Can Modesty Be A Feminist Choice?

By the time I finally bought my first bikini, I was sixteen years old. As a chubby kid who had grown into a young adult with a curvy figure, I had never felt that my body deserved to be seen. I grew into a tendency to hide myself underneath baggy jeans and shapeless one-piece bathing suits, until my body grew into something that I thought that society would approve of. Once it did, I felt proud to parade it around in all of its glory. After all, I had made it. I was part of the club.

A year ago, when I began to live my life in a manner which more closely followed Jewish religious observance, I immediately tweaked my dress to appear more modest. I began to scan the aisles for knee-length black skirts and long shirts with a high neckline instead of short-shorts and miniskirts. Immediately, it became apparent that my feelings about my new self-imposed dress code were mixed. On one hand, I personally loved the way my body felt in the modest clothing, the way in which the clothes that I chose covered me while simultaneously flattering my figure. I also appreciated the manner in which the dress code acted as a social signifier, sending a message about my religious affiliation to other religious Jews and to society at large.

However, there was one challenge which nagged at me whenever I stepped out in my new manner of dress. I wish I could say that this issue was based on some lofty feminist goal which sought to challenge the innate patriarchal system inherent in Jewish standards of modesty. I wish that it bothered me more that women are perceived to have a responsibility to cover themselves up for the sake of preventing men from exciting their yetzer hara, sexual inclination. I wish I felt more guilty that I was implicit in the victim-blaming which is rampant in religious circles, by implying that I was somehow more ‘holy’ or ‘worthy’ than girls who choose to wear less.

No. I am embarrassed to say it, but my biggest issue was that I missed the gaze of men. I don’t claim to speak for anyone else, but personally, I have found that however much you might feel good about yourself in a knee-length skirt, no matter how much it may enrich your neshama, soul, you attract significantly fewer car horns and up-and-down stares on the street. In these first few months of dressing modestly, I felt my self-esteem plummet. In the absence of the same degree of external validation and day-to-day objectification which I had enjoyed since I began to show myself off, I was at a loss of how to love myself. I was convinced that my days of being desirable were over, and I began to make half-sincere jokes about being ”past my prime.”

My confusion climaxed one day when I burst into tears and confided in a colleague with training in mental health. He suggested that I write a letter to myself detailing the issues I was undergoing. I sat down, dried my tears, and entitled the letter: “Dear Thirteen Year-Old Me…” I wrote about how since I was that age, I hadn’t felt so uncomfortable in my own body, and how I wished to regain the sense of self which I seemed to have lost.

It was at that moment that I realized that for the last seven years, I had let the patriarchy define my very self-worth. Instead of valuing myself for my wit, my intelligence, and my charm, I had let the winks and stares of random men boost my spirits. I realized that far from being an obstacle to self-love and finding validation, modest dress posed itself as an invaluable gift. Instead of relying on the lust of strangers to define myself as a desirable person worthy of love and attention, I had the power to attract people through whatever means I chose to do so. Far from causing me to lose control of my sexual power, my choice to dress modestly gave me more autonomy than ever before.

Although Jewish norms of modest dress are indeed based on a patriarchal system, many modern fashion standards are as well, because they are designed to excite the attention of the opposite sex, and thus deem its wearers worthy of sexual attention. This is why I have decided to continue following the norms associated with modest dress – because I now know that I am worthy of that attention without the ‘help’ of eye-catching clothing and I shall receive it, with the help of God, from the right person whenever he may come into my life. I will receive this love and attention, and indeed I deserve it, because I believe that I am intelligent, funny, insightful, patient, caring, compassionate, and loving.

Oh yes, I mustn’t forget…and beautiful.

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