My knees have become a symbol of my cultural dislocation. Gone are the days when I used to toss on shorts and a t-shirt before heading out to do my errands in the steamy streets of summer-time Manhattan. Now, after six years of living in the Middle East, seeing my knees in public makes me feel under-dressed. I’ve become a wearer of capris, of long skirts, of light-weight trousers, even in the steamiest of weather.
For a woman like me, who has dependably skinny legs and nice ankles, my Middle Eastern life means no more going out at night in big shirt over a short skirt, a look I liked because I told myself that the big shirt disguised my waistline while the skirt showed off my legs. In retrospect, I think that more often than not I looked like a potato on toothpicks, so perhaps Abu Dhabi has saved me from this lifelong fashion faux pas.
When I moved with my family to Abu Dhabi, I knew that living in a non-western culture would have an impact on us in many different ways, from politics to language and food. But our annual summer trip to New York has offered me an unexpected cultural adjustment: skin. I can’t believe how much skin is on casual display on Manhattan sidewalks.
I find myself wondering how on earth anyone could leave the house wearing so few clothes: shorts cut to resemble knickers; shirts unbuttoned down to the navel, skirts slit almost to the point of full disclosure. It being New York, of course, these scanty fashions (barely) adorn the bodies of both men and women.
Now, I’m a big fan of loving the body you’re in, and I think people of any size should dress however they’d like, but do I really need to see your bits-and-parts in such intimate detail while I’m sitting with my kids eating ice cream in the park? Is your side-boob tattoo something I want to study while I’m pressed next to you on the subway? And dear sir, I’m delighted that you’re comfortable with the pelt on your shoulders and back, but please keep your shirt on as you pedal around on your Citi-bike. Consider it a safety issue for all involved.
When I told a friend I was having modesty problems—or rather, problems with people’s general lack of modesty—and that it was a sign of how deeply I’d adapted to Abu Dhabi, she had an alternate interpretation: “You know,” she said, “maybe you’re just getting old. You sound a bit like my granny, complaining about ‘the kids these days’.”
Is that it? It’s not that I’ve become a sophisticated cosmopolitan but am instead a crotchety old lady whining about “the youth?”
Does that mean that I’ve unwittingly adapted to Middle Age at the same time as I’m adapting to the Middle East? I’m happy to be at home in the former, but I’d rather not sink spongily into the latter. I’m at something of an impasse, I think: to be at home in the Emirates, I need to cover my knees but to resist being at home in Middle Age, I need a miniskirt.
Maybe the solution is tank-top and short shorts…worn under an abaya.