Deciphering Lady Gaga’s meat dress

Insert any number of kosher jokes here.

Still, the question remains: what exactly was Lady Gaga trying to say by donning a dress made of meat at the MTV Video Music Awards last night?

The blogosphere has since erupted in explications: Was she commenting on factory farming? Insulting vegetarians? Presenting a cheaper alternative to fur?

According to the Washington Post, Gaga told Ellen DeGeneres in a taped interview that will air today, that, “It is certainly no disrespect to anyone that is vegan or vegetarian. As you know, I am the most judgment-free human being on the earth. However, it has many interpretations, but for me this evening … If we don’t stand up for what we believe in and if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones.”

I bring this up because I am in the middle of a profile on Muslim-American scholar Najeeba Syeed-Miller and one of the things we discussed upon meeting last week, was—surprise, surprise—fashion. Syeed-Miller is an elegant woman for whom dress is an outward emblem of identity. In other words, she wears a hijab (hair covering) as an expression of her faith. But her getup is hardly conservative—on the contrary, it is striking. On two occasions I’ve seen her wear brightly colored scarves, glittery jewels and beautifully embroidered clothes. Fashion appears as much a part of her self-expression as her religious identity.

“The way that I dress is a manifestation of being American; there is a religious component to wearing a scarf, but the way it manifests itself for me is partly a cultural context,” she said during an interview last week.

For women who want to be taken seriously, dressing fashionably can be a double-edged sword. If a woman draws attention to her exterior, the thinking goes, she must be compensating for a paucity of interior gifts; she’s probably not smart or talented or skillful. 

“You can still wear heels and be supportive of women’s issues because it’s about choice,” Syeed-Miller said.  “It’s not easy because when do you get to the point where you’re judged by it? But I also feel like completely denying women any choice in their dress also takes away something that is innate.”

For women of different backgrounds, she explained, fashion can be a bridge between cultures.

“In cross cultural conversations, fashion will come up for women and they will connect over that,” she said.

Still, as Gloria Steinem pointed out last March, the problem is that even in a post-feminist world, women are valued based on their appearance before they are considered for their skills.

“Do I think about how I get dressed? Yeah,” Syeed-Miller said. But she also agrees with Steinem: “I feel like there’s so much concentration on womens’ dress both internally and externally to the extent that it takes away from discussion about real issues around women.”

That’s where we could learn from Lady Gaga, whose style of dress often is the issue.