Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes: Keeping Up with Covering Up
In Vietnam, shoulders are not for ladies. In Cambodia, knees must be covered to enter the temples. In Malaysia it’s the head that offends in mosques. And in Singapore, closed-toe shoes signify you’re one to be taken seriously. Ladies, am I the only one confused by what parts to keep under wraps?
Back home in the USA the only real dress code for women (men, too) is No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. But as I meet and greet new places I am introduced to their foreign fashion expectations. Before I go too far, let me just say, I’m the guest in all this, not there to judge and burn my bra. These are not my rules, but it’s also not my turf. If it’s a head scarf you want, it’s a head scarf you’ll get.
That said, I get confused easily. At the Singaporean-based elementary school where I work in Vietnam it’s not uncommon to see teachers in 5 inch heels and 4 inch skirts. Sheer blouses with black bras underneath are all the rage for Parent-Teacher conferences. But those shoulders had best be tucked away. My original ID photo was rejected and declared Obscene, even though I was wearing the dress I used to teach Kindergarten in when I lived in Costa Rica. Suddenly my flowered, tea-length dress that old women wear in England had become stripper material. The offender: straps. Dear me, not even a capped sleeve to be had!
On my visit to Cambodia knobby knees proved to be points of contention. Here, my shoulders were free to bathe nakedly in their slutty glory. But my knees brought horror with each bend. Thankfully my trusty travel scarf was there to save me again from my red light ways. My scarf has been everything from a travel blanket to impromptu head covering when I suddenly find myself on the verge of an uncomfortable situation. It is skirt/scarf/warp and beach sarong all in one. Ladies, I highly suggest you get one to cover up any parts deemed unsightly.
In Singapore covered toes show you’re serious, while in Thailand you are required to take your shoes off to enter most buildings. In Langkawi, Malaysia women in full body covering swim next to girls in string bikinis. In North America hats should be worn in church, but not in school.
Where do these body part taboos come from? The whole world seems to agree that a certain level of modesty in women – and men- is good, but who decides what offends?
Traveling transforms these abstract questions into real life wardrobe decisions. You’re suddenly in breach of a social contract you didn’t know existed. As women traveling to new places, how responsible are we to follow local customs? Where should we draw the line between being ourselves and being disrespectful? These are questions for us to answer before violating someone else’s sense of propriety.
Head, shoulders, knees and toes is no longer just a kids’ game.