As with many things in my life, I find myself choosing the moderate path. I wear pants (sometimes capris in summer), but no shorts. I wear short sleeves, but no tank tops or cleavage. Occasionally, my collarbone will make an appearance. I do wear skirts on Shabbat, even when I don’t go to synagogue. And yet I find myself struggling with the idea of wearing a skirt the whole time, wondering if it will be expected of me, and whether I will make life more difficult for myself if I continue to wear pants more than skirts.
Why not skirts all the time? The simple answer is that I don’t feel that skirts are inherently modest or feminine. The Ben Ish Chai has a responsa in which he forbids men from wearing pants and women from wearing dresses. He lived in the middle east and was referring to women’s harem pants and men’s robes. Therefore, the issue is not inherently about skirts as feminine versus pants as masculine, especially in a day in age when men’s and women’s pants are clearly not designed to look similar or to be worn by both sexes.
However, there is something to be said for modesty in the modern world. My mother went a long way in teaching me about how clothing should just be a covering rather than something to attract attention or even to attract men. Women seem to display little respect for their bodies by exposing so much of it to the world. Our bodies are created by God, but we sometimes have a hard time acting like it. I think there is also something inside of me that objects to the idea of limiting myself to only one mode of dress. Perhaps, sometime, I won’t feel that way, but right now, that’s how I understand the question emotionally.
Even so, I’m not sure sometimes that the best way to acknowledge the holiness of our bodies is to cover them up. Sometimes, modesty can be a vessel either for making women more self conscious or to even as something to hide behind. The scrutiny of those around you can be hard to take, but we can be our own worst enemies. For instance, see Formerly Frum’s post on Frum Satire, for some of the worst that taking modesty too seriously can do to a person. Clearly, it’s an extreme story, but it illustrates that modesty doesn’t automatically mean that all those body image issues go away – they can just be a different forum. In fact, sometimes the emphasis on appearance in a modest community can be just as bad as the emphasis on appearance in a more secular society.
There’s another point that I worry about when it comes to modesty in the way that the more observant communities have defined it. I have no experience with this personally, but a few of the articles in the most recent JOFA journal (Fall 2009, found here) point me in the direction of worrying about how the younger members of our community experience it. Is it limiting or empowering? How can we make sure that we really do empower them, rather than making them hyper aware or ashamed?
Funny how one piece of clothing can produce this much thought! I suppose it is the Jewish way to over think things sometimes, and to take them seriously. Maybe one day I’ll come up with a final answer, but right now, I know that my pants wearing days are definitely only coming to a middle.