Modesty Is Not Just About Hemlines — or Sex

For my first post here on The Sisterhood I’m picking up on Debra Nusssbaum Cohen’s invitation to talk about modesty. While Cohen focuses her discussion on modest dress, she got me to thinking about a modesty phenomenon that has little to do with attire: the women-only performance scene that’s been growing in certain Orthodox circles.

It started with open mics in Israel and then in the New York area, events open to female performers and audience members only. And it’s continued with a performing arts troupe, a performing arts conservatory, a song and dance competition and even a feature film made exclusively for a female audience and featuring an all-female cast. Now the secular media is even paying attention, with a recent AP article about Ashira, an Israeli rock band whose members are all Orthodox women who play only in front of women. Even their new album, AP reports, “will include a warning label against men opening the disc.”

These female-only venues allow performers to strut their stuff without violating religious principles of modesty, such as kol isha, which forbid a woman singing, (or dancing, or in some circles even acting) for fear that men in the audience might be aroused.

But why must modesty always be about arousal? What about the more basic definition of the word, “freedom from vanity, boastfulness” (according to dictionary.com), which has nothing to do with sex or gender? That concept of modesty is one that gets little play in our culture, which stresses ambition, distinguishing oneself from the crowd and “selling oneself” to get ahead.

By this more basic definition, what the women of Ashira or these other for-women-only performers are doing is not modest. The very act of singing in front of any audience, men or women, getting up on stage and saying, “look at me,” is inherently immodest.

Even when it comes to how we dress, is wearing a revealing bikini in front of a man inherently any less modest than wearing one in front of a woman? A willingness to show cleavage is still a willingness to show cleavage, regardless of who’s seeing it.

(Or in a slightly different vein, just think of the communal dressing room at Loehmann’s: there are those women who could seemingly languish there in a state of half-dress forever, and those who change as unobtrusively as possible and get the hell out.)

And this isn’t just about women. There are men who feel comfortable walking around outside on a hot day shirtless and there are men who don’t. (And there are some who should, and some who shouldn’t, but that’s for another time.)

Now I’m not advocating that we all stop singing and dancing or wearing bikinis. (There’s a reason modesty and moderation have so many letters in common.) But I do think as we embark on this conversation that we broaden our idea of what it means to be modest.

From a practical standpoint, it makes sense that we focus so much on modest dress. And dressing immodestly can have consequences. But putting too much emphasis on what women wear, the degree of skin shown and the effect it has on others, particularly on men, can easily devolve into arguments of “she was asking for it” and the like. Women — people — should wear what feels comfortable, and an all-encompassing modesty might lead to fewer miniskirts overall.

Debra, if it’s really hot outside, let your daughter wear a tank top.

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