To Reveal or Not To Reveal: Modesty, Jewish Feminism, and the Male Gaze
The one halter top I own is cropped, with a low neckline and a pattern of blue, coral, and white stripes. I love the way it looks, but I never wear it without a zippered sweatshirt or a cardigan. I’ll often wrap the sweatshirt around myself protectively when walking through the school hallways or to the bus station. I don’t know how many people on the street are really looking to leer at a random teenage girl in a crop top, but I don’t care to find out.
In general, I find that I’m unusually alert and suspicious when my neckline is low-cut. At school, I catch people looking at me, and I can’t tell if I’m paranoid or if their eyes really are drifting a little too far down. There are times when I’ve thought it would be better to stop wearing anything revealing, and stick to demure scoop-necks and thick wool sweaters. Then I wouldn’t worry so much about whether some guy is staring at my chest or at my Star of David necklace.
The Talmud is particularly concerned with women’s modesty, or tzniut, saying in Berakhot that, “An exposed handbreadth in a woman constitutes nakedness… Anyone who gazes upon a woman’s little finger is considered as if he gazed upon her naked genitals, for if his intentions are impure, it makes no difference where he looks or how much is exposed, even less than a handbreadth.”
One could think of this as a directive to women, telling them that because their bodies are so inherently sensual, they must cover every inch. The Talmud says to cover up so that men don’t get any ideas. Parents teach their daughters to never walk alone at night, much less in revealing clothing, but they don’t teach their sons not to rape.
“Even a woman’s exposed leg is considered nakedness,” the passage continues. “It is written in the following verse: ‘Your nakedness shall be revealed and your shame shall be seen’ (Isaiah 47:3).” Is a woman’s body shameful? Or is allowing others to see it shameful?
On any given day, I dress in clothes that leave several “handbreadths” of my body exposed. It doesn’t make me unique. It doesn't make me feel ashamed. But it does make me feel vulnerable.
I have a friend who told me once that she’s sure she’ll be assaulted someday. She gestured to her body and her revealing clothes as evidence, presenting this horrifying idea of inevitability as a fact of life. It seemed that she’d made her peace with it. I can’t do the same.
There’s a baseline level of fear that I operate with as a woman in today’s society, but that fear is amplified when my clothes reveal more. It can feel dangerous to expose yourself, and so one’s immediate instinct is to cover up. Yet it’s not my job, nor is it the job of any woman, to look after men, to dress demurely because men can’t be trusted to control themselves around a bare shoulder.
Recently I’ve embarked on a mission to dress how I want, when I want. I wear bodycon dresses and low-cut tops and I try to keep nagging thoughts at bay. I am slowly learning how to find the feminist power in letting so much of myself be seen.
Yet there is also a feminist case to be made for modesty. For many years, not possessing a complete understanding of Judaism beyond my small secular, Yiddish world, I thought of the Jewish laws of modesty in women as repressive and backward—a violation of feminist values. But eventually I began to understand them as something entirely different, as not only a sign of devotion to God, but as a choice made by a woman as an assertion of her bodily autonomy. There are few things more feminist than that.
Dressing like a feminist doesn’t only mean reclaiming skimpy clothing used to objectify women or wearing graphic tees with slogans like “Well behaved women seldom make history” or “The future is female”—not that I have anything against a good corny t-shirt every once in a while. Dressing like a feminist can also mean concealing your body, saving it for yourself and for whoever else you choose. There’s no handbook for dressing as your most feminist self. How feminism translates into one’s clothes is something entirely up to an individual to decide.
Society has proven itself time and time again, in a thousand different ways, to be hostile to women and girls. We have a distasteful fixation on women’s bodies and how they’re presented to the world. No matter what clothes a woman wears, there will always be someone on hand to criticize her. It’s weird if she’s too modest—she’s a prude; why isn’t she flaunting what she’s got? But it’s a problem if she isn’t modest enough—slut, whore, skank. Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.
It’s difficult to read sacred Jewish texts and find teachings that arguably oppose the idea of self-ownership of one’s body. How can the Jewish community grapple with these teachings and apply them in a modern context? Perhaps it is as simple as recognizing that a woman’s body is not an object, nor is it shameful or innately sexual, but an inherent part of life. It shouldn’t be regarded as something dangerous and forbidden but as something natural and beautiful. Perhaps it is as simple as recognizing that the shape of her hips or the size of her chest should not necessarily be the defining feature of any woman.
I don’t wear my halter top often. Sometimes I pull it out and put it back because I’m worried it’s inappropriate, or that people will judge me for wearing something that exposes my chest. I want to wear what makes me happy, what makes me feel confident and beautiful, even if those clothes show a little skin. But it’s hard to reconcile my anxiety over harassment and assault with the feminist on my shoulder who’s yelling that if I dress for them, they’ve won. There is no easy way to find a balance. In the end, I have to make the choice to claim my body for myself, and dress in what makes me feel good.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.