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An incident transpired when Muhammad Ali’s daughters arrived at his home wearing clothes that were quite revealing.

Here is the story as told by one of his daughters: “When we finally arrived, the chauffeur escorted my younger sister, Laila, and me up to my father’s suite. As usual, he was hiding behind the door waiting to scare us. We exchanged many hugs and kisses as we could possibly give in one day.
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.

Ever since I was a baby, I have had eczema. What this means is that I have skin irritation and I’m always itchy. Because I’ve had to endure 21 years of constant scratching and flare ups to the smallest things, you can imagine how many scars, bruises, marks and rashes I now have on my body. It’s all up my legs and arms, back, stomach and neck. It hasn’t been life-changing, but it does mean that I choose not to do or wear things that show off my skin. I don’t swim and have never worn a two-piece bikini. I don’t wear shorts without stockings. I don’t change in front of people. When I wear anything arm revealing, I will get out a full coverage spray tan and cover all my skin marks. And when it comes to shopping, the deciding factors for every piece of clothing I buy is, ‘Will this show too much skin?’ and ‘Can I wear this with stockings?’

Even though I have accepted these choices, that’s not to say I haven’t had struggles with learning to accept my skin. It’s hard not to cringe and be self-defeated when I stand naked in front of a full-length mirror (I think to myself, if I can’t bear to look at my skin, how can other people?). It’s hard to be boiling in summer and not be able to join my friends for a swim, let alone wear a dress or shorts without stockings. It’s hard when I see people react to my skin when I do end up showing it.

I remember when I was in high school, I was sitting in class when a friend of mine dropped her book beside me. When I bent down to pick it up, my jeans lowered a bit to show off my lower back. The two boys sitting behind me started laughing and cringing. It took everything not to start crying and running out of the class in embarrassment. I have also been accused of spreading my ‘scabs’ to other people.

I would be lying if I said that I didn’t used to feel jealous of girls who could show their legs and arms without thinking about it. I used to feel jealous of girls who could sun-tan or go for a night out showing a bit of skin. I used to think that to be beautiful, desireable and sexy was dressing in anything tight, leg-baring and chest-baring. It was so easy for me to fall into a trap of bitterness and discontentment. Why look after my body if I couldn’t celebrate it?

What I didn’t come to realize until very recently was that this journey has not been a curse, but a blessing. It has been humbling and refining: it’s made me realize that I am worth more than what I can wear. It’s made me appreciate that I have been given a body and whether or not I have perfect skin, it still deserves to be honored and cared for because it is a gift from God. Most of all, it’s forced me to rely on my heart to engage people, not my skin-baring dress. Essentially, I was forced to be modest. And that’s where I learned that modesty was never about what you wear. It’s about your heart.

As a feminist, I honestly believe that women can wear whatever they choose to, because if you’re honestly happy and comfortable wearing what you wear, who cares? But I also believe that the motives behind your fashion choices are what makes a modest heart. Are you wearing those clothes to impress someone, or are you wearing them because it expresses who you are and makes you feel beautiful? Your heart really does determine what you put on the outside, and likewise, the clothes you wear reflect your heart.

I’d like to think that God would do that to each of His daughters what Muhammed Ali did to his. And maybe he has done that for me by allowing me to be born with the skin I am in. What I believe he’s saying to me, and to all of us, is that we don’t need to rely on revealing our skin to make us feel validated or worthy. We don’t need to compare ourselves to other women. And we most certainly do not need to think that by doing so makes us more beautiful.
What’s beautiful is when your inner beauty reflects outward to illuminate your physical beauty.
What’s beautiful is when the clothes don’t matter because the woman wearing them is warm, fun and engaging.
And what’s beautiful is a woman who respects her body by respecting her heart.

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First image via With Grace and Guts
Bottom image by me