to smooth the rough edges, making us all clones of the ideal stereotype.

This ideal stereotype is reinforced relentlessly through advertisements and the entertainment industry, exercising enormous influence on our minds. Grotesque billboards stare down at the city telling us how ‘Slim is the in thing,’ while T.V. commercials tell us that not having the latest cellphone or the perfect skin makes one worthless. It tells us that people who stutter stand no chance at all for their appalling, socially incorrect inability.

The images, stereotypes, and values created by the entertainment, cosmetic, and advertising industries are insensitive. They add pressure on women to look, dress, and act a certain way, or otherwise be condemned to social marginalization. Additionally, the commercial ethic values physicality more than anything else, and the pressure this creates smothers the natural diversity of human beings.

God made us in varying shapes, sizes, colors, and personalities because that is how the world was meant to be. This diversity is instead painted in a plastic hue in one unvarying, flat stroke of sameness. Women mutilate their own bodies to feel more accepted: Botox, nose-jobs, liposuction, and plastic surgeries have been steadily on the rise.

That said, the Muslim veil takes on a certain significance. For me, it has always meant a refusal to subject myself to judgment by a commercialized, over-sexualized society. It is immensely liberating from the pressure of conforming to societies superficial standards. In other words, it is a refusal to subject myself to judgment based on how I look or what I wear, and a means to turn away the lustful stare of an onlooker. The veil raises me onto a more spiritual and intellectual plane, and this defines my social interaction while deflecting attention away from physicality. It is, truly- liberation.

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10 Comments

  1. Well said sister.Modesty has so much more love in its mawhaddah sense than any outward display of physicality.Do you know what is so rewarding? That you have written this piece out of the compassion you showed for the young person mocked and made to feel inadequate.I hope you will speak to her again and let her know that even myself, here in Northern England,where one presumes the same thing can happen,will take some small action,a courtesy,an effort toward goodness in the sight of Allah to show a care,to offer a prayer to hopefully offset her treatment at unthinking hands & as you say commercial
    pressures.I do think little things can help.Brian Cokayne, Stockport/ England

  2. Yasmin says:

    Jazakallah khair for this very beautifully written post!

  3. Jill says:

    Assalamu alaykum,

    Great article! While this topic has been explored by our community many times, it’s always nice to get a reminder of this aspect of hijab.

    However, I would also note that the over-sexualization of our culture has not failed to hit our community either in some respects. It seems that so many people in our community are more and more concerned with women’s appearance on the other side of the coin. How well is her hijab pinned? Is there a sliver of skin showing? Is a stray hair peeking out somewhere? How tight or loose is her clothing? If any of these aspects of her dress are less than perfect, she is regarded as some horrible sinner with no redeeming qualities. And if she doesn’t wear hijab, well, forget about it. It seems like these days how a woman looks determines how good of a Muslim she is, with no other factors taken into account. While more and more men seem to have forgotten their own hijab, women have been placed more and more under the microscope. Men are less likely to take responsibility for modesty and lowering their gaze and more apt to blaming a woman for dressing “immodestly.” So while I applaud this article’s stance on one side of this issue, the other side ought to be discussed as well.

    • ZAI says:

      100% agree.
      The religious inverse is also a danger as I said in my own comment…and that inverse can also become an obsessive preoccupation with women’s sexuality and what defines it…

    • Hyde says:

      Agree. Especially when you come under radar of the haraam police.

  4. ZAI says:

    I agree with the sentiments about the demands of an overly sexualized and commercialized society. I also agree with the fact that Islamic modesty and standards of dress can free a person from this mentality and reality…

    With a disclaimer of course: that it is done of a woman’s own FREE WILL.

    If however it is mandated by a government, political/armed group or even through intense social/marital pressure…then doesn’t it just become the inverse of the overly sexualized society wherein a woman is constantly worried and obsessed about whether she is covered well enough or religious enough? Same judgements, criticisms, etc. if she is not attainting the standard?

  5. Abdullah says:

    I believe that similar sentiments could be expressed about men, too. We, too, are under pressure to conform to look and act in certain ways that can be very debilitating when they go against one’s natural disposition.

  6. fezz says:

    True article. Its probably worth mentioning that some women do actually exploit themselves in order to get that “extra edge” in the workplace, more attention or emotionally manipulate others to secure that better promotion. This is regardless of whatever external pressure is applied on them; so in a sense its not always “society’s” problem (although maybe its a intertwined vicious cycle)

  7. Kirana says:

    :) be a techie. oh, occasionally when meeting a client or something one would have to smarten up some, but i get away with a lot of leeway – i don’t really have to think about whether an outfit is ‘smart’ or ‘smart casual’, makeup or no, nobody expects techies to look ‘flirty’ and no one notices if a techie looks ‘prudish’ that day. none of us in the team probably can remember any article of clothing each other owns, despite it probably having been worn countless times in the year in plain sight of all of us. it’s great. no pressure in the least, among technical people. well, at least where i am. :)

  8. mona says:

    agree 100%
    I don’t understand society. Why is it compulsory for a woman to look ‘pretty’ 24×7? Will the earth stop rotating if they fail to attract any men?

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