I looked at myself in the mirror and I liked the way I looked–no easy feat for a 17-year-old girl. My long skirt dangled around my ankles, and my turtleneck sweater coiled itself around my arms and neck. The provocation and sexual charge that are so often present in teenage clothing were gone. And I was glad.
I thought back to the time my friends told me that I dress “too modestly.” I wondered—what would they have said had I responded, “You dress too sexually.” Tears stung my eyes and anger choked my words. I had bit my tongue, knowing that my hurt and disappointment at their words would stop me from saying anything worthwhile.
My friends would have told me, as many have before, that I need to be “liberated” from my old-fashioned patriarchal ideas of modesty. Strangely enough, it’s these very ideas that free me from lecherous male attention I don’t want, and from fashion trends I don’t need in my life.
Granted, I haven’t always felt this way. I grew up in a predominantly secular environment—Minnesota, the land of few Jews—and was introduced to Orthodox Judaism only around the time of my bat mitzvah. I grew enamored of my teacher’s headscarves (or as she called them, tichels) and style of dress. Her modestly dressed confidence, poise, and wisdom reminded me that while many might see her way of life outdated, her modesty—her tzniyus, as she called it—was refreshing. It made me think about what she said—and not about what she wore when she said it.
Popular culture maintains a doctrine of “being yourself,” an idea I’ve always supported. I firmly believe that everyone has the right to dress however they want without any judgment from me. But shouldn’t that courtesy extend to more modestly dressed individuals? Why can’t I “be myself” without someone questioning my beliefs? Why can’t I dress myself without someone questioning my clothes?
I looked at myself in the mirror again and I liked the way I thought about myself. I stopped envisioning my body as the collection of a tight shirt holding two breasts and stretchy pants enclosing two legs, but instead as that of a beautiful girl who keeps her sexuality to herself.
I remembered the time that my mother told me that “modesty leaves more to the imagination.” This is perhaps true, but modesty also leaves no doubt in others’ imagination that I am a girl to be reckoned with, a girl who knows her worth and feels no need to prove it in sexually charged clothing, a girl who would like to be measured in terms of her two most vital organs—her brain and her heart.
My face red with tears, I just couldn’t bring myself to wear a pair of orange skinny jeans hung sadly in my closet. Head hung low, I told my mother that “I just can’t.” She smiled slyly and reassured me that modesty can only positively impact anyone’s imagination, if at all.
I had always been somewhat precocious, leading to great difficulty in dating. Watching my friends pair up while I remained single was unbelievably painful. I doubt that my relationship status had anything to do with my clothes, but I remember at one point feeling so desperate that I thought about dressing more provocatively—ahem, orange skinny jeans—in order to attract more attention. I then quickly remembered that attention for the sake of my body was exactly what I didn’t want, and that I was looking (and am still looking) for someone as precocious as me whose imagination matches mine—in modesty, as well as in other ways.
Clothes send a definite message—and when I wear what I do want, I exude a demand for respect and propriety in an indirect way. I let people know— through my elegant skirts and sweaters—that I ask for people to value me for my intellect instead of my looks. Most people, once they stop looking at my clothes, will learn that I’ve sung opera for four years, that I speak five languages and that I’ve lived in France. Most people, once they stop judging me on my appearance, will learn that I want to major in Middle East Studies, that my brother is my best friend and that I love to laugh.
And when I dress myself in a way that stops people from paying attention to my body, they start paying attention to me.
I looked at myself in the mirror and I liked the way I felt. My sexuality attractively obscured in long but beautiful clothing, I looked pretty—and not sexy. I stared at my reflection and saw that it looked not like a woman oppressed by her clothing, but one liberated from all the pressures tied to what she wears.
And that liberated woman—the religious one, the one who passes no judgment, the one who wants to be herself—was me.