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I was on the train one morning when the non-Jewish woman sitting next to me complimented my ankle-length knife-pleat skirt. We got into a conversation about modest clothing. She said, "Life is hard enough without people looking at your butt."
I couldn't have said it better myself. Life is hard enough without putting my body on display for scrutiny. Life is hard enough without people looking at my butt, or my upper arms, or my stomach. Life is hard enough without agonizing in front of a mirror about whether or not my "muffin top" or my [insert your own disgusting women's body euphemism here] is showing. I just don't show them. It eliminates a whole range of potential self-involved hatred.
While dressing modestly fundamentally is a commandment, meaning that I do it because G-d said so, it has a range of benefits. I don't have to worry if my clavicles gleam like Kate Moss's, because the collar of my shirt covers them. I don't have to compare my thighs to Gwyneth Paltrow's, since I cover them with a properly fitting skirt that covers my knees. I don't have to give two farts about a boyfriend gazing across the bar at some yogini with perfectly cut arms, because I am married to a chossid who guards his eyes, and we don't hang around in bars.
I feel like I exercise conscientious objection every single day of my life, even in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where I live among the Lubavitch Chassidim. I am Lubavitch, but I became Lubavitch as an adult, after getting a very thorough feminist education. Unlike a number of the young women who grow up "in the system," I have no desire to wear revealing clothes. I've been there. I've done that version of "liberated." It sucked for me. I chose a different path. I continue to dress modestly despite, even here in Crown Heights, every temptation and pressure in the world not to. There is immense societal pressure to look hot.
It is not very Chassidish to use the word "sucked." We are not into vulgarity. However, I remember talking to a well-educated, successful woman who worked as a stripper during graduate school. About stripping she said: "It sucks. It just really sucks." I feel I am making the appropriate word choice here. I am using the word in the same point-blank, brutally honest way that this extremely progressive, classically strong, secular Jewish woman described her experience of working as a stripper. I am using it to say, "Wearing revealing clothes hurt my core. It hurt me badly."
This essay is partly about fat/thin issues. It is about liking my body versus thinking I am too big, too dark, and too hairy. I can't talk about this without getting into sexuality, though.
"When a person is comfortable with her sexuality, she can much more easily dress modestly. When people have complexes about it, and are trying to prove themselves, and are not comfortable in their own skin, that's when they have a problem covering up," said Sheva Tauby, Executive Director of iVolunteer, an organization that connects young secular Jewish professionals to Holocaust survivors. Mrs. Tauby grew up Lubavitch. "Forget religion. The women I meet who show less skin are always more confident. They don't have to prove anything," she said.
"Because sexuality is so connected to modesty, and it is at the core of everyone's being, when someone is walking down the street dressed modestly it touches a core in a way that people don't even realize," said Mrs. Tauby. "They can't put their finger on it. People even say things to me sometimes. If a guy comes over to me and wants to shake my hand, they sort of know automatically that it is going to be different. When they put their hand out for me to shake it, I can feel that they know that I am a woman who respects herself. They expect it that I won't touch them. It is not a surprise when I tell that that I am religious and I don't shake hands with men."
In my own life, the shift from feeling like I had to prove something to feeling strong and settled happened around the same time that I started dressing modestly. For a while, I was half-hearted about it. I was wearing skirts below the knee, but no socks. It was when I clicked into a pulled-together, tailored, totally modest style that I stopped feeling fat. That was when I started feeling like I could go anywhere, and do anything, and deal with any kind of person without being infantilized or talked down to. My body was not on the auction block anymore.
Like Mrs. Tauby said, I am able to maintain boundaries better now that I dress modestly. Sometimes men try to chat me up, and it is easy for me to say, "I'm religious and I am not comfortable talking to you." I look the part so it does not come as a surprise. There is the occasional street pervert or harasser, which I think everyone is subject to regardless of what we wear. However, I do not let creepers and randos into my mental or physical space anymore.
My friend Rochel, who also became religious as an adult, had a similar experience, which she gave me permission to share in this article. She said, "Before dressing modestly, I often viewed myself as overweight, and every time I got dressed, I felt different. I could look in the mirror and be like, 'Wow, I look good today,' and then get home from class or work and change to go out and feel disgusted at my looks. I dressed both form fitting and shlumpy."
She continued, "After going through some hard times, I was given the book Doesn't Anyone Blush Anymore by Rabbi Manis Freidman and it changed my world. I almost instantly started dressing completely modest. Not only did I feel better about myself by keeping my body for me, but I also felt more beautiful. For the first time ever, I always loved what I wore and rarely thought, 'I look fat.' I was no longer disgusted with myself even though at the same time period I gained 10 lbs. I have since realized that what happened is that I was focused so much on what I thought others thought of me instead of focusing on myself and being the best me, that I was losing me. Dressing modestly took away all that. In addition to finding spirituality, I was able to become more healthy mentally, physically, and spiritually."
Ani, another Lubavitch woman, told me, "Skirts, dresses, and funky layers do so much more for my 'little-in-the-middle-but-she-got-much-back [and hips]' than pants could ever dream of (if pants dreamed). That alone did wonders for my confidence."
So how do I dress? I wear clothes that fit properly. I've taken skirts to the tailor to get back slits turned into kick pleats, or to have clothes that are too big and look frumpy tailored to size. I don't do frumpy. I do not even own a sweatshirt. Frumpy does not equal modest.
Esther, an Orthodox makeup artist, told me, "As an admitted fat chick, I think that dressing modestly can be a way of avoiding how you feel about your body. It also depends what you consider modest. I don't think prancing around with cleavage out is going to make you feel good about yourself, but wearing clothing that is body conscious and flattering makes me feel better about myself than wearing clothing that is completely covered, shapeless, and dowdy. Modesty is an internal ideal, not just a set of rules. I once heard a guy say that all Jewish women are internally modest, no matter what they are actually wearing. Not sure if I agree with that, but I like to strike a balance of proudly accepting my body as it is without feeling I need to show it to everyone."
My friend Esti (not to be confused with Esther), a Lubavitch mother who works full time, said to me, "As a frum woman, I don't have to wear a tent or a muumuu. I feel beautiful because I know how to dress for my size and I don't have to wear skintight clothing that shows everything. I can dress classy and look pretty and I don't have to wear a sack, but I don't have to fit into a pair of jeggings to be pretty. My favorite outfit is a really nice denim skirt with a beaded black cashmere sweater and leopard print flats. Or my new coat from Talbots, a houndstooth print coat. I love hot pink. I can still express my style and be modest. I can wear a houndstooth coat and a bright pink scarf with my patent leather Coach purse and look cute. I can express myself and I don't have to worry about, 'Does my cleavage look fabulous?'"
I don't worry anymore when I get dressed. I don't pinch my fat, or bend over to examine my rolls. I just get dressed. I go out feeling like I look nice. It stops there. I stop at looking nice. I don't worry about looking hot. With the exception of sociopaths and street harassers, when I see myself as simply looking appropriate and nice, so does everyone else.
Chaya Kurtz is dishing out fashion advice on Twitter: @chayakurtz.