Struggling with Skirts

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.

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8 thoughts on “Struggling with Skirts

  1. RKF said something interesting to me at a recent Shabbat dinner: “My skirt is my yarmulke. My hat is my wedding band.” I’m not sure that would work for me, but it’s another interesting way to frame the concept.

    • I think that’s a really interesting way of looking at it – I will have to include that in my ponderings from now on!! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Dressing with the “spirit” of modesty is just as important as having all the required body parts covered. This “spirit” unfortunately has been lost even in many “frum” communities. The pressure of the Western notion of what looks good or stylish (and unfortunatley much of women’s fashion is designed simply to titilate men) seems to have confused many Jewish women and girls. No one (except maybe those in Meah Shearim) can escape the bombardment of immodest fashion advertisiments. Becasue of this, I’m sure we’ve all seen women/girls whose clothing measurements are halachically correct, but modesty is definitely lacking. Where the problem lies I have yet to discover but it can reach the point of absurdity. There have been times that I’ve seen skirts that are so tight and/or flashy looking, that I’ve thought to myself, what is the point of wearing a skirt if it looks like THAT?? In these cases the wearer would actually look more modest in pants! The “spirit” here is completey missing. I don’t wear pants myself, as I believe they are men’s clothing. But here in Israel some religious women wear the very baggy “harem” type pants that you meentioned, since they serve the same purpose that a skirt is supposed to: they don’t reveal the outline of the legs (especially the inner leg), and a man wouldn’t wear them. It sounds like your mother was very wise and understood the “spirit.” It’s not easy to find a balance between looking nice and feeling good about the way you present yourself,while avoiding unduly attracting the attention of men (especially if you are married). I like wearing skirts and I feel they are more feminine and modest (as long as the skirt itself is modest), as well as more comfortable. When I’m not sure if what I’m wearing is modest, I just ask my husband. He, of course, wants me to look nice, but he’s also more aware than me of the things that catch men’s eyes.
    I’m also famiiar with the type of communities where there is a lot of pressure, scrutiny and competiton among women regarding modest dress, and I simply choose not to live in one of those communities. As far as “the youth” goes, I think it is SO important to equate modest dress with self-respect and the power that comes with it. Modestly dressed women send out the message that they want people to take notice of their mind and personality, not just their body’s sexual potential. Whenever i see an immodestly dressed girl it makes me sad, because it probably means that she considers her cleavage etc. to be the best thing she has to offer.

    • I really appreciate your perspective, Hadassah! I agree so much about the perspective. We can agree to disagree about women in pants, but I think our overall thinking is very similar – I agree that a very immodestly dress girl also often makes me sad – is that really the best she thinks she has to offer? Or does she just not realize that that’s often the message that is sent?

  3. “The Ben Ish Chai has a responsa in which he forbids men from wearing pants and women from wearing dresses.” — Where is this responsum? — I’d really like to see it. I personally like to tell people how Turkish women would wear pants as a matter of course. I have a Greek friend who wears the sort of clothing that Ottoman women would have worn (except his clothing is the masculine version), and based on his apparel, I’d say that the pants the women would have worn would be more tzenua than the dresses and skirts women wear today – think MC Hammer-type bagginess. My point is simply that when people forbid pants and permit only skirts, they have to define what they’re talking about, because just as there are decidedly immodest and provocative skirts, there are modest and conservative pants. It frustrates me to no end when people say apodictically that pants are forbidden, period. A simple and vague statement like that is tantamount to declaring that every Turkish Sephardi woman for centuries was violating tzniut. (Which would be ironic, because Rabbi Eliezer Papo of 19th-century Bosnia advocated that every G-d-fearing Ashkenazi send his children to live in an Ottoman land, to save them from European sexual immorality. I kid you not!)

    As an aside, I think that when people focus so much on tzniut, they actually do more damage than good. If the purpose of tzniut is to teach men to see women as humans and not as objects, then what good does it do to tell men that women are hypersexual (and must be avoided like the plague), and to tell women that men see them as nothing but hypersexual objects? Doesn’t this defeat the purpose? It accomplishes exactly what tzniut is meant to avoid!! Furthermore, it’s simply criminal to tell women to cover themselves for the sake of saving men from sin; it’s no one’s obligation to guard others. Better, women should be told to cover themselves for their own sake, and men should be taught to guard their own sexuality, and to look at women as people and not as objects.

    • Here, here on your last paragraph. I have always been irritated by the idea that a woman is responsible for the sinful thoughts and actions of men. If I see a scantily clad man, I exercise self control and look away in an unobtrusive manner. If I were to lust after the man, no one would hold him responsible for my transgression! Men are quite capable of similar behavior.

  4. Honestly I could never wear pants and look modest. I just have that body type. Same issue in a pencil skirt, though. But I think I personally was scarred from parents and grandparents trying to push me into miniskirts or more likely, tight pants. Obviously, those aren’t the only kinds of pants that exist but in the end the decision came down to a bunch of other things:

    1. People assume that I’m not Jewish most of the time. So wearing a skirt and the rest of the costume was about Jewish identification and less about modesty, especially in the winter. Same with covering my hair (I didn’t wear a wedding ring).

    2. Again, I could NEVER find pants that were flattering or fit right unless I had them made and tailored to my height and my big tuchus or was willing to show underwear or wear big belts or be a throwback to the 1980s (rolling them up) or last but not least, do “the dance” my mother and grandmother are known for to get into my pants.

    So, this part came down to ego. Skirts are gentler and kinder on my ego and rarely remind me how much weight I’ve gained or that in 2011 they still don’t make pants for women like me even with J.Lo’s popularity (I really thought she’d come out with her own line someday but it never happened, her pants were the same as other designers…for people with no butt). So, I was way too happy to give up pants though I still rock some very stretchy leggings under my skirts in California’s version of fall and winter.

    3. Three is when the Jewish laws entered. In the same way that being pushed by family members to “show what you got” and “show off your assets” as a way of defining feminine beauty, I didn’t want to feel constricted by Jewish modesty and I took some parts more slowly than others but I also knew in the back of my head that by the time I converted, I had to have fully accepted it and as a convert, didn’t have much of a choice without setting myself up to experience huge judgment on the part of a community that holds converts to a higher standard or huge fears (in this day and age) about whether my Jewishness could be retroactively taken away or whether people would make me feel as if it had been if I fell short in this area.

    I do worry about how young woman handle this issue. In the same way that I felt constricted and forced to dress immodestly by social customs and family because that was how women were supposed to act if they loved their bodies, I can and have seen the way modesty is used against young women to keep their sexuality in check in a negative way that inculcates them with shame about their bodies. If we make it about our bodies being so beautiful and precious that only the right people should ever see them then we’re doing okay. But if it comes wrapped with this idea that men can’t possibly control themselves (something that was pounded into me as a Catholic school girl) so we have to cover up, it’s an ugly fetish.

    I’ve never felt like my collarbone or elbow were sexualized parts of my body until I had lacivious haredi men licking their lips at me in Jerusalem because those parts were uncovered despite being otherwise modestly dressed. I still shiver when I think of it. And I still remember the head of my conversion school telling all of us when I brought this up that if I wasn’t covered up, even if I wasn’t Jewish yet, I was the one causing men to sin. Again, as if men didn’t have the power to LOOK AWAY.

  5. I find modesty a complicated issue, as everyone has a different idea of modesty. for example, I consider myself modestly dressed. I wear pants (that flatter me), I wear long skirts, I occasionally wear sleeveless shirts (that cover all parts of my bra, most of my shoulder, no cleavage). I don’t cover my hair, though I’m married. I do not think that showing my ankle, hair, elbow or collar bone make me immodest.
    Unfortunately, many don’t agree with me.
    I have a good friend who wears tank tops. However, she doesn’t wear shorts or short skirts, and she doesn’t show her belly. she considers herself modest. Who am I (or anyone) to tell her that she isn’t? It’s her choice. anyone who doesn’t like it can look away.
    I have relatives who would never consider showing a hair on their head to someone who isn’t their close family (their cousin – my husband – is not considered close family). I think it’s a bit much, but this is what they want. why should I tell them different?
    I think it’s ridiculous that many women feel they need to cover themselves from top to toe in a sack so that men don’t erupt in a sexual frenzy around them. And it drives me insane when Haredi men don’t look me in the eye. What do they think, I’ll hypnotize them? It’s better for them to try to look at my breasts (or whatever)?
    I think that modesty has been taken from a good place- show respect to your body – to a bad place – this is taken a sign of your morality and chastity, and the more the better. At some point modesty becomes a cage.

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