I was certainly wearing pantyhose. It was just that they were wet, and this is what caused the confusion. To the young Hasid passing the yard where I sat, the damp Lycra, transparent in the glinting sun, looked like my nude legs sprawled over the edge of the pop-up pool, bare as a careless whore.
It was a momentary mishap, a misunderstanding, cleared up in less than a day. After all, like every Hasidic woman in the ultra-Orthodox world, I had been wearing pantyhose since I was 6 years old, the age we stop wearing socks. How else would we be modest? How else to ensure that no one saw our legs when we ran, jogged, skipped or walked?
This is the first in a Forward series by Judy Brown, author of ‘Hush.’ The essays will explore Hasidic life and her decision to leave the community.
I never thought about it: not in the warmth, not in the heat, not in the trapping humidity of the August sun. I saw gentiles strolling down the sidewalk, their toes wiggling in their flip-flops, and I didn’t care. I liked my pantyhose, never felt quite dressed without them pulled snugly around my waist.
Things often changed in the years after high school. Long, loose skirts cautiously inched their way up the calves. Shirts became more form fitting, makeup more colorful.
There was a clear framework with boundaries well marked, but still, there was room to play. We tucked T-shirts beneath sleeveless tops, long skirts under perfect mini-dresses. It was really a matter of instinct, a feminine sixth sense well honed over years of practice: where to push, where to pull.
Then there were the things one did not touch: red nail polish, 3-inch C-shaped earrings, gladiator sandals on platforms. And of course, bare legs.
Legs are important. Legs hold up the rest of the body. Most precariously, legs have curves. It was the basics of modesty drilled deep into the neural hemispheres of our brains: Legs must be covered at all times, preferably in opaque beige.
Sheer beige was fine, too. If the temptation got too great, perhaps off-black. But black, navy, brown or any other color was forbidden. Dark pantyhose had once been in style in the world out there — no one could recall the decade or place — and hence, forbidden in here.
High school teachers warned of the spiritual denigration. Shidduchim depended on it. The girl who wore black tights was quickly relegated to class B, the “modern” type. A fine girl, perhaps. Excellent character traits. But with such legwear, it was explained, many an excellent marriage prospect stopped dead in its tracks.
There were those who called it an obsession. One rabbi went so far as to declare that if women would have less yiras garbayaim (“heavenly fear of colored tights”) and more yiras shamayim (“heavenly fear of heaven”), the Messiah would have long been here.
From age 14 to 19, we pined. We wanted to look pretty, to match our dark Shabbos clothes with perfect black tights.
Ultimately, my burning desire for dark pantyhose overwhelmed my fear of God. I was 20 when I tentatively began wearing them, though only the off-est black. A year later, I bought plain black. Finally, triumphantly, I stood in front of my mirror, admiring my curvy legs in the darkest tights with pretty patterns of crisscrossing lines, $11 a pair.
I was, after all, already married, and if I wanted to deteriorate spiritually, that was my choice. I was by then sporting skirts that covered my knees by barely an inch, and shirts that were too fitted. There were raging explosions between me and my then husband over the safety pin that closed my shirt right under the collar bone when it was supposed to be on top. Which is perhaps what made it easier to believe it when the young man passing by the yard declared that he had seen me with bare legs. Like a careless whore.