This blog on women’s issues isn’t one I agree with a whole lot, but by asking if women are less happy when they wear less clothes, I think they’re on to something. I’m not sure that anorexia, bulimia and low self-esteem exist because models are thinner than a generation ago, though. Sure, there are women thinner and more beautiful than any of us out there (unless, apparently, you’re Megan Fox – but there are people out there who are smarter, richer, healthier, or better at karate than all of us, too, and the fact of their existence doesn’t drive us to despair, let alone mental illness.
The Jewish conception of modesty is, like all things Jewish, complicated, occasionally hard to understand and sometimes downright weird. (Gefilte fish, I’m looking at you.) But the basic concept of physical modesty, which applies to men too, is that we cover our bodies because they are sacred and not for public enjoyment, and is often expressed by the phrase “The glory of the king’s daughter is within.” What this means is that the things that matter – virtue, kindness, honesty, integrity, courage, humility – aren’t what show on the outside; inner beauty, in other words, however trite that phrase has become.
I think what’s really pernicious about our culture’s obsession with mostly naked women, however beautiful or thin they are, is the message that it sends about worth. “You’re worthless unless you’re thin” is the lesson some people take from it, sure, but it’s also a message that we publicly talk about and deconstruct. “Your value and your identity resides in your physical body” is the less obvious but no less pervasive message they convey. And when desirability as a friend or wife is also bound up in prettiness, it reinforces that message. If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t worry so much about magazine covers that say “you should look like Angelina/Kate Moss/Lindsay Lohan” as about the broader message that “all that matters is how you look.”
Certainly, you can dress scrupulously modestly and still be shallow. And you can insist on modest clothing for your chidlren without valuing their character and moral code. But as Wendy Shalit points out, by striving for a certain modesty in our dress and behaviour, we have the opportunity not only to say “I’m not on public display” but also “I will not be judged by your criteria.” Which is actually the sort of subversive, iconoclastic sentiment feminists celebrate. Right?by