Chana Hughes

Modern women need modesty more than ever

Are we really happy with the message we give teens when we let them dress scantily?


Rearview of teen girl friends looking at the sunset together on a golden summer evening

July 13, 2023 11:12

Prom night is over and parents can breathe a sigh of relief. Social media has been inundated with posts of 16-year-old girls wearing their prom dresses, the products of hours of online agonising, scrolling and searching.

The girls pose with their sculpted hair, made-up faces, skin-tight and revealing outfits, hyper-aware of how they look from every angle.

For many, prom night is the watershed celebration at which our teenagers begin their lives as independent young adults. But are we happy with the type of adult that our world is telling them to become?

The girls’ scanty prom dresses are a complete contrast to Charedi girls’ graduations. Religious Jewish women keep their elbows, knees and collar bones covered, even in the height of summer. Take a trip to Bnei Barak and this contrast is even more striking.

Daily temperatures in excess of 30 degrees, with humidity of 65 per cent, do not deter its Charedi residents from donning 40 denier tights and long, pleated skirts. It makes you sweat just looking at them.

But even the more modern religious women still cover up at this time of year, albeit with thinner stockings. Most dismiss the long sleeves and maxi skirts as the product of patriarchal oppression, encouraging women to be ashamed of their bodies.

They leave frum weddings and bar mitzvahs relieved to strip down again to crop tops and spaghetti straps. Liberated, they breathe. Who on earth would opt for such stifling oppression? But maybe it’s not that simple.

Almost all the women I have met in my life feel insecure about their bodies. When I look at these girls’ young faces in the prom photos, too often I see children buckling under the pressure of society’s hyper-sexual expectations — children who can’t see beyond the narrow and totalising judgment about their physical appearance.

Too often, when I want to see fresh, hopeful faces, curious and optimistic about their future, all I see is self-criticism and self-doubt. But what can we expect?

In a world where women’s physical appearance is seamlessly fused with their identity and women’s unattainable beauty standards are directly proportional to their self-worth, image has become everything. When the focus on external appearance is front and centre, there is little room for much appreciation of that which lies within.

The other day, my two-year-old daughter pointed to a billboard advertising an interior design company. There was a scantily clothed woman provocatively positioned for eye candy. My daughter looked puzzled. “Why is there a picture of that lady there?” She asked.

Just to make people look, I wanted to reply, but caught myself. It’s only a matter of time before she realises how objectified women are. I didn’t want to break it to her in toddlerhood. Society keeps telling us that we are only our bodies. How are we expected not to believe it?

Golda Meir famously saw herself as being quite plain in appearance. “Not being beautiful was the true blessing,” she reflected. “Not being beautiful forced me to develop my inner resources.” Needless to say, you don’t have to be ugly to shift the emphasis from your outer appearance to your inner qualities. Perhaps you just have to be tzniyut.

Tzniyut refers to modesty and although it is most often used to refer to the religious dress code, it encapsulates an outlook that is much deeper than clothes. Tzniyut is an attitude that prioritises internal qualities above appearance and superficial validation.

It applies to both men and women. In the 6th century BCE, the prophet Micah informed the Jewish nation of what the Almighty expected from them. “Act justly, love kindness and walk modestly with God”, he advised. The Talmud explains that “walking modestly” refers to mitzvot such as accompanying the dead to their final resting place and escorting a bride to her wedding.

These activities require unassuming behaviour rather than public recognition or glamour. They are valuable exactly because they are subsidiary; they see the dignity in stepping back to support someone else, without vying for the limelight. The quiet confidence that my public image or appearance will never define my self-worth can only be the result of true modesty.

When I walk outside in the beating sun with my maxi skirt and long sleeves, I feel the looks of pity. People assume I am a victim, coerced to cover up for fear of enticing men into sin. In reality, I am observing the ancient art of tzniyut: the embodiment of privacy.

Distracting the focus from my external appearance so that I can have the space to develop that which is within. The maturity to be counter-cultural and insist that women are so much more than their physical appearance? Now that’s a graduation worth celebrating.

July 13, 2023 11:12

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