Writer Lauren Shields shunned makeup and stylish clothing and covered hair for nine months as part of a project to reject conventional beauty standards and discover her true self-worth. Currently writing a book called "The Modesty Experiment,” she chronicled her “frightening and liberating” journey this week on Salon.
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Shields is not the first woman to go to lengths in the pursuit of self-esteem. In March 2011, as a way to overcome her "obsession" with her appearance, writer Kjerstin Gruys didn't look in the mirror for the entire year leading up to her wedding. Through the process, Gruys learned to trust people when they said she was beautiful and realized that she was her own biggest critic.
It's no surprise that a great number of women grapple with their appearance. Research conducted by the Renfrew Center Foundation found that 44 percent of women experience negative emotions when not wearing cosmetics and report feeling self-conscious, unattractive, and naked. 32 percent said they wear makeup to feel good and 11 percent because it's a societal norm. It's difficult to blame them—one Harvard study revealed that women who wear makeup are perceived as more trustworthy, competent, and likeable.
According to self-esteem expert Susan Vernicek, while experiments such as Shields's are extreme, the lessons to be learned are significant. "For many women, it's a daily challenge to feel beautiful and confident. There's nothing wrong with wearing makeup and looking nice, but if it's difficult to leave the house without getting dressed up, it's worth discovering why," she says.
And that's what Shields set out to do. Back in 2010, she was like any other fashion-forward woman living and working in New York City. Every morning she made the trek from her apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to her office in Manhattan and was struck by how nicely the women on the train dressed. “It was an army of ladies sporting fitted waistlines, toned arms, blown-out hair, full faces of makeup, and heels (which was incredible, considering all the walking we all had to do). Everyone looked good, no one was phoning it in, and we were all stylish,” she wrote.
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Yet, the idea of wearing what Shields called a “Grown-up suit" felt artificial to her, as if she were wearing a costume. On her way home, she passed Hasidic women wearing headscarves and felt envious—these women didn’t worry about the latest accessories or whether their hair fell flat. “These women were not ‘fashionable’ first, like most of the women I saw everywhere else — they seemed to be focused on something else, something more important than what was trendy. They had a very good reason for not dressing like the train-squishing crowd of Fifth Avenue, and I wanted a reason too,” she wrote.
Two years later, while Shields was studying at Emory University’s Candler Theological Seminary, a speaker visited her “Women in Church History” class to discuss the hijab, a head veil worn by many Muslim women. Shields had always assumed that women who wore the hijab were taught to feel ashamed of their bodies but after hearing the speaker, she quickly changed her mind. “It’s not possible, I thought, that women would feel freer dressed modestly, that women would choose to be ashamed of their bodies," she wrote. "But it wasn’t shame, I soon learned. In fact, for many women, it was pride. It was a desire to be considered for things other than what their hairstyle communicated, or whether their butts were shaped right — a desire that many people, not just women, share today."
“Up until that moment, I had considered myself the kind of person who was “above” thinking too much about my appearance (remember, the Grown-up Suit was just a costume — deep down I disdained all that “frivolous” stuff), but….I was uncomfortably aware of how much I did care about how I looked. One day I had noticed cellulite where it had never been before, and it really upset me. My neck was saggier than it was when I was 20, and I found myself awake at night wondering if I was just fat, or getting older, and whether I was still beautiful.”
Feeling hypocritical—Shields says she owned more than $600 worth of makeup and more shoes “than any sane individual needs”—she decided to launch the Modesty Experiment. To keep herself accountable, she started a blog and a journal and gave away a third of her clothes. “The clothes I couldn’t wear during the Experiment because they had no sleeves or were too short or tight, I gave to a friend, along with all of my makeup,” she wrote.
For the following nine months, Shields covered her hair, wore loose clothing, and didn’t expose her knees or shoulders. With rare exceptions, she didn't wear makeup or nail polish.
Although she had bouts of panic, not having to plan her outfits or worry about her looks freed Shields to focus on the things that really mattered. But she also realized that there was nothing inherently wrong with caring about how she looked—she just needed to strike a healthy balance. “I learned that looking good isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it becomes the cornerstone of your identity — like the advertising industry tries to convince us it is — then you’re doing nothing but damage to yourself,” she wrote.
Ironically, when Shields stopped caring so much about her appearance, the right guy came along. “To the people who matter, you do not become invisible when you stop trying so hard to look available. I became visible to the one guy I had been looking for, and his proposal three weeks ago rocked my world,” she wrote. And, “I became visible to a community of women who began to have conversations about just how trapped they felt by the beauty ideal because it demands so much expensive upkeep and such a constant stream of internal criticism.”
“More than anything else, I learned how to see my appearance for what it is: a “Lauren Suit,” which does nothing more than provide a necessary exterior for an inner life that will never be available in stores,” she wrote. “Also, you would be amazed at how much money you save not trying to buy the latest Grown-up Suit.”
"If you're looking for ways to boost your self-esteem without relying on makeup and clothing," says Vernicek, "you could always try the Modesty Experiment for one day, or pay attention to how you feel when you look beautiful and search for ways to evoke those feelings on a daily basis."
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