Head Covering and Mental Health

A bright and happy hijab.

I started covering my hair way back in 2013, and posted about my reasons when I started. Since then I’ve gone from covering full-time to covering sporadically to going right back to covering full-time again.

Through those changes and over that time my initial covering reasons (piety, modesty, and feminism) haven’t substantially changed. Something I didn’t know when I started, though, is how beneficial covering would turn out to be for my mental health*. It’s been quite the experience!

I’ve seen improvement in these three key areas:

  1. Self-Esteem and Self-Care
  2. Emotional Vulnerability and Boundaries
  3. Social Anxiety and Depression Management

So let’s talk about those.

Self-Esteem and Self-Care

Saying that I had low self-esteem in the past would be misleading. I know what I’m good at, where I shine, and playing to my strengths is second nature. I’ve never had a problem accepting that I’m an awesome person with a lot to offer the world.

However, my appearance has never factored into that. Almost all of the attention I’ve ever received for it, positive and negative, in some way circles back to ideas of sexual objectification. I’m either someone bangable or someone not bangable, and being assessed like that before someone even knows my name is profoundly uncomfortable and unsettling. Even worse, those judgments are based on an aspect of self I don’t enjoy, don’t value, and have minimal control over. I’m just not down with that.

Thing is, though, rejecting that whole concept resulted in me rejecting my body. I dealt with it when necessary and categorically ignored it when not. For most of my life I’ve felt more like a brain in an ambulatory jar than anything else, and who devotes a lot of time or attention to caring for a jar? I’ve done the bare minimum required to keep my body mostly functional and never really gone beyond that.

Until I started covering. Covering my head has helped me reconnect to my body.

My head coverings are beautiful. They’re also perhaps the only part of my appearance that has zilch to do with sex. In fact, covering my head often seems to remove me from objectification-based assessments entirely. Every day is a new chance to be artistic with scarves I’ve chosen and techniques I’ve practiced, and when people see me in the streets it’s the results of my creativity that elicit commentary.

A beautiful double braid tichel-style wrap from Wrapunzel.

A beautiful double braid tichel-style wrap from Wrapunzel.

I’m more inclined to properly care for my body when it’s not attracting unwanted attention. Maybe it’s a bit backwards, but covering makes me feel more like my body is mine as opposed to some kind of public commodity I’m obligated to keep in top form for someone else’s enjoyment. Since I started covering I’ve found myself naturally focusing more on what makes my body feel good. As a result I’m drinking more water and eating better. I’ve actually developed a skin care regimen and work on getting enough sleep. I’m even slowly but surely working towards physical fitness goals.

I don’t know that any of that would ever have become a thing for me without covering.

Emotional Vulnerability and Boundaries

Being vulnerable around others is something with which I’ve struggled. All too often in my own head “vulnerability” equated to “weakness”, and being weak led to being hurt. Not exactly encouragement to do it, you know?

Covering seems to provide a psychological layer of protection, a kind of buffering. I think it’s maybe even spiritual, since I focus on my Lady and Her goals for me when I wrap. Regardless of the reason, covering my head helps me open my heart.

It’s easier to talk about my hopes and dreams when I cover. My fears and inadequacies are easier to share too. It’s like I’m wearing a hug, like I’m supported and loved no matter what, and I can be more open because I’m less defensive.

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A bright and happy hijab.

For me, being less defensive also results in my being more assertive. I know it’s not that way for most people, but in my life safety and security have been assured more by meekly going along than by bucking the system. Whatever that system might happen to be.

Covering is like a physical boundary I maintain every day, and it weirdly serves as a reminder for me to maintain my other boundaries too.

Anxiety and Depression Management

I covered full-time from the tail end of 2013 until about mid-2015. By that time my year of covering had ended and I started tapering off a bit. I left the house uncovered more and more often, until eventually I rarely covered at all.

The tapering off of the covering coincided with a deepening depression. I can’t say if the depression contributed to not covering or if not covering contributed to the depression, but they do seem to have been related.

Depression has always been something I’ve had to manage. For the most part I’ve succeeded remarkably well. However, it has always marched hand-in-hand with social anxiety. By mid-2016 my depression was deeper than I can ever recall it being, and my anxiety started spiking so badly that I essentially became agoraphobic. I started having health issues and migraines around this time too, which did not help. I was about as low as I could get.

A white wimple and veil.

A wimple and veil. In many ways they kind of look like flowy hijabs. They’re just made differently. While traditionally they’re white linen, I’ve been experimenting with other colors and fabrics.

I lit a candle and begged my Lady to help me. I didn’t know what else to do. About two weeks later I found myself reaching for my coverings again. I found that when I covered things got… easier. I wasn’t as overwhelmed in social spaces. My migraines became less frequent. I anchored some shields on my volumizer (the poofy thing worn under scarves to give them shape) and that helped too. The more I covered the better I felt, the fewer my symptoms, the higher my energy level. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I’m not going to sit here and say that covering cured my depression. That would be an incredibly simplistic statement for a complicated issue, and it’s not like covering was the only approach I took. Besides, it’s not like I’m cured anyway – I still have good days and bad days, the same as anyone struggling through. But I will say that I personally find covering to be an incredibly useful way to help manage my depression and anxiety symptoms. I checked with other ladies who cover and a few of them reported the same type of thing, so it’s not isolated to just me, either.

Moving Forward

As of now I’m back to covering full-time. I usually find hijab styles more comforting than tichel styles because they cover my neck, and I switch between them depending on exactly how much comforting I need on a given day. I’ve lately started experimenting with wimples and veils, too, and find that those styles make me feel more connected to my ancestors.

I currently live in Ohio, and at least in my area there is a sizable Muslim population. My covers don’t really stand out here, and I don’t feel alone either. That changes when I leave the area, though. Covered women are often targeted these days, and it’s something I have to consider before traveling elsewhere in the US (*cough* Texas *cough*) or interacting with a new group of people.

My covering is still an act of piety, one that brings me joy and reverence. It’s still a symbol of modesty, too, and it’s changed my entire relationship to myself and the world. It’s still very much a feminist statement for me, and since November it’s become a political statement too. Add in the mental health benefits and covering is a part of my life that is here to stay.

Covering is not a very common practice in Pagan and polytheistic circles, although I do think it’s growing. Because of that, it can be baffling for folks encountering it in our communities. I hope that my open sharing can inspire some conversations. Covering has become a fundamental part of my polytheism. Maybe it can help others, too.

 

*Note: This whole post is about MY mental health and how covering affects it. No one else’s. I am in no way saying that covering is the best/final/only method of managing mental health issues. It works for me in the way I’ve stated. If your mental health is a concern, please do whatever works best for you and seek the help of a mental health professional if needed. 

World Hijab Day and the Rebirth of Spring

This past weekend was Imbolc/Candlemas/Exploration, so if you celebrated any of those I wish you the happiest of seasons!

But lots of people have been posting specifically about that. I wanted to talk about something else celebrated over the weekend: World Hijab Day.

World Hijab Day is fairly new, and the idea is simple. Women of all faiths are encouraged to wear the Muslim hijab for one day, just to see what it’s like both on a personal and a social level. Participants take a stand and confront racial and faith-based discrimination in their day-to-day lives. I made a point of participating.

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Me, running errands on World Hijab Day.

I didn’t choose to participate because I too now cover my hair. It’s because I remember the aftermath of 9/11, when random Muslim women were getting assaulted in the streets for being “terrorists”. A bunch of ladies I knew got together in the South and wore hijabs in solidarity with those women around that time, because Muslim or Pagan or Christian no one deserves to get hassled because of the god they choose to follow. This is simply an extension of that.

It’s because I remember flying home from Houston on Christmas Day a few weeks ago, new to covering my hair but instinctively knowing I’d get more hassle from the TSA if I wore a headscarf than if I wore a beret. I can choose to cover my hair in other ways, unlike most who wear the hijab. That was my first personal encounter with this kind of privilege and it left me distinctly unsettled. I went with a beret for my flight to avoid potential headaches, and have been kicking my own ass for making such a cowardly choice since. Participating in World Hijab Day, occasionally wearing a hijab simply because they’re beautiful, and wearing one next time I fly are all ways to redeem that.

It’s because of the backlash against the Coca Cola ad aired during the Super Bowl, an ad that dared to suggest America is made up of people from a multitude of races and cultures and languages. Seeing the responses made it clear how far a society founded on the ideals of justice and equality still has to go to reach them.

It’s because I’m personally tired of seeing the idea of “real America” – the country that accepts the tired and poor from everywhere else and gives them a chance to work for something better – be co-opted by racist, intolerant, belligerent, ignorant bigots who try to limit access to the American Dream to those who are just like themselves.

And it’s because I’m a polytheist and thus have no choice, none at all. How can I honor the multitudes of gods if I limit my respect to only those cultures I admire? How can I honor the Ancestors if I limit my respect to only Those who speak my language and share my faith? How can I honor the Land Spirits if I limit my respect to only the pieces inhabited by people who agree with me?

*shrug* I can’t. We’re a pluralistic, multicultural, multilingual, multinational faith by default. We have to deliberately choose to be bigots if we do it at all.

Polytheists, and Pagans and Reconstructionists too, are also a minority faith. By stepping up to support religious freedom in general we support it for ourselves, and hopefully form alliances with others that will help support us in turn.

I wore a hijab on World Hijab Day, and I’m wearing one at work today. I wear it in support of Muslim women (and anyone else who is marginalized along faith/culture/language/ethnic/nation lines), as an expression of political and social activism, and as a service to my faith.

What a fitting tribute to the beginning of spring! May everyone be truly blessed.

Piety, Modesty, and Covering My Hair – A Perspective

In addition to all of its energetic connotations, Origination (Dec. 12) is the day devoted specifically to my Lady. Traditionally it’s when She officially tells me the changes She wants me to make in my life over the coming year. Some changes have been permanent and some temporary, but all of them have profoundly changed my relationship with Her, myself, and the world.

Because many of these these things require some kind of prep work (and because I need processing time) I tend to find out what they are a few days/weeks in advance. I get some sort of communication about whatever it is so I can prep, She gives me more detail on the 12th, and I have until Yule to settle it all in my head and finalize preparations. Yule is the official kick-off date, and then it’s game on.

This year? She wants me to start covering my hair.

It seems so simple. However, Her requests usually hit a ton of buttons for me, buttons I never knew I had. This does too. And as usual it’s not the action but the meanings behind it that require me to dig deep and explore things with new eyes.

Modesty

Females covering their hair are all over the ancient world, and the practice is currently alive and well. Muslim women wear the hijab, Hindu women wear the dupatta, married Jewish women wear the tichel, etc.

Head Coverings Worn in Different Faiths

Head Coverings Worn in Different Faiths

To this day it is still the most outwardly visible sign of modesty in many cultures. So when my Lady told me to start covering my hair I wondered if this was an indication that She wanted me to be more modest too.

Modesty is usually defined as dressing and behaving in a way that does not inspire or encourage sexual desire in others. In a broader sense, modesty also refers to behaving with humility and living simply. Considering the work She’s had me doing with humility and simplicity, dressing and behaving in a more reserved way goes with everything else. It’s been something I’ve personally been edging towards anyway. Much to my surprise.

I’m very much a feminist. I’m comfortable with my sexuality, enjoy exploring it, and have no problem expressing it. Modest dress – from the plain clothes of the Amish to the full burqa found in some Islamic countries – all too often spoke to me of repression, oppression, and subjugation. I linked it to the ideas that men could not be trusted to control themselves, that a man controlled a woman’s sexuality, and that a woman’s value begins and ends with her being a sexual object. Since all of that is absolutely wrong I dismissed the value of modest dress pretty early on.

However, I like controlling the expression of my sexuality as much as the expression itself. My sex life is mine to experience, mine to share as I choose. If I want to be naked with someone and share something sacred with them – and yes, a one night stand can be sacred – that’s my choice to make. And if I want to say “no” and not share my sexuality with others, that’s mine too. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that modest dressing helps with that.

When I was younger, and much less sure of myself, I saw being sexually objectified as a plus. It boosted my confidence. I didn’t realize at the time how much I had internalized the idea of a woman’s worth being solely based on her attractiveness, and attractiveness being based solely on perceived sexual availability. When I started to “come of age” (around 19, for me) I started wearing more makeup and strategically placed jewelry, lowering my neckline, and raising my hemline. Every time I was catcalled or groped in passing on the bus was a compliment. After all, weren’t these random strangers showing me I had worth?

Then my Lady stepped in. Over time, with Her guidance, my self-esteem grew – and my discomfort with being sexually objectified grew right along with it. Now, the catcalls and gropes and people undressing me with their eyes have become offensive. They are attempts to rob me of my agency, to take my sexuality away from me and again make it the community property I once thought it was. Modest dressing has become a feminist move on my part, a way to claim my sexuality for myself and remove it from the public sphere. With the decrease in overt objectification coming my way I feel better about myself and my place in the world. Covering my hair as a part of this didn’t occur to me, however – it’s not part of my cultural tradition.

While all of this has been an outgrowth of my experiences with my Lady, it’s all been personally driven. The idea that this same reasoning would be what She used to come up with the “cover my hair” requirement was strange, because the only time She has ever expressed any interest in my sexuality is when I lost moderation with it. So I meditated on it and asked Her about it. The answer? It’s not about modesty, it’s about piety.

Piety

Modesty is often seen as an indicator of piety, but they’re not the same thing. Modesty is about behavior and appearance. Piety is about the depth of spiritual devotion. For faiths that require it, demonstrating modesty can be a visual sign of devotion. Pagans and polytheists don’t really have a living tradition advocating modesty, though. We hear a lot more encouragement for being skyclad than we do for covering up.

Again, this confused me a bit. From what I was getting (and it can certainly be garbled, so I’m all about the double checking!), She wants me to cover my hair at all times except for a) when I’m alone, and b) when I’m specifically with Her, whether other people are present or not (i.e., ritual space or devotions). This is not the way covering is normally done.

Lots of people cover their heads only while praying. It shows respect to the Powers, and can symbolize submission to a deity. A head covering is also “above” you, symbolizing that a deity is above you too. More faiths have women cover their heads during prayer than men – one source I found states that women being veiled while men are not is a way of signifying man’s sovereignty over women.

What She wanted seemed kind of backwards from what I was reading.

However, while I was researching the tichel I read that one reason women do it is to save something special for their husbands. It allows their husbands to see them in a way no one else can. Only a woman’s husband can see her naked, because her sexuality is exclusively his to enjoy – and that includes her hair.

Now THAT I can relate to piety.

For someone who serves their gods as I do there is no relationship that tops it. I often describe myself as being in a poly relationship with Arianrhod as my primary. She is my first and foremost concern, my number one priority. So yeah, I can totally see how keeping something of my physical self just for Her works. Only She gets all of me, and this is a highly visible way to show that. It shows that I respect and honor Her above all others. And since I’m showing that at all times, it makes everything I do an act of devotion.

As far as uncovering in Her presence goes… well. If there is ANYONE I can be naked in front of, completely exposed and totally raw, it’s Her. I have no defense from Her gaze, and when She is present there is nowhere to hide. A part of Her is with me always, but having Her direct regard? She sees everything. Why bother to cover anything in Her presence? Uncovering my hair for ritual, when I’m specifically focused on and honoring Her already, then becomes an act of offering, giving Her everything I am and showing my openness to Her sight.

Pretty amazing return for wearing a scarf on my head.