The Modesty Wars

My favorite pastime in the summer is going to my local town pool. There I can sit in the sun, swim laps, and chat with friends and acquaintances from many different social circles. The diversity of my town is apparent in the bathing suits the women choose to wear. You can see everything from a woman in a string bikini, to a “mom” bathing suit with shorts, to a fully covered woman in suit that looks like a wetsuit with a skirt. Some may refer to this last suit as a “burkini;” however, in my town this modest swimsuit is worn by Orthodox Jewish women, so while the look may be the same, the name does not fit.

READ: Tzniut (Jewish Modesty) 101

I have always struggled with what to wear to the pool. As a short, curvy teenager, swimsuit shopping was the bane of my existence. As an adult woman, it is not much better. Trying to find the right balance between wanting to hide my body and feeling confident while walking around almost naked in front of friends, family, and congregants is not easy! Some women simply give up and refuse to go to the beach or pool. However, I won’t give up. I love my time at the pool, and I want to teach my daughter that you should love your body no matter how you look. In the spectrum of bathing suit wears at my pool, I fall in the middle. I wear “cute” swim shorts and a tankini top. It is a compromise that works for me, covering up what I most want to cover, and revealing what I feel more confident about.
I know I am not alone with my bathing suit struggles. Because our society so fixates on women’s bodies, I think almost every woman struggles with this. Between comments about the female athletes at the Olympics and France’s new ban on Muslim women wearing burkinis at the beach, this summer has raised the issue of what women wear to new heights.

READ: Can Modesty Be A Feminist Choice?

Many texts in Judaism are devoted to women’s dress. It is understood that a woman should dress modestly. Today in more traditional Jewish circles that often means wearing a skirt which covers the knee, sleeves which cover the elbow, and if married, a head covering. Exactly how long the skirt, shirt sleeves, and how big the head covering range greatly depending on how strict the community is. Liberal Jewish women more or less wear what they want. However, in my experience, almost all women struggle with how much to cover and how much to reveal.

How modestly a woman dresses is an intensely personal issue. It can be wrapped up in self-consciousness about weight, shape, size, religious devotion, or even comfort. I have become intensely aware of how I advise my pre-teen daughter to dress. I want her to be comfortable, feel confident, and to be reasonably covered. It’s the “reasonably” covered part that is difficult to discern. Her school has rules about how long her skirts and shorts must be. One the one hand, I understand their need to teach a certain amount of modesty, I too want her to cover herself. On the other hand I bristle at the rule. How dare they dictate what she can wear! Since she has asked, I have already had to start thinking about at what age it is appropriate for her to wear a strapless dress. I still don’t know the answer. If it helps her feel confident about herself, why not now? However as her mother, I am afraid of the message exposing too much skin will send.

Women can’t win. We are shamed for wearing bikinis and exposing too much skin, and we are shamed for wearing birkinis and exposing too little. As a liberal religious woman, I respect women who make either choice. But I wonder, when will women be able to love whatever form their body takes and show it off however they do or don’t please without judgment?

We all need to remember that God created us this way, short, tall, fat, thin, curvy and straight. I believe each of us does carry the spark of God, and we are holy. However, this is not a reason to dictate what a woman should wear. The only one who should have any say over what a woman wears is that woman herself. Not religious leaders, not governments, and not catty TV commentators. Our bodies are our own.

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