Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Of Shells and Modesty

The late R'n Esther Jungreis - always fashionable yet modest
I am a little uncomfortable talking about women’s fashions in the context of modesty. But that has never stopped me before. After reading a series of articles in the Forward I thought I may as well throw in my own 2 cents. So here goes.

I have to disagree with Michelle Honig. She writes in a Forward article about the current trend among Orthodox women to wear what is called a ‘shell’. This is a  piece of clothing that is generally skin tight, and covers up the arm to at least three-quarter length and whose neckline is in accordance with Orthodox Jewish standards of modesty. 

Wearing this piece of clothing allows observant women to buy just about any style of clothing they wish, no longer having to worry about whether it covers up enough of the body to meet Halachic modesty standards. Fashionable sleeveless dresses low plunging necklines are now an option if worn over one of these shells.

Ms Honig hates this trend. Here is how she puts it: 
(It’s) impossible to look good in a shell. It’s not stylish, it’s not flattering and it cheapens every look. It’s rarely, if ever, used with intention, beyond the intention of making something modest. It’s a lazy approach to dressing, where creativity in dressing falls by the wayside. Wearing a shell makes dressing modestly a mechanical, mindless process, and sucks the joy out of getting dressed.
OK. I will give her the fact that shells are rarely used as a fashion statement. But that is where my agreement ends. Shells are used to conform to Halacha. My wife and three daughters all use shells. The ‘layered’ look that these shells present  does not really make them all that less fashionable. At least to my untrained eye. Or to any ‘eye’ that is not focused on the minutia of fashion. All it does is make them more modest and in compliance with Halacha... and often very attractive and yet modest at the same time

Emily Schneider responded to Ms. Honig in her own Forward article. Here in part is what she said: 
Why would restrictions imposed by men be necessary in order for women to dress creatively? What legitimacy, in fact, do such restrictions hold?
By critiquing minor aspects of tznius, like shells, women may claim to have a degree of control over their bodies and how they choose to cover them. Yet adhering to normative modesty codes, by definition, cedes this control.
Any alleged “creativity” involved in selecting an outfit which will not offend or disturb Jewish men is a sad and minimal compensation. Mild complaints about minute details only grant tacit legitimacy to this system…
However a woman chooses to adhere to modesty, shells or not, the rules she complies with are predicated on male anxiety about women’s bodies and the potentially dangerous responses which the sight of women’s bodies may provoke. 
Ms. Schneider says that women are dominated by a patriarchal society that fears its own illicit thoughts – thereby imposing unfair restrictions upon the way women dress – thus  limiting women’s freedom.

What Ms. Shneider seems to ignore is that fact that those fears are quite real. A holy society ought to avoid instances that lead to erotic thoughts in men. And it is no secret that men react to the visual. Exposure of female skin often generate erotic thoughts in men. The more skin exposred the more likeihood of those thoughts..  

No one has explained this better than Penina Taylor. She responded in her own Forward article to both Honig and Schneider: 
The opinion that Schneider expressed in her piece, that dressing modestly is a set of restrictions imposed on women by men, is closely related to a commonly held but completely false premise – the idea that exposing one’s body is an expression of empowerment and covering one’s body is a result of male oppression of women.
Of course, in order to come to this conclusion, one must overlook the fact that Western women’s fashion has pretty much always been dictated by men, and has always attempted to expose, or highlight, women’s bodies to a greater degree than men…
From very early on, women have been convinced (read: sold a bill of goods) that flaunting all is an exercise of freedom. That covering one’s body is an indication of shame, and that “if you’ve got it, flaunt it”, and anything else is a sign of oppression or domination.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have long explained that there is a fundamental difference between the way men’s brains are wired and women’s brains are wired when it comes to sexual arousal. Keeping religion entirely out of the picture, it has been proven that men are primarily aroused by visual input whereas women are primarily aroused by touch. That’s not religion. That’s science. 
With this in mind, we can better understand the reasons for modesty laws. This is not to say that men don’t have their own responsibility in this regard. They do. It is incumbent upon men to avoid those circumstances that will lead to erotic thoughts. But that does not mean that women should be free to expose as much skin as they want any time and any place they want.  There are common sense reasons for modesty. As a society we should all try and do what we can to be a holy nation.

For men that means avoiding scenarios that induce erotic thoughts. For women it means dressing modestly in order to minimize those thoughts in their encounters with men.  But being modest need not mean avoiding fashionable clothing. Which brings me back to shells. I believe shells have been a tremendous aid in keeping us a ‘kingdom of priests and holy nation’ and enabling women to dress as fashionable and modestly as they can.