Everything comes easier for me when I have a bit of intellectual stimulation, and exercise is no exception. Recently, as I pushed through another grueling post-baby workout, my trainer, sensing that I was in desperate need of distraction, told me something interesting. An Orthodox Jewish woman had recently complained to her that some of the women in her shul were purposely dressing frumpier and frumpier. This woman claimed that she and some of her friends were discouraged by the new trajectory of modesty that likely stems from increasing efforts to shield the seductive female body from the penetrating male gaze. (Yes, I said penetrating.)
Apparently modesty glasses haven’t yet made it to Los Angeles, and so women are taking long skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and high necklines to the next level of unfashionable. No longer is it good enough to wear modest clothing that fits. It would seem that modesty, according to this story, is also about looking as unattractive and sometimes even as slovenly as possible.
I wondered, could this be true?
I have certainly heard other women lament that some of their friends equate modesty with baggy clothing, and I must admit that I myself have observed an increase in such clothing choices in my own community. Whether or not this is indeed a growing phenomenon, it’s occurring at least to a certain degree within observant communities; the question is whether we should be bothered by it.
But perhaps Orthodox Jewish women should not be singled out as more disheveled than the next person. Slobbery is not a phenomenon only to be found in the religious community. It’s everywhere. Further, it appears that slobbery and immodesty are American epidemics, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. As Notre Dame Professor Linda Przybyszewski so eloquently explained in her recent Jezebel post, “There’s got to be a happy medium between wearing a burka and running around half-naked.” Yes, there’s got to be.
Opinions on the definition of modesty aside, the relevant discussion has to do with the extent to which we all have a responsibility to care for our appearance. As far as I know, the Jewish community here in Los Angeles hasn’t yet organized modesty squads to monitor women’s dress. But my trainer’s story reminded me of a talk I heard in a local Orthodox shul a couple of years ago in which the rabbi, after criticizing the short skirts he had encountered on some of the community’s women, admonished them not to abandon all efforts to look attractive and stylish in their pursuit of modesty.
His purpose was to suggest that observant Jews have a responsibility to take pride in their appearance. To illustrate his point, he recalled vacationing with his family at the Grand Canyon, where a woman asked him if he and is family were Jewish, which was unexpected because his kippah was covered by a baseball cap. When he asked the woman how she knew, she said it was because of how modest and well put together they all were.
Now, I have a hard time believing that there wasn’t an ankle-length denim skirt somewhere in the group to give the woman a hint as to the group’s observant Jewish identity, but, okay, I get it. As Jews, we are representing Judaism wherever we go, whether we’re dressed well or barely dressed at all. I was ambivalent, however, about a male rabbi dictating anything about women’s clothing from the pulpit. On one hand, given my own predilection for fashion and my tendency to recoil from the long denim skirts and ill-fitting, outdated clothing that I sometimes see in religious communities, I appreciated his style-conscious gesture. I visit various Los Angeles shuls on a regular basis, but I belong to a Modern Orthodox synagogue, and while my attire in this context is always modest (below-the-knee skirt lengths, sleeves down to my elbows, and no revealing necklines), I sometimes feel out of place if my clothing is too stylish or tailored.
But considering that there are at least as many men who could benefit from a fashion makeover as there are women, it seemed to me that the rabbi’s public commentary on the attire of women bordered on sexism and was, at the very least, mildly inappropriate. As a woman sitting in the mixed congregation, I felt suddenly scrutinized despite my tailored knee-length skirt and snakeskin heels. And, truth be told, all day I had been nervous about what people might think of those snakeskin heels, ever since I had chosen them over something flatter and sturdier that morning.
I realize now that I felt distressed in light of both stories — my trainer’s as well as my own in shul — given the manner in which male and female equality seems to be moving backward in both America and the religious communities of Israel, where religious practices separate men from women; eight-year-old girls are spat upon for dressing “immodestly”; some ultra-Orthodox radio stations refuse to let women’s voices be heard on the airwaves, and some ultra-Orthodox men have even tried to insist that women sit in the back of buses. Focusing on women’s attire potentially contributes to the unsavory message that women’s bodies are objects — vessels of seduction — and that men are not capable of self-restraint.
But, to the rabbi’s credit, I can’t help but feel that there is something to be said about looking like we care, whether we’re male or female, Jews or non-Jews. Whether or not we are concerned about modesty, there’s nothing enticing about boorish behavior or dress. And using modesty as an excuse for this behavior transforms unattractiveness into intellectual dishonesty. Rather than stretch the definition of modesty to include carelessness, perhaps we should demonstrate outwardly the mindfulness that is so much a part of Judaism. At the very least, we should avoid apathy, and maybe this even means trying not to dress as if we are apathetic, as if we don’t care.