Most women would do or pay anything to be that beautiful blonde in the bar, the one getting attention from all the men. And most women probably would not understand being blonde and voluntarily giving it up — covering up the blonde hair with a headscarf, voluntarily shedding the sexy outfit in favor of a long skirt and long sleeves, and wiping off all the makeup. But at least one woman, Lauren Shields of Atlanta, recently did just that.
“A lot of men approach me and start random conversations about nothing,” Shields told the Sisterhood in a recent phone interview. “Generally they’re trying to get my phone number, and that’s nice and everything, but I don’t actually want that kind of attention anymore.”
Shields, a film-editor-turned-seminary graduate, did not, at the age of 29, suddenly become a Haredi Jew or a religious Muslim. She didn’t turn Quaker or fall ill. She didn’t decide it was her responsibility as a woman to decrease men’s attraction to her by covering more skin. She was simply tired of feeling the need to dress a certain way, as dictated by society, fellow working women and her own rigorous standards.
“I had started to feel like the way I looked was not as much up to me as I would like,” Shields said. “I was starting to feel like it was a requirement to have a trendy haircut, to make sure that if I showed my arms or legs, they had to be super toned. If I showed my feet, they had to have nail polish on them. It started to feel like it wasn’t me anymore, it was me trying to look like everyone else.”
Clothes may not make the man, but apparently they do make the woman. In America, it seems that no matter how successful, intelligent or high-ranking a woman is, she will ultimately be measured by her looks. At least that’s the message gleaned from a recent interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan:
Interviewer: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?
Clinton: What designers of clothes?
Clinton: Would you ever ask a man that question?
Interviewer: Probably not. Probably not.
Depressingly, this is not the first time that Clinton — whose resume boasts titles such as Secretary of State, former New York Senator and former 2008 Democratic presidential candidate — has faced sexist commentary objectifying her body rather than respecting her work. As the Guardian asked, “She’s hoping to become the most powerful woman in the world — so why does Hillary Clinton wear such uninspiring clothes?” Fox News talked about her “nagging voice,” and when the Huffington Post ran a caption competition for a photo of Clinton with her mouth open, the obnoxious entries started rolling in. News cycles have devoted extensive coverage to her pants, her ankles, her skin and, perhaps most notoriously, her cleavage. During the 2008 elections, the Women’s Media Center compiled a compelling video montage of the pervasive sexism that women like Clinton have had to endure.
Coming this Sunday, to the intellectual and spiritual fountainhead of the Conservative movement, the best and brightest women (and men) in the movement will be talking about….clothing.
As Renee mentioned in this post, JTS will be hosting “What to Wear?” on March 11. It is an event billed as “An All-Day, Multifaceted Exploration of Women’s Clothing and Its Relationship to Religion and Culture.”
Much about the program sounds interesting: an interfaith panel, with Christian, Muslim and Jewish participants, on head covering and modesty; another panel, of female rabbis, looking at the messages sent by what they choose to wear; an examination of clothing in the Talmud, and an inter-generational session delving into the loaded topic of clothing and bat mitzvah.
Perhaps uniquely, JTS is able to bring together people from across the Jewish world, from Modern Orthodox to Reform, and from other faiths, and bring an intellectual perspective to bear on current cultural issues. And that’s great.
But something about this event seems more wrong than thrift store shoes on Carrie Bradshaw’s feet. My issue with “What to Wear?” isn’t the content, but that it’s happening at all.
Like all women, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Carol Ingall, a professor of Jewish education, and Shuly Rubin Schwartz, a professor of American Jewish history and a dean, ask themselves “What to wear?” Their realization, after talking to female colleagues, of the pervasiveness of “this constant negotiation,” as Ingall puts it, led them to delve into this seemingly quotidian query. The result is a daylong program of interdisciplinary, inter-religious and inter-generational exploration of women’s clothing and its relationship to religion and culture.
“What to Wear: Women, Clothing, Religion” will take place March 11 at JTS, and will feature a panel discussion on head coverings in Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim tradition; a talk by Forward columnist Jenna Weissman Joselit, of George Washington University, about how clothing helped Jewish women assimilate into American society, and wide-ranging sessions on everything from stripping in the Bible to clothing and Jewish stereotypes.
Among other highlights, Stefanie Siegmund, who chairs the Jewish gender and women’s studies program at JTS, will explore with attendees what clothing had to do with Christian-Jewish relations in the late 16th century. That “is the time of Shakespeare, and of the Italian comedies, as well as of the publication of many books of manners and customs, and legislation on who could wear what,” she wrote in an email. “Men and women were very self-conscious of the parts they played in the social hierarchy and also of the power of what they wore to change the way they were seen and treated.”
Yesterday was “boy-girl” day at my daughter’s school. What does that mean, exactly, you wonder, as I did when the news arrived home? Turns out, it is part of the Purim lead-up week, when every day the school has another dressing-up theme, like the less-charged “pajama day” or “face paint day.” The school this year instituted a day when boys dress up like girls and girls dress up like boys.
Now granted, the school may have found inspiration for this misguided idea from the many adult men who have dressed up as women over the years. When I was doing my research on partnership synagogues, one of my interviewees told me that I should write about how at his synagogue one year, no less than six men dressed up as women, and that in his opinion that says something about the men who are willing to pray in an egalitarian way. Presumably he was implying that a man dressing up like a woman is more in touch with his feminine side, whatever the heck that means. Or maybe that he just likes women. Or maybe he thinks that in the partnership synagogue, a place that pushes gender boundaries, it’s okay for a man to test his secret desire to go trans.
However, it is telling that you don’t find many women dressing up as men (except for specific-costume men, like Charlie Chaplain).
The portrait of Rav Ovadia Yosef’s family that hit the web this week was surprising not only because it is rare example of the rabbi without his characteristic dark glasses and long dress. Most surprising is his wife’s apparel: her hair, neck and collarbone are all exposed.
There has been some speculating as to why the rabbi “allowed” his wife to dress this way, some six decades ago when he was chief rabbi of Egypt. However, according to the Jewish Women’s Archives, Yosef has always had something of a mixed record on women’s issues from an Orthodox perspective. On the permissive side, he ruled that women should have a bat mitzvah ceremony, can be radio broadcasters and even wear pants under certain circumstances. On the restrictive side, he has also made some outrageous statements, especially on the hair-covering issue, having announced several years ago that women who wear hair-like wigs instead of scarves and hats will burn in hell — or at least in the world to come — along with their sheitels.
Still, I think that this mixed record is not as interesting as the evidence of historical evolution. It is clear that the way his wife covered her hair back then is considered unacceptable today by his family and followers. In other words, times have changed, as tends to happen.
This point that rules of body cover have gotten more restrictive over the years should sound obvious to most of the American Orthodox community. A browse through the photo archives of any Orthodox synagogue in America will undoubtedly reveal bare-headed rebbetzins — even in sleeveless tops and short skirts. The Young Israel congregation in which I grew up used to line the lobby hallway with such photos. Today the neighborhood is dominated by black hats and wigs.
Just because I wear pants, it doesn’t mean I lack dignity. Or self-respect. Or even modesty.
Which is why I find pieces, like this one, suggesting that dignity for a woman means excessive body-cover, so offensive.
When rabbis or anyone else claim that women need to cover their skin, their elbows, ankles and necks for the sake of “dignity” or “self-respect” or “protecting sexuality,” what that means is that people who dress like me are not dignified. We are overly sexualized. We might as well be walking naked on the subway platform. But It is just not true.
My body is mine alone, and I project that in my clothes. Not floor-sweeping skirts, not scarves to my forehead or necklines that choke. No, I wear pants, sometimes jeans, sometimes shorts and, yes, sometimes even sleeveless tops. I wear clothes that are comfortable, that feel good, that let me move and sit on the floor or in a chair, that enable me to ride a bike or climb a tree if I so choose, that let me wear my hair in a ponytail or in a scrunchie or even just down. Ultimately my hair is mine alone, as are my elbows, my neck, my ankles and skin. Before I look in a mirror, I look inward and ask myself how I feel about my body at this moment, and I let my inner voice of self-respect guide me.
In addition Gavriella Lerner’s assertion of choice followed by an admission that she does what she believes is expected of her according to halacha is a classic Orthodox non-sequitur. As in, I choose to do what I’m told.
Jennifer Moses wrote a recent and much-discussed Wall Street Journal essay titled “Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?” It opens with the writer listening in on a clutch of 12- and 13-year-old girls in the ladies room at a bat mitzvah party as they discuss other girls. The girls are, as you might expect, dressed in too-short dresses, long earrings and Kardashian-esque eye makeup.
It was a different bat mitzvah party than the one I recently attended where a 13-year-old guest wore what appeared to be 6-inch stilettos and a skirt so tight and short that she literally couldn’t sit down without giving the 7th-grade boys even more to see than she had planned. But it could have been any one of a countless number of such parties where the girls dress like hookers.
Now, I’m no advocate of the Jewish burqa look either. On the way to do some pre-Passover shopping at Pomegranate today, I saw this store, “Tznius Princess,” where the wedding gowns in the window had more fabric than Carol Burnett’s take on Scarlett O’Hara’s in “Gone with the Wind.” I’ve written here about turning to Mormon shopping websites in my attempt to find dresses that are neither overly bare nor overly burqa-esque for my daughters to wear.
Even at a moment when I’m still transfixed by all those photo montages of Michael Jackson’s transformation from black boy to pale-skinned, snip-nosed mutant, this story from an English-language newspaper in Sweden called The Local, caught my eye.
It’s about a young Swedish couple keeping the gender of their two-year-old child a secret. They don’t use a personal pronoun when referring to the child, in this story dubbed “Pop,” they dress him/her variously in “boy” and “girl” clothes, and frequently vary the child’s haircut so as to mix up the gender cues that hairstyles often provide. According to The Local’s story:
The parents were quoted saying their decision was rooted in the feminist philosophy that gender is a social construction. “We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset,” Pop’s mother said. “It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.”
The child’s parents said so long as they keep Pop’s gender a secret, he or she will be able to avoid preconceived notions of how people should be treated if male or female.
Pop’s wardrobe includes everything from dresses to trousers and Pop’s hairstyle changes on a regular basis. And Pop usually decides how Pop is going to dress on a given morning.
These parents have misconstrued what feminism is and, worse, are imposing a rigid ideology on their poor toddler in the name of not imposing a gendered view of the world.
Now, when I had my first child 15 years ago, a son, I dressed him in all sorts of funky clothes. Lots of bright colors and patterns, along with some black leggings and turtlenecks (I am a New Yorker, after all) that would have worked on either gender. Never a dress, though. I just assumed that most of the clothes would work just fine for our next child, whichever the baby’s gender.
Out came a daughter, and the first time I put black leggings and a bold shirt on her, it just looked …. wrong. Not because she’s a girl, but because it simply didn’t suit her. This child looked best in very feminine, flowered prints. Now she’s 10 and out of the little-flowers-print-dress stage. But whatever she wears, it has girlish flair to it: A cute newsboy-type hat turned just so, or her hair up in some fun do.
Then we had our third delicious child, another daughter. This daughter’s style, like her personality, could not be more different than that of my elder daughter. Now 8, her clothing style is what I can only call (much to my reformed-prep-school-graduate chagrin) preppy. If the shorts or pants are plaid, the girl wants them.
What we choose to wear reflects who we are — one of the reasons I find it so discomfiting to see the fundamentalist Mormon girls and women in their matching prairie dresses, or orthodox Muslim women in their nearly identical face-covering burkas.
We all wear uniforms of one type or another, of course, broadcasting much about who we are and the slice of society in which we live. Here’s a Wikipedia page of categories of Jewish religious dress. Even when we dress to be wildly non-conformist, we’re conforming to some segment of societal norm. Chasidim have their uniforms, which vary significantly among the various Chasidic groups, and have subtle differentiations even within them — and Dead-heads have theirs, and we Brooklyn creative types have ours.
The problem I have with the story out of Sweden is not that they are trying to give their child the opportunity to be who he or she is, and really waiting for the child’s nature and style to emerge, but rather are imposing a rigid ideology on the poor thing.
Part of the delight of parenting is discovering who your child his. So, “Pop’s” Swedish parents, relax. Let your child pick out his/her own clothes, yes.
But forcing ungainly pronoun combinations when writing about him/her, purposely making him/her look like the opposite gender is going to do a head trip on him/her? It’s hard enough to raise emotionally healthy children in this complicated world. Don’t sacrifice his/her emotional health to an odd sociology experiment.