Modest Dressing

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Modest dressing — what does it mean for a woman? Many religious communities have strict rules about what a woman should wear and how much of her body can show. Look at examples in the Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, Mormon, and strict Christian denominations.

This is an issue I have often struggled with. On one hand, I am a liberal Jewish feminist woman who firmly believes that a woman should have the freedom to dress as she pleases. If that means wearing short skirts, and exposing cleavage, then OK. However, my principles get tested quite often. Last Shabbat I watched a young teenage girl walk in to synagogue to attend a friend’s bat mitzvah wearing 5 inch heels and a skirt that was so short you could almost see her underwear when she walked. This outfit was not OK. I was horrified that this girl’s mother let her leave the house that way. I wanted to lecture her on the holiness of her body and ask her to change.

And… I was amused by my own reaction to her outfit. Rationally I know that she was copying a look she sees on TV and magazines. She had internalized some message that this look is attractive, and she wanted to be attractive. Yet, she was also sexualizing herself in a way that was not appropriate for her age, and the occasion she was attending.

Where is the balance between dressing to feel attractive and dressing to convey a sense of respect for your body? Who determines this balance? Is it totally subjective or not?

How we dress conveys messages to the people around us. My seven year old daughter has already picked this up. She has divided the girls in her first grade class in to “girly girls” who wear a lot of pink, “tomboys” who dress more like boys, and “cool girls” who wear black. She wants to define herself as a cool girl, and black instead of pink has become her color of choice.

Clinton and Stacy, the style gurus on TLC’s program What Not to Wear work with women on each episode to find a style of dress that sends the particular message the wearer wants to send. In some cases they encourage a woman to wear more reveling clothes. In other cases, they encourage a woman to cover up, and show her sexiness without letting it all hang out. In all cases they choose clothes which are generally more sophisticated that the woman was wearing before, and the end result is a woman who looks put together and in control of her life. I find it fascinating that Clinton and Stacy always seem to find this elusive balance between dressing a woman to be attractive and respecting her body. Somehow they have discovered some objective rules for a balanced way to dress, yet these rules are applied subjectively with each different woman they encounter.

I am an avid fan of the show because I want to be able to ferret out these rules to use on myself and to teach my daughter about how to dress. I want both of us to send the message that we are strong confident women who are comfortable with our bodies.

Issues of modesty, body image, and self confidence have all gotten rolled together. This is a difficult ball to unwind. Finding the balance may just mean applying some objective rules subjectively. A skirt should cover most of a woman’s thighs, how much is “appropriate” depends on the particular woman, her body type, and the event she is attending. A top could dip lower for social occasions, but not for work. And exactly how low depends on the size of a woman’s chest.
In the end, the women are free to dress how they like side of me is horrified that I would apply any rules at all to women’s dress. However, the practical women must wear power clothes to look their best, and it is not about their bodies, side of me acknowledges that some rules are necessary to achieve a self confident, powerful, put together image in today’s world.

I will continue to struggle to find the right balance between these views.

Posted on March 26, 2012

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