I’ve written about tzniut (modesty) before. While I don’t plan to revisit any of the particular points I made in that post here, I will say that Mother in Israel’s treatment of a tzniut meme got me thinking about the issue from a slightly different angle.
I spent some time before I was married learning about how frum women are expected to dress. I observed women I was learning from in Jerusalem, other students, and women on the street. I saw that the long skirts (below knee, sometimes to ankle), long sleeves (three-quarter sleeves to wrist length) and hair coverings (berets, scarves, hats, wigs) had a certain amount of variation and even style, of a kind. I did not join my fellow seminary students in dreaming of the day I got married so I could wear a wig, but I was willing to acquire a new awareness about dress code all the same.
I have always been a modest dresser. When I was a girl, my brother used to like to make fun of how dowdy and matronly I looked. In high school I was horrified to see people walking around in clingy sweatpants. Despite being slim, I tended toward loose, often oversized clothing well into adulthood. Jeans, turtlenecks, and wool sweaters were my winter uniform; summer meant X-large tee shirts and long shorts or cropped pants. (It was comforting to me to hear from my rav in seminary that for women who live in the Great White North and risk freezing to death by wearing skirts instead of pants, that women’s pants are acceptable.)
But as with hair covering, I think people go nuts over modest apparel for women. The idea that women should hide the fact that they have two legs (bifurcation) by wearing long or confining skirts is ridiculous. (Talk about putting women on a physiological pedestal!) And those who believe that dressing modestly will earn them more respectful treatment by men are fooling themselves. I have known and heard from women who, no matter how frumly they dressed, have been harassed by men (usually religious ones). Loud-mouthed anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly claims that virtuous women are never raped. The claim that modestly dressed women are never grabbed, leered at, or insulted is just as untrue.
Because it’s such a hot-button topic in the Orthodox world, especially in Israel, I think about tzniut a lot, but don’t really do much about it. On a rare occasion, I’ll cover my hair, but mostly not. On a rare occasion, I’ll wear jeans or shorts. But mostly not. I am comfortable around people no matter how they dress. If they’re one of the Burka Babes and wearing ten skirts, I feel sorry for them, as well as for the Tel Aviv hotties who walk around with their shirts so cropped you can see the bottom of their breasts. Such women have a pretty poor sense of moderation (not to mention taste).
At the end of the day, I like to feel free to choose what I wear, and I object to being held responsible for men’s obsession with sex. Some men, no matter how I dress, are either going to stare at me or look at the sidewalk when they pass me on the street. Here are my three main arguments against feeling forced to dress in a certain way:
1) Let men fantasize about me (and other women) all they want. I believe firmly that freedom of thought must exist. If they want to waste their time in this way, I cannot stop them. Besides, if they are rude or obnoxious I want to feel free to imagine their heads on spikes.
2) Nothing I do will change the way they think about me. Most haredi men’s knowledge of women, after a lifetime of single-sex schooling, is limited to 1) their mothers, 2) their sisters, and 3) potential sexual partners. I’m not responsible for this. Besides, I’m always reminded of the conversation in the diner near the beginning of “When Harry Met Sally” when Harry claims that no man can be friends with a good-looking woman since he sees her as a potential sex partner. Thinking she has the upper hand in the argument at last, Sally says, “So you think a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?” To which Harry responds, “No, you pretty much want to nail them too.”
3) If we accept arguments 1 and 2, I might as well wear what I want.
Lots of religious Jews are running around thinking that the way to bring the Mashiach is to make women dress in more layers. I think the way to bring the Mashiach is to take to heart the words of the prophets in the Tanach and pursue justice in the world. It’s to feed the hungry, unchain agunot, do business honestly, cure the sick, and help as many people to a livelihood as possible. (The nevi’im never discuss women’s clothing.)
Call me immodest, call me a lousy Jew, but don’t ever say I don’t know what the prophets REALLY wanted.