Hey kids, this Throw Back Thursday column originally ran in January of 2013.
“If memory serves me correctly, I was wearing a little white tank top and a short black skirt. I had been raised Orthodox Muslim, so I had never before worn such revealing clothing while in my father’s presence. … My father took a good look at us. Then, he sat me down on his lap and said something that I will never forget. He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Hana, everything that God made valuable in the world is covered and hard to get to. Where do you find diamonds? Deep down in the ground, covered and protected. Where do you find pearls? Deep down at the bottom of the ocean, covered up and protected in a beautiful shell. Where do you find gold? Way down in the mine, covered over with layers and layers of rock. You’ve got to work hard to get to them.” He looked at me with serious eyes. “Your body is sacred. You’re far more precious than diamonds and pearls, and you should be covered too.”– Hana Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali
This story was shared online, along with a picture of Ali and his daughters, by a good friend of mine who is about to have a daughter of his own. Soon enough, his heart is going to be out, walking around in the world. So he felt inspired by the message of loving protection.
I, of course, spazzed.
My first thought was: wow, what a crap analogy! For one thing, tons of valuable natural resources aren’t hard to get. You can find trees and water pretty much everywhere. And pearls really don’t have any innate value: they don’t DO anything. They’re only valuable because we decided that they’re pretty and we’re willing to assign monetary value to that pretty. The fact they’re hard to get to is not what makes them expensive, it’s the fact they’re rare.
So suck on that, Muhammad Ali.
Obviously, he was simply chiding his daughters to dress modestly. The mere fact they had had to have this conversation would be considered shameful to some. And I take great umbrage at this notion and the general idea that we prepare our daughters for the world by telling them to keep their parts covered.
Inextricable to this conversation is the fact that Ali is Muslim. And his first marriage broke up because his wife wasn’t down with his strict rules on female codes of dress. I assume his subsequent three wives were more on board. In any event, the cultural practices around dress for this group are way outside my purview. Let Muslim women who know what they’re talking about discuss that matter.
But I am more than qualified to talk about being a girl in America and having a billionty thousanty messages about what to wear shouted into my face since childhood. More than the ubiquities of advertising that insisted I needed a particular brand of Sexy but Not Slutty, there were the peers and adults who had opinions on the outfits of every female who dared walk the Earth.
Did people tell me to pick comfortable clothes that would be practical to what I was doing that day? Sometimes. (Thanks, Mom.)
Did people tell me to pick outfits based on what is flattering to my actual body proportions and not the capricious whims of the fashion industry? Not so much.
Did people tell me not to waste money so that my tag (or science forbid, my actual shirt) said some asshole’s name on it? Rarely.
Now that information would have been fucking helpful.
Instead, I heard all about how black supposedly clashes with brown, you can’t wear white after Labor Day and those shorts are too short. And girls with big tits have to wear high necklines so they don’t look like whores. And if your underwear is visible at any point, even just a bra strap, you’re basically auditioning for a cameo in a gang bang.
I heard about how females had to draw all the lines and remove all temptation. I heard about how females needed to fight, ceaselessly, to protect their virtue and maintain the mystery of their bodies. I heard this is because males really had no say in the matter, they’re basically like wild jackals: you can’t expect anything of them. But they’re better at math than you.
Luckily, I learned that was bullshit anyway. Both males and females are innately valuable because they’re living beings. And the respect we grant people is based on what they accomplish and how they treat others, not on whether or not you’ve seen their belly button.
And I hope that you all have learned that by now too… and will tell your daughters and sons that they are precious and sacred, but not because of what they’re wearing.