In the area of East London where I live, posters in shop windows or bus shelters are sometimes daubed with paint. This occurs when the advertisement reveals rather more of a woman’s person than is deemed appropriate by the painter. Not so long ago the ‘be stupid’ Diesel ads, featuring a woman flashing her breasts, back to the camera, received this treatment. I was full of glee, since I found this particular campaign offensive on so many levels anyway.
There is a new development in this modesty-imposition: a graffiti artist is painting hijabs over similarly under-dressed female forms. Again, I found this funny and quite clever, and not unreasonable given that ad placement in London is often completely insensitive to the communities that live in certain areas.
Then an unpleasant implication occurred to me. In London, so many people with different values and cultural or religious norms live alongside one another, mostly apparently tolerant of different ways of life. But if those adverts offend some people around me so much that they are prepared to go painting in the middle of the night, are the same people also offended by my uncovered head? What about bare shoulders and legs in the summer? It’s possible, even likely.
Beyond that, there are rules of behaviour in various cultural groups that are totally opaque to me. Might some people be offended by my lack of acknowledgement when we pass on the street, or would eye contact be seen as brazen? Should I be greeting the permanent group of men outside the coffee shop beneath my flat with ‘salam alaikum’ when I pass them each day, or would I be crossing a whole set of boundaries in doing so?
I feel I ought to know the answer to this, having passed them almost daily for four years. It is a lack in me that I still puzzle over this.
Going over this ground yet again, a friend advised, “Just impose your style.” On the one hand it grates with me that I don’t do this. Isn’t it the case that in London, of all cities, anything goes?
On the other hand there is a balance to strike, at least for a person who tries to be generally polite. I don’t want to offend anyone when it costs me nothing to avoid doing this.
Sometimes, though, I think there might be a small cost in the sacrifice of some self-expression, or whatever it is I would somehow gain by ‘imposing my style.’ But given that I can quantify neither this abstract loss nor the potential good or harm done by conforming to or defying the expectations to others, I can’t make a well-informed choice.
Then I thought, perhaps I dress conservatively on my local shopping trips because I have absorbed some of the values that are around me, specifically about how women ought to dress and behave, without either understanding them or agreeing with them.
This theory is based on assumptions about other people, but I feel I can’t just set these norms aside, precisely because I don’t have sufficient insight into their provenance. If I did understand what drives them, I might even think they are justified. In the meantime I respond to them just in case they are justified, not really knowing. I may be sacrificing self-expression for nothing.
While I ponder the assumptions that modify my own behaviour, I’ll still be smiling again next time a mid-riff is white-washed in Walthamstow. I’m glad to see people expressing their rejection of these images, and after all, the midnight painters are unwittingly doing Western atheist women like me a service by defacing images we find offensive for a completely different set of reasons.