It really felt like my Orthodox high school devoted a full 40 percent of each year to lessons on modesty. Modesty was demonstrated in one and only one way: through clothing. Skirts were modest, pants were not. Shirts with words on them were not modest (unless they were names of universities–that’s somehow modest and promotional at the same time). Elbows were immodest. Knees were immodest. Necklines could be modest on a flat-chested person, but immodest on a person with large breasts.
Each day we began the day with prayers, followed by the vice principal reading a list of names over the intercom. These were the girls who were not dressed modestly enough, and they were summoned to the office and handed safety pins, or huge T-shirts, or occasionally sent home to change.
A rabbi I considered very wise spent an entire year teaching my class a book called The Modest Way. It was divided into chapters based on body parts: hair, legs, shoulders, and so forth. In my Hebrew class we read a story about a Jewish woman who was being dragged behind a cart by vicious anti-Semites, but she was still concerned about modesty, so she pinned her skirt to her legs.
The idea behind all of this intense focus on modesty was that it would keep us girls from intentionally or unintentionally distracting men. Modesty was a virtue, designed to keep all things sexual from polluting our (hopefully) pure Jewish souls.
Weirdly, this was executed by having powerful men and women scrutinize our appearance every day.
I’ve been thinking back to high school as the #MeToo campaign took over Facebook, and as my friends have been discussing Mayim Bialik’s op-ed about modesty in a sexualized culture in the New York Times. I actually think that for the most part, the rabbis and teachers at my school were operating from sincerity. Modest clothing, they truly believed, was the best way to protect us girls from male sexuality. It offered, as Mayim put it in her Facebook live conversation, “a layer of protection.”
The problem is that, as any woman with a #MeToo status can tell you, that’s simply not true. Modest clothing does not protect against obscene comments, groping, assault, or even rape.
I understand that my teachers wanted to protect me (though, to be honest, since I was a teenager, I wanted to have sex more than anything in the world). I understand why people want to believe that long sleeves and skirts offer some magical protection against patriarchal violence.
Yet I think everyone should wear whatever the hell they want.
If long skirts make you feel more connected to God or Judaism or just look good on you, go nuts. But one of my first #MeToo moments was in high school, when a classmate, sitting next to me in pre-calculus, casually stuck his hand right up my knee-length skirt. Modesty didn’t protect me then.
And I have to wonder why every time these conversations come up, we immediately pivot to what women should do to “protect ourselves”–as if we can’t even stomach the idea of once, just once, focusing the discussion on men.
I ask myself what would have been different if, instead of giving us girls lectures on the most modest ways to sit in a chair, or exercise, or learn, my high school would have offered a class for the guys on how to respectfully respond to women. Women who might say no, who might just want to pass this test, women who might have demonstrated that they’re not interested—by never expressing any interest in you.
If we really want to be serious about modesty, we can, of course, use it to help us stop sexual assault and harassment. It’s just that that means teaching modest behavior to men.
The book I learned in high school, called The Modest Way, has the Hebrew title, Hatznea Lechet, which comes from a verse in Micah (one of the biblical prophets). “It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
It’s not saying you need to be dressed modestly when you walk with God. It’s saying you need to be less entitled, assume less power, and bring God with you everywhere you walk.
I know a few billion men who could use a lesson in Hatznea Lechet. It’s too bad my school taught that book only to girls.