I have very fair skin. The only prospect of a tan is if my freckles meet. Sun, for me, means SPF50, long sleeves, shade – and either a sunhat or a scarf.
For those of you who don’t have to undertake sun protection on this scale, there are two problems with sunhats: carrying them around and keeping them on your head. The first sunhat I remember losing to a gust of wind was in Tennessee at the age of nine; it landed in the middle of a cotton field, leaving the elastic strap under my chin. I’ve chased hats across beaches, down streets and along country lanes. And those are the ones I didn’t leave in a café or in a friend’s car after carrying it around, waiting for the brief blast of sunshine when it would be needed.
Which is why I favour a scarf. It can be tucked in a bag, slung round the neck and brought into service without fuss and kerfuffle. But recently, I’ve noticed that the scarf is attracting too much attention.
The thing about a scarf is that it, too, has to stay put, while avoiding the Queen-out-riding look of a scarf knotted under the chin. I suppose I’m aiming for chic-in-the-south-of-France, with the scarf wrapped round my head and very large sunglasses. (The less said about the success of these intentions the better, but you get the idea.)
But a woman with a scarf wrapped round her head – even a crinkly-cotton blue-and-white-striped job – now has overtones of a hijab. The long sleeves, to cover up fry-able skin, probably contribute to the impression.
In Washington, DC last year, I went into a smart restaurant on a sunny day to book a table for lunch. I had my trusty blue-and-white scarf wrapped round my head and was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. There was a sharp intake of breath from the woman at the desk when I walked in and a bit of dithering before the table was booked for an hour or so later. I didn’t think too much of it until I went back, having changed – and abandoned the scarf. The woman on the desk welcomed me into the restaurant, chatted away and then stopped when I said that I’d been in an hour earlier and had booked a table. “The scarf,” she said. “It’s you?” I nodded and clipped the English accent to a point where it would cut glass. The service was fabulous, but I wonder what it would have been like – and which table I would have been given – if I’d gone back with the scarf wrapped round my head.
It’s not the only time this has happened, in the UK and in other countries. It’s made me realise the attention and prejudice that women wearing the hijab attract. And how easy it can be to judge by appearances.