Growing up as a Muslim Pakistani girl, my parents were pretty strict on me about clothing.
Within my family, it’s both a religious and cultural expectation for women to dress modestly, and this meant I wasn’t allowed to wear sleeveless shirts, shorts, or anything too revealing. As my body filled out, I got a lot of disapproving looks from family members when I wasn’t in traditional clothing – when I was around them, I found myself constantly yanking the bottom of my shirt to cover more of my butt or adjusting my top so that barely any chest was showing. There’s no specific age I can remember that these rules were put on me; they were just my family’s lifestyle, and I grew into it.
I grew more aware of it over the years.
As a kid, I hated this. You can imagine the perplexed looks I would get in middle school on a hot summer day when everyone else was in shorts and tank tops, and I was in jeans and t-shirts.
Or even worse, when everyone changed into gym shorts for PE, and I was the only girl in sweatpants – regardless of how hot it was. Whenever classmates and friends would ask me why I was in jeans or sweats in the summer, I would stumble through the explanation that my religion required me to dress a certain way. I could tell by the looks on their faces that most people didn’t understand – and even felt bad for me.
Soon, I just stopped trying to explain altogether.
Eventually, when I got asked these questions, I brushed it off with a shrug, and the simplest response: “I don’t know.”
Throughout middle school and even high school, I hated the restrictions my parents forced on me. I felt awkward and self-conscious about my clothing because this was just another thing that set me apart from my peers.
I didn’t want to stand out; I wanted to fly under the radar and be just like everyone else. I knew that for me to truly be accepted into a friend group, I had to act, look and speak just like my friends, and I couldn’t do that if I was the-girl-who-didn’t-know-how-to-dress.
No one really understood why I dressed the way I did, and that made me question why I dressed the way I did, too.
Once, a friend even told me, “you’d be so much cuter if you were allowed to wear shorts.”
That particular sentence stuck with me, and for the longest time, made me feel like I was being held back from being the best version of myself. The beliefs my parents had instilled in me since before I could remember were wavering, and I was struggling to find my identity.
Looking back to those years, I remember how much I struggled with my identity; I felt like I couldn’t express my individuality with all of these limits set for me. Ironically, reflecting on those feelings now, I realize that I was never neglected the chance to be myself, I only neglected the chance to be like everybody else.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that I didn’t want to dress in short skirts and spaghetti strapped shirts to feel comfortable.
I only wanted to do those things to avoid being set apart from my friends and peers.
Do I still feel restricted and embarrassed by my beliefs today? Definitely not.
My clothing limits didn’t change, but my mindset did.
Although I followed my parents’ rules about clothing as a kid because I had to, I still dress just as modestly today because I want to. Your parents may force some rules on you as a child, but when you transition into adulthood, the choice to continue living by them is yours; and I came to find that this is a way that I’m comfortable dressing – for me and for my religion.
And if anyone asks about the way I dress today, I have no problem explaining my beliefs to them.
I’ve found my own style that fits what I’m comfortable in, but the best part is that I didn’t compromise my beliefs to “fit in” with everybody else in the end. I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment I began feeling this way, but it isn’t something that happened overnight.
Instead, it took me graduating from high school, going to college, and learning more about myself as a person to realize that the things that set us apart from others are what makes us unique – and this includes our personal beliefs.
Rather than aiming to fit the mold that we see as ideal, it’s so much more fun to break that mold and create something new.