I’ve been following Pop Chassid’s blog for a little while now. I enjoy and respect his perspectives on Judaism, and life, and admire his bravery for tackling topics that are, shall we say, on the unpopular side.
I don’t like conflict. I don’t like being yelled at online by people I don’t even know. So, mainly, I stay away from hot-button issues. When I did my post on how we’re all indoctrinating our children, I got some impassioned comments, which is fine, but it does take a certain amount of steely grit not to take things personally, especially when the comments feel so personal and combative.
Yesterday, Pop Chassid did a post where he shared, bravely, I thought, the struggle he faces when in the presence of scantily-clad women. Now, the topic of modesty is an extremely contentious one. What is modesty? Who defines it? Is it covering your elbows and collarbones, as I do? Is it wearing loose-fitting clothing, as other people do? Is it not talking on a cell phone in public, as some would like? And, most importantly, is modesty something that a man can ever talk about, can ever request of women?
Stop Subjugating Us, Right?
Not surprisingly, there was a torrent of strong reactions from all sorts of people. Since I like Pop Chassid, I was saddened by the personal attacks from people who admittedly hadn’t read his blog, or even that post. Based on the title alone, “An Appeal To Women For Modesty,” he is being excoriated. And, listen, I understand that it can be grating to hear something on this topic coming from an man. I get that. But I was not offended by the message of his post, which I took as this:
Yes, men need to control their urges, but it doesn’t hurt for women to at least be sensitive to the fact that men, even good men, don’t always succeed in thinking good thoughts when faced with revealing clothing.
My friend Sheva commented that, “as a woman who dresses modestly everyday, I have never once gotten up in the morning and did it for the men.” And I do agree with her. We shouldn’t only do it because (some? most? all?) men are hard-wired to think a certain way. We should do it because that’s what our tradition asks of us (now, for my readers who are not Orthodox, I’m certainly not judging you if you’re reading this post in a tank top and jeans. This is me talking about my life and my beliefs).
My experience with modesty and men
Before I was frum, my style was very iconoclastic. My wardrobe was my canvas. I spent a whole week in college dressing like Tank Girl. Because it was fun, and because I could. I had plenty of tube tops, tube dresses, and mini things. I had modest clothes, too, sure, but I had plenty of not-so-modest pieces.
When I wore a really fitted and revealing outfit, the type of attention I received was, well, sexual. I was putting myself out there, saying, in essence, “this is what I have to offer.” You will note that what I was “offering” was not my wit or intellect. Not so much. In retrospect, it is not surprising that the relationships and interactions I had with men reflected what I was wearing. I was liberated, so who cared? I was young, it was fun, and everyone else was doing it, dressing this way.
After I started getting into Judaism, and wearing clothes that were more conservative, I noticed something interesting. Men started treating me with a higher level of respect. They would hold doors open for me with a pleasant, non-lascivious smile on their face. Men my father’s age would treat me in a fatherly way. I felt like I was taken more seriously, at work and in general interactions. I felt better about myself, less distracted by my own sexuality, and more able to focus on the task at hand, even if it was something as simple as grocery shopping. People were listening to what I had to say instead of looking me up and down.
What sells? I think you know.
And I realized that prior to dressing more modestly, I was subconsciously aware that by dressing provocatively, I was engaging the attention of the men around me. That it gave me a certain power, and a certain kind of attention.
Now, when I was putting on a halter top in the morning, I certainly wasn’t thinking, “hmmm, how much attention from men will I get with this outfit?” When I was going out at night, it probably did cross my mind. Like most women, I wanted to look attractive. And what is considered attractive? Look at the magazine covers in the checkout line at the store. Based on the messages I received from magazines, movies, television, etc., that was how to dress, how to be attractive. With less fabric.
And being attractive seemed to be closely linked with what men thought of us, as women. How much of us was on display, was there to entice, to say, “hey, look at this, but don’t touch.” You know? Maybe you’re shaking your head in disgust right now, thinking, “How can Rivki think that? What a perspective!” But, really, it’s no secret that sex sells. It’s all over the media. It’s powerful. And pretending that how we dress is unrelated to men’s reactions is naïve.
Not that women are consciously making that connection when they get dressed, but as people who are considerate to the feelings and needs of others, why shouldn’t it cross our mind from time to time? Why shouldn’t we at least consider the feelings, the complicated and conflicted feelings of men, who apparently, really do think about it all the time?
Being considerate can apply to every situation
It’s not considered weak or subjugated to be considerate of the feelings of someone who is, for example, vegan, when we invite them over for a meal. It’s not considered rude of them to ask us to take their needs into account when we feed them. It’s not unreasonable to be considerate of someone who is facing a challenge when we are conversing with them. We wouldn’t say, “oh, how inappropriate of them to feel the way they do! Why can’t they just master their emotions and desires?” That’s ridiculous.
So why is it that when a good man, like Pop Chassid, is honest about his struggle, and simply asks us to consider that, he is lambasted? He didn’t ask to be a man. He is working on himself. He didn’t say, “Oh, you need to wear this, or act that way.” He was just saying, “This is what I struggle with. I want you to be aware.”
Yeah, I saw that coming
I understand that this post is not going to win me any popularity contests. Some of you might even stop reading my blog, or maybe you won’t want to interact with me on facebook anymore. I’m not going to be surprised to see unpleasant comments down there (if you disagree, I do request you do so pleasantly and respectfully. I will moderate out the nasty ones).
But I feel strongly about this. I don’t feel that he was out of line in his post. I feel that the level of vitriol I have witnessed (and during the Three Weeks, for shame!) is unwarranted, and unrelated to him or the post, but more in line with the level of hysteria associated with this topic. I don’t feel that it’s unreasonable for us, as women, to reflect on the way our choices in clothing impact those around us. What message it sends to our children, our daughters. I feel that when we can all learn to be more sensitive to the needs of others, in many different arenas, we will improve as people, and become mentschen.
That’s my piece.
And here’s a response from one of my friends: Post Punk Chronicles – Reply to PopChassid Modesty Article. If you have a post about it, feel free to share the link in the comments section. I enjoy reading other people’s perspectives on it.