Dress Code or Stress Code?

Author Ariela Basson holds up a sign about feminism and school dress codes.

Courtesy of Ariela Basson.

One of the most influential aspects of my Jewish identity is my experience in Jewish day schools, which I attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. In kindergarten, we could wear tank tops (even with the oh-so-scandalous spaghetti straps), but in second grade our tank tops had to pass the daunting three-finger test. In fifth grade, tank tops were banished. Limited Too, the Gap, and Abercrombie simply did not make three-finger approved tank tops. In sixth grade, we were confronted with the evil fingertip test (our shorts, skirts, and dresses had to at least pass the length of our fingertips when our arms were straight). In seventh and eighth grade, leggings were a dangerous game. If they were worn appropriately, leggings were safe. However, no one really knew when leggings were or were not allowed because not only were the criteria unclear, but in the words of Blair Waldorf (the main character on Gossip Girl), “Tights are not pants!” 

I never really understood the purpose of the dress code. Was it for religious reasons? Was it to protect our male classmates from possible distraction from their studies? Was it for both reasons? I found it extremely degrading that I felt pressured to be ashamed of my body. I started to feel like my body was something that God wanted me to hide. I’m sure that many other young women who attended Jewish day school have felt the same way. At a time when girls are just starting to grow into their bodies, the last thing we need is to feel embarrassed. Even when I began high school, I could feel the emotional effects of the dress code. One day I visited my middle school and bumped into one of my old teachers. When I saw her I excitedly said, “I can wear tank tops in public school!” When she replied with a laugh and said, “Okay, Ariela, you just remember to stay a nice Jewish girl,” I was taken aback. Why did showing my shoulders make me any less of a “nice Jewish girl?” 

It took me a while to accept that exposing my shoulders doesn’t change who I am, and to understand that wearing leggings to school or walking through the hallways in a skirt that doesn’t touch my knees is acceptable. I began to realize the absurdity of stringent and sexist dress codes and came to a conclusion: the Judaism that I know and love is an accepting and tolerant religion that stands for equality and pride. I should never feel apologetic for being a woman because I feel required by religion to do so.

I believe that women should be able to wear what they want. Whether a woman wants to wear a maxi dress or a mini skirt should be up to that woman; it’s her body. Fashion and apparel are forms of expression. A woman should feel free and confident in the clothes that she wears, not guilty. Judaism needs feminism because Judaism can often be misinterpreted. I believe that Judaism is a religion that has been forged by strong women such as Miriam and Esther, and is not a religion that should allow people to control others’ ways of life. I believe that Judaism should not be twisted into a judgmental religion. For me, it should be an accepting religion, an equal religion, and a feminist religion. 

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Feminism, Jewish Law
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Why would you be ashamed of something that wields so much power? Female bodies are attractive and eye-catching. Everyone comes from a female body and thus we are innately driven to appreciate the female form, like baby ducks imprinted upon hatching. And because it has so much power, it is respectful of others to be judicious with the amount of skin we force others to see in balance with the context of the public space. It's kind of like a gun in that sense. It too can be a powerful good force in the right context, yet many vehemently argue that we shouldn't all go around carrying one. Again, it's about the balance between power, respect and public spaces.

How to cite this page

Bickel, Ariela. "Dress Code or Stress Code?." 28 October 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 4, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/dress-code-or-stress-code>.

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