Choosing Modesty

I recently finished reading Naomi Ragan’s Sotah and in the end of the version I have, she writes a bit about a conference she was at where she spoke on the topic of women’s rights in Judaism, entitled “A Letter to My Sisters.”  When I read the following response she had to an attendee who asked how a modern woman in the free world would “choose to wear the chains imposed on [her] by religion and the narrow minded, backward men who are religious leaders,” I knew it was the right beginning for this post. This is what Ms. Ragen had to say to this woman:

I am a part of a chain that reaches back for thousands of years. There is a great joy in knowing who you are, and where you come from; in cherishing and preserving those cultural and religious treasures which are your heritage and which make you unique. Why should I allow these men to push me out, deny me that place? No, I prefer to fight them, to make them live up to the goodness and justice of the authentic religion that belongs to me, not just to them. I prefer to have them thrown out, rather than for me to leave.

This response captures my sentiment on embracing modest dress more eloquently than I could have realized.

I can admit (and will occasionally show photographic evidence) that I did not always dress in a modest way which is respectful of my body and soul. When I made the shift, it was difficult for many people to handle, largely because I was known for wearing low slung jeans and tank tops. How was it possible to choose to wear shirts with sleeves to the elbow all the time, and later to only wear skirts past the knee? Clearly it was being forced upon me! How shocked they were to learn I had really come to think about how I dress in a different way. I found it empowering to take control of my body and how I presented it to the world in a positive way, and I make the choice every day when I get dressed. Sure, there are days when I wish I could throw on a pair of jeans and a cute top without a long sleeve one under it, or that I wouldn’t have to ask every website to tell me the length of their “knee length” skirts to see if they will be that for me. Yet, I still put on my skirt and sleeves and am happy with the choice.

While I do not feel skirts and sleeves are inherently modest in and of themselves, I do believe that it works for me. I know many women who dress very modestly who wear pants and short sleeves. I think the intention is far more important than how it is carried out –though you still won’t see me in pants anytime soon.

What choice do you make when you get dressed?

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12 thoughts on “Choosing Modesty

  1. I agree with you, Melissa. Modesty can be interpreted many ways and while some women dress modestly because their family taught them to or they “don’t know better,” many women feel empowered by dressing more modestly.

    For me, it took going all the way from one extreme to the other to regain the femininity that I lost in secular society. I had to go from prancing around nearly naked to long skirts and long sleeve shirts to then find the middle ground that I now feel feminine and beautiful and comfortable with. It is definitely to each his own but sadly, not many people think about themselves when they dress in the morning.

    • Thanks Talia, I think it is important to find ones own comfortable middle ground and a way of dressing that reflects our inner beauty.

  2. I think modesty has a lot to do with the society that you’re in. I found it interesting that I could wear fishnets and a skirt that goes down to the knee, and while that was considered modest by Orthodox standards, I felt uncomfortable w/o some leg-warmers, because fishnets are inherently sexy. Also, a skirt is considered modest, but when it has writing across the backside, it still draws attention to an area that a modest woman would not be trying to draw attention to.

    I tend to only wear skirts when I’m going to be around orthodox men, because I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable by my wearing something that outlines my booty. If I’m going to be walking around town, or only around women, I don’t care so much.

    • Interesting point Morgan. I have a local friend who wears skirts in public but pants in her home on a similar premise. If you chose to visit, you are accepting that about her and lose your right to feel uncomfortable. I think it creates an interesting dynamic to filter what we wear based on who we are around, but do see the value add it can have.

    • I’m “Orthodox” and I find it hard to believe that fishnets are “considered modest by Orthodox standards.” I think this is where the “spirit” of modesty comes in, because these days the standards have become so objective. The example of the skirt with writing across the backside is a perfect example of this. It meets the standard of being a skirt, but if you’re causing men to look at your backside, surely this doesn’t achieve any “standard” of modesty. To me, the modest “spirit” is key.

      • Hadassh, I agree that the spirit is way more important, across the board. There is no modesty in much of what may cover the “right” body parts – it goes beyond that. I have a post in the works on just that actually – so stay tuned!

  3. Very well written and the content is wonderful. I cannot wait to share this with my 16 year old daughter. She always dresses modestly, but I know her friends try to convince her not too. She will love knowing that there are other people outside of her family that share her view.

  4. Re: Ragen’s “I am a part of a chain…” – That’s a powerful quote; thank you. I am reminded of an anecdote in Rabbi Marc Angel’s Seeking Good, Speaking Peace. He says a woman came up to him one day in Israel and started haranguing him on the evils of Orthodoxy. She told him that she’s generally traditional in practice, but that every Pesah, she makes a point of buying pita from Bedouins just to show the Haredim that they cannot coerce her. Rabbi Angel replied that she was in fact letting them coerce her; she was a woman who wanted to be traditional (by her own profession), and yet she was letting the Haredim force her to eat treif.

    (Rabbi Angel proceeds to devote the majority of his discussion, however, to arguing that Orthodox Jews shouldn’t allow themselves to be the sort who’d make such a hillul hashem that it is tantamount to coercing an otherwise traditional Jew to willfully violate the Torah. While he clearly was annoyed and frustrated by this woman – she started pontificating to him about the evils of Orthodoxy without any initial provocation from him – he was more sad for her and angry at the Haredim.)

    Another anecdote I’m reminded of: my Gemara rabbi (not Rabbi Marc Angel) was discussing tzniut as it applies to men, and he said that likely, many of us (being baalei teshuva) had likely become more tzenua in our dress since coming to yeshiva. (Speaking for myself: I used to always wear shorts, even when it was 20 Fahrenheit out, but now, after having been in yeshiva for a few years, I almost never ever ever wear shorts anymore.) My rabbi turned to my beloved havruta, Yosele from Greece (we have a bromance together), and he said, “Yosef, men in Greece often wear no shirt at all, right?”. Yosef innocently replied in the affirmative, and so my rabbi continued, “And so by your former standards, what you’re wearing right now is actually tzenua, relatively speaking.” Yosef had been wearing a quite low-cut shirt made of very thin fabric, and he was clearly stunned by our rabbi’s audacity. (But we love our rabbi, and it was all in good fun. I still like to remind my Yosele of this story.)

    I remember when my rabbi was recommending a book on tzniut, he recommended one book in particular, saying that it began its discussion with not women but instead with men, and he said, “Any book on tzniut that starts with men first, you know it’s good.”

    My Yosele has also remarked that in Greece, the men dress more tzenua than the women, turning thousands of years of human sexuality on their head. When I told him that I had met a Greek young woman, he asked what she was wearing, and when I told him a very modest and pretty dress, he acted as if Mashiah had come; I’ve rarely ever seen a person more dumbfounded and excited than he was that night. (Unfortunately for me, I got to walk this young woman all the way home before I discovered that she was not only Greek and not only Orthodox, but also Greek Orthodox. The first and only time I’ve ever had the courage to talk up a young woman I had met at a social occasion. I had even happened to have had my copy of The Jews of Rhodes on my person that night – how often are you that prepared??!! Sigh…)

    • I absolutely agree that tznuit is not only a woman’s issue. I recently read a book which began by discussing this, and it made me happy to see a published book talking about it. My husband does not wear shorts out of the home, he also does not wear jeans, though that is more to do with comfort and style than tzniut…

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