Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fashion Anti-Lessons from the Polygamists

I've been watching the extremely sad polygamist situation unfold like the rest of the country. While I try not to debate politics or indulge in social commentary in my blog, my sadness is for those children, and no one else. What a logistical nightmare for the state of Texas, but I trust that it had to be pretty bad for them to undertake it.

As a judicious student of the sometimes subtle and sometimes in-your-face language of appearance, I have been reading volumes into what the women's clothing, hair and absence of makeup are saying.

Finally, the media has started picking up on it:
Polygamist wives' clothing looks to past

Polygamists make their own fashion statement

I actually used these women as an example in my presentation last week to a group of women from Eaton Corp. A lot of companies I work with want their employees to dress conservatively, of course. But taken to an extreme, you get the women from this polygamist sect.

Can modern women learn lessons from these women? Yes, we can.

Of course, I think it's safe to say that we would never dress this way. But there are a few valuable "what not to wear" lessons here. Their lifestyle is what makes them different than most Americans, of course, but their unique "look" is what separates us even further.

Perhaps we would feel a little more sympathy toward these mothers who have lost custody of their children if they looked a little more like us. Don't you think?

Let's gain a little more insight into what they're telling us:

Color Messages
While most of us dress to look more attractive, these women are clearly trying to make themselves less so by wearing dull colors and pastels. Colors, of course, are never just colors. The colors we wear carry incredibly strong subconscious psychological messages.

Dull colors (grays and muddy blues) are unflattering on almost everyone. They make us look drab, lackluster, ashen, or even sick.

Pastels, on the other hand, send an overly feminine message that
takes power away from us. And like the dull grays and drab blues,

pastels flatter very few people. Most often, they simply undermine our credibility and the respect we receive from others.

The message for modern women is this:

If you want respect and credibility, trust the "power neutrals" - black, navy, gray and brown. Accent those with shades of white or bright or deep colors, which are generally more flattering to everyone and they have the desired effect - you look more alert, confident and independent when wearing them.

Modesty & Uniformity
There is a reason most of us don't work at jobs that require a uniform. We value our individuality. We celebrate it.

What does it say when you look like every other woman in your community? You become interchangeable with everyone else. You are not allowed an identity of your own. Isn't that just another facet of having no power and no control over one's future and life?

I know a lot of us are bothered by the way women live in the Arab world - covering their bodies and sometimes their faces as well. They are second class citizens and the property of their husbands. Extreme modesty is expected.

Clothing is often an external manifestation of what's happening inside a person. The uniformity in the way the sect members dress, combined with the modesty factor is an outward sign of being under someone else's control and being brainwashed, no matter how much they state they are there of their own free will.

I mean, they stated they pray to the prophet and have his picture hanging all over their compound.
...and the "prophet" is imprisoned polygamist Warren Jeffs!!!! Now that's mind control - and cult behavior.

Hair & Makeup
My business is appearance - making people look more attractive and creating congruence between their appearance, personality, lifestyle and goals. In my whole life, I have never heard of women trying to look unattractive. Women in every corner of the world adorn themselves with jewelry, and many wear makeup, whether it's made from primitive pigments or comes from the department store.

Not that it's wrong to not wear makeup, but as I teach in my seminars, it's a proven fact that women who wear makeup make more money, look more alert and independent.

While this may seem like the "research" of Cover Girl or L'Oreal (at least that's what the skeptic in me said when I first heard the statistics), it was actually from a study done by two economics professors at the University of Wisconsin.

In modern times, we've been locked in a battle of the sexes for years - especially in the workplace. For women, makeup is another vital part of our arsenal for bringing us to the same "level" level with men. Males have a stronger brow line (superorbital ridge) and more pronounced facial features. With women's softer features, we need something to give more power to our face. By wearing makeup, the eyes "pop", the cheekbones are more defined, and the mouth is stronger.

In addition, makeup just makes us feel prettier and more unique and it gives us more confidence. To not take advantage of the benefits of makeup is to surrender some of one's personal power.

So what's up with the bizarre hairdo?

The women of the polygamist sect do not cut or color their hair. They wear it in an old fashioned braided style, going all the way down the back. There is very little variation from woman to woman. This should be no surprise, since we already determined that individuality is the farthest thing from their minds.

The religious reason for the hair is to "wash the feet of Christ at the second coming." I am not commenting about their beliefs - we are all allowed freedom from religious persecution in this country.

My concern is the stripping away of their individuality, taking anything that makes them unique and making them interchangeable with every other woman of their same age and build in the sect. I have to wonder - how many of those children have run up to their mom at least once and started tugging on her skirt, only to realize it was someone who looked just like her?

It's more than a little Stepford Wives-ish.

Lessons for the modern woman?

I see women with long hair all the time. I have nothing against long hair - in fact, mine is getting pretty long too. The issue I have with long hair is when it gets overly long - then it's just hair. It's not doing anything for us. The right hairstyle and color can make us look younger, hotter, thinner (can you believe it?!), and besides clothing, it is the best outward expression of our personality and lifestyle.

Some women have argued with me that long hair is more feminine. But truly, hair doesn't need to flow all the way down the back in order to be attractive and feminine - even sexy.

(Case in point - does anyone think Lindsay Lohan's looooong blonde hair is even remotely attractive? It has gotten to the point of being too long and overpowers her.)

When hair gets too long, the problem is finding something to do with it. Ponytails....braids....

scrunchies....clips....headbands..... they all make life more complicated. The more we have to do, the more work it takes to manage our appearance, the more we are likely to slack off. Admittedly, for me, the first place I will slack off is in the hair department.

For the women of the polygamist sect, their elaborate, old-fashioned hairstyles seem to be a way of dealing with the length of the hair, but also they are a reminder of a lifestyle that is based in the past.

One of the things I tell the women I work with is that their hair will quickly date them. Change your hairstyle - even if it's moving the part or adding bangs or getting a little adventurous with it every twelve months. A woman who has had the same hairstyle for ten or twenty years is telling the world that her ideas, her knowledge base and even her skill set are not updated. And in our fast-moving society and workplace, that can be the kiss of death.

In conclusion....
We probably look at the polygamist women and see nothing that relates to our lives. But if you look deeper, you can see a sad situation for everyone involved. Their appearance is speaking volumes to us about what their lives are like, their mental state, and the level of control they are under.

If we see a graphic visual example like this - of conformity, extreme modesty and excessive plainness - combined with the sad story that is unfolding behind the scenes, we can get a sense of what their everyday lives are like. They live under someone else's control and are forced into unspeakable situations.

Being a modern woman is about being yourself, being unique, having confidence and self-esteem. It's about being able to speak your mind and create a strong vision for where you want to go in your life. It's not about us being a bunch of feminists - it's just a basic human right we all have.

Perhaps if we saw some those qualities reflected in the sect women, we might have a little more sympathy for their plight.

What is the saddest thing I've seen in the coverage of this situation?

When one of the young mothers showed her little daughter's closet which was filled with smaller versions of the puffy-sleeved dresses the mothers wear. To me, it was an undeniable symbol of the systematic control over and abuse of these women.

Sad. Best of luck to the state of Texas for doing something about this and having the best interests of the children at heart.


Mary B. said...

Very insightful. I've never thought of it like that before.

Mel said...

So, for somebody that changes their hairstyle every 3-4 months, what exactly does that say about me? :-)


Anonymous said...

I've been watching this too and it's so sad and youre right, I might sympathize more if their look was more relevant to the rest of the world. The pink and lavender outfits look especially wacky.