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Accessed on June 29, 2016 - 11:14:10

Thoughts on modesty abroad, in three vignettes

Katie van Schaijik, Jun 08, 2014

1. I am in the Old City of Jersalem, enjoying the sights and admiring the traditional styles of clothing. I am loving the way old men and boys alike proclaim their identity—their belonging to God—by wearing a yamulke. I am charmed by the way different sects are easily recognizable by their distinctive dress. I notice how feminine and dignified the long, dark skirts and headscarves look on women. I'm thinking I prefer the Jewish mode of scarves knotted at the neck to the Muslim mode of completely covered necks. But mainly I'm thinking about how much more attractive both styles are than the faded jeans I am wearing. 

A young couple walks toward us. I gather by his tall hat and payot that they are Hasidim. As they pass by, the woman looks my outfit up and down, blatantly curling her lip in scorn.  

In a flash I understand at a new level what's wrong with dress codes and modesty rules.

No article of clothing, be it everso sloppy or skimpy and revealing, could be less becoming and more out of keeping with feminine grace and dignity than such a look of rude dismissal toward a fellow human being. Better for a woman to go naked than to allow herself to feel morally superior to other women because of the way she dresses.

Rules, however reasonable in themselves, yield externalism, self-righteousness and contempt for others. 

2. I am in Seville. It is the time of the April feria, when the local women dress in traditional dresses of the region.

Walking in among them, I can't help noticing that these long, tight-fitting, ruffle-bottomed dresses are unmistakably designed to highlight feminine sexuality.

And yet, the women who wear them seem enhanced, not diminished in personal dignity. Rather than objectifying them, it's as if their sexuality is unapologetically taken up into their subjectivity through this way of dressing.

These women don't look demure; they don't look mousy; they don't look timid. Nor do they look sleazy. They look bold and confident and free and feisty in their womanliness. They're not subordinating themselve to Spanish male machoism, they're challenging it. Olé!

In a flash I understand how culturally-conditioned and limited my ideas about femininity and modesty have been up to now. 

3. I am on a beach in Granada. The sun is shining brilliantly. Jules rents some lounge chairs under a tiki umbrella for us. At the next umbrella, a few feet over, is a family of four: parents about 40, a boy of 13 or so and a girl of maybe 10. Both mother and daughter are topless all day. Jules and the boys go snorkeling. I stay behind, reading and discretely watching this family. They enjoy being together. They chat happily; they help each other apply sunscreen. Brother and sister play contentedly together in sand and surf. Hours pass and I never once hear an unpleasant word or ugly tone pass between them.

It strikes me that this mother is succeeding where I have failed—where I think most in my circle have failed. She is teaching her children to to be comfortable and confident in their bodies and respectful with each other.

Now that I'm back home, here's what I'm thinking:

The residual puritanism in America is a more serious problem than I had thought. It's affected me more than I'd realized. I regret my mode of parenting in that regard.  I regret, too, the "modesty talks" I've given. They seem to me now like misplaced zeal.

We should refrain from absolutizing what is relative. We should minimize rules. We should concentrate much more on our own interior disposition and much, much less on what other people wear.