Monday, October 12, 2009

Modesty: a woman's crown

I don't spend much time reading blogs these days, but not long ago, I came across a great post by Bethany at The Apple Cider Mill. As always, Bethany writes from a thoroughly Christian perspective, and as I often do, even though I'm as Jewish as can be, I find myself nodding in agreement when reading her blog.

I'm a big proponent of modesty; as a matter of fact, realising the necessity of adopting modest dress and chaste behavior has served me as a jumping board into observing the laws of Orthodox Judaism, which completely changed my life - and I will be eternally grateful for that. I wear long skirts and cover my hair, I wouldn't show anything above my elbow or below my collarbone and I do so happily, but sometimes I feel we are too defined by our outward appearances.

Last Shabbat, I came across a leaflet that technically talked about the importance of what I already practice - full hair covering, particularly with head scarves, and modest dress in general. Supposedly I was meant to feel good about myself after reading it, but in fact I felt like wanting to dissociate myself as much as possible from the group of women who wrote that leaflet. Perhaps it was because they resorted to bashing women who cover their hair with wigs rather than head scarves or hats. Perhaps it was the implication that a woman's righteousness is gained by modesty alone, while omitting the merits of reaching out to others and sincere prayer. Perhaps it was their self-righteous tone in general. But in any case, I put away the leaflet shaking my head and thinking, "no - I am not one of them!"

Modesty does not need to be associated with martyrdom or being shut away from society. I've read books which actually claim that the righteous woman should leave the four walls of her home as little as possible, not even to participate in public prayer, and point to virtuous women who only left their house once in two weeks. Publishing and promoting such writings seems sinister and unhealthy to me. Shutting women out of society and spiritual life is not "modest", it's plain sick.

Modesty is not meant to be excessively restrictive, as to interfere with the normal course of life; modesty is not meant to make women feel ugly or dirty or sinful. Modesty is a woman's crown, and I believe the Almighty rejoices every time a woman chooses to cover her hair, but who are we to look at anyone disdainfully for not complying with certain standards?

When I'm in a group of other religious women, I often feel that my skirt, sleeves and hair covering are being mentally measured and evaluated the second I enter the room, and the next second I'm categorized and classified. I can't stand that. I think that if we believe in a certain type of modest dress, the best way to promote it is simply to wear it in a dignified and graceful way. A quiet, gentle, modest spirit can reach out so much further than a holier-than-thou attitude.

Modesty is closely interrelated with humility. I think that was what bothered me most about that leaflet I mentioned earlier. It implied that women who dress modestly should "teach" those who don't. While my skirts and sleeves might be longer than of many women I know, I don't feel this automatically makes me qualified to be their spiritual guide or mentor. The better path, I think, would be to just live a gentle, faith-centered life, without dwelling on what others are doing. I am endlessly far from perfect, after all. I am just learning along the way.


Anonymous said...

Love your last paragraph. I think true humility and respecting the integrity of others not as modest/religious/etc would go a long, long way towards unifying different sectors.

Anonymous said...

Shalom Anna,

That is exactly how I feel about this issue. It also seems that certain women tend to make an idol out of length of hair, makeup or no makeup, jewellery or no jewellery and all manner of externals that though important in expressing a modest heart, do little to express humility. I also feel that many such women are also judgmental about family planning and size of families. They tend to put being pregnant and being the mother of many children up in an almost idolatrous place whilst the true gentleness and humility which reflect a truly modest and G-d fearing heart, are overlooked. Thanks for this eloquent post!

Blessings to you,


Terry @ Breathing Grace said...

Amen, Anna. I think what you have said here is vitally important. Our motive for being modest is just as important the midesty itself.

Thanks for sharing.

Deborah said...

Anna, your blog is so refreshing! Even as you explain that your clothing doesn't automatically qualify you to be someone's spiritual guide or mentor, you demonstrate why you *are*, in fact, qualified to guide and mentor other women! It's your focus on the important things that qualifies you. I am a Christian and view the world as much as possible from a Christian perspective, but you, with your Jewish perspective, have things to teach me. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I would like to thank you, too, Anna....and echo what what another commenter said when they praised the eloquence of this post. You show a truly ladylike & modest heart when you address this subject the way you have.


Front Porch Society said...

Well written post.

Tracy said...

I feel the same way as you do, Anna. Though I dress more modestly than most women I know, I do not ever feel it is my place to correct them, and I certainly don't play judge. I worry about myself and my family, and that's enough.

Persuaded said...

The last decade or so has brought me down this path of modest dress... I now only wear long skirts and dresses and cover my head, usually to include all of my hair as well. Once when I was thinking and praying albeit somewhat absent-mindedly;) I found myself feeling a bit prideful about my "modesty." Immediately, I was convicted by the Lord... not only should I be humble towards other women no matter what their convictions on this issue, but I should be grateful to God for His part in my choice to dress modestly. When I dress this way, it makes me constantly aware of the fact that I am a woman, and that He values my femininity. When I cover my head, I am aware that- even though I am without a man to share my life- He has promised to be my husband. The cover is a constant sign that I am under His covering, He cherishes me and values me.

During that prideful moment, the Lord helped me to realize that... for me... modest dress is a precious gift that He has given me. One that not only protects me physically, but even more importantly nourishes me emotionally and spiritually. If I choose to see it as evidence of something worthy in *me*, if I choose to be prideful or condescending towards other women who have different convictions, how that would displease Him! I was struck by the thought that He could choose to withdraw that precious gift for a time... and perhaps convict me to wear jeans and tee shirts;)

God is so much less concerned with our outward appearance and so much more concerned with the condition of our hearts♥

Sasha said...

To tell you the truth,this is the first article on modesty which I actually liked and agreed with.

Rachel said...

I agree, Anna, in so many ways, with what both you and Bethany have said regarding this. A few years ago, I made similar changes in attire and outlook, and I have to say that some of the changes have been less than well received. I am sure that there are those who think I am judgemental (no, other than to say "I cannot wear that", or explaining to my three daughters why we choose to wear/not to wear certain clothing). Or 'classifying' them, but that wouldn't be the case. I've got one friend IRL who dresses in at all a similar fashion, and that doesn't bother me in the slightest.

Modesty is as much a state of mind as it is of the externals, and having both is of the essence. I agree with the other ladies who have said that by your...humility? in saying that you don't feel qualified to teach other women, you show yourself to be qualified. Not false modesty...the "oh, please tell me I should" type of modesty. But the genuine humility that you show in your posts..speaks volumes that the changes you have brought to the outside of your person, are as equally present on the inside. Which would in fact make you a wonderful teacher.

And like you said--far better to live it, joyfully, quietly, and serve as an example, answering questions as they arise, than to be out there pounding your thoughts and beliefs into someone else's head. Not to say that we wouldn't like it if more folks saw the need for modest attire. But I know I'd rather people worked on both the internal and external modesty. And not use their clothing as a battering ram...instead of as a shield.

Anonymous said...

The thoughts expressed in this post are beautiful. I am an Orthodox Christian, and while I cover my head with a long scarf at services and wear long skirts, I definitely don't think those externals make me a better woman in and of themselves.They do tend to keep me reminded of my spiritual life and for that reason I find them beneficial. In the end I think modesty is a matter of not drawing attention to oneself, which applies to behavior as well as dress. Setting oneself up as a teacher of another or another's example definitely draws attention to self and in the end is immodest behavior. A woman could wrap herself from head to toe and never leave the four walls of her home; but if she is saying "be like me" then she has not learned modesty.
Thank you for this post.

sarah said...

Such a good post. I am a Christian, and I don't believe I am saved because of how I dress, what I do, or what I earn. If I am pursuing God and loving His ways, then I will begin to reflect the goodness and righteousness of God. But I am not saved by my own merit. I am not righteous on my own strength. I could never earn my way into heaven....God had to prepare a way for me. Modesty is such a beautiful aspect of Godly femininity, and yet I could never be modest enough to earn my own level of perfection and ascend to heaven on a cloud of glory....ya know? Modesty is just a by-product of our relationship with's just an's the fruit of our lives....not the focus of it. If woman is pursuing God she will not be able to help herself....charitable, kind, and loving modesty will flow from her like a river.

Lea said...

Thank you for this!

I don't cover my hair and do wear pants, but I do try to follow the idea that my midriff shouldn't show, my armholes shouldn't gape, my chest should be covered and so should my legs above the knee no matter what I am wearing. I also bind up my long hair. I try to avoid anything flashy, tight or overly loose as well. I'm Christian and my denomination doesn't have a specific stance on this, so this is what I do from following my own reading of the Bible.

Modesty is more of a mindset as well - I've seen many people who follow the letter of the law (covered hair, long skirts, long sleeves, etc.) who openly flirt and behave rudely. It's definately a turn-off.

I think you said it well - focus on the important things. I'm finding the rest will naturally follow!

Love your blog!

Mommy-moto said...

Grace, Peace, and Mercy be unto you, Anna!

As a young Christian mother in America, you have no idea how refreshing and welcoming it is to see a blog like yours.
I dress modest, not necessarily the same way you do, but it is very modest.
I never wear a skirt/dress/trouser cut above the knee; I do not show my shoulders; no low cut tops; and I cover my head during prayer or when in public/not around family.

Today in American society, so much emphasis is put on young women, heck, women in general, that they must look and dress a specific way to obtain success and love. Many girls my age (and younger) go out to the marked dressed as if they were selling their bodies! I'm sure that you can understand how much I am saddened by that.

And while I am under this same pressure, I have not collapsed. I know that my treasure is with G-d in heaven and that if the rest of the world shunds me for my modest practice, there are three men who will always love me, no matter what: my son, my husband and above all else, my G-d!
That is way I dress modest.

Shalom and thank you for your wonderful insights.

Anonymous said...

I think you are an excellent role model for modest dress and many other important values. As we are continually reminded in my Catholic Church, it is not man we are to be accountable to, but God.

I have been reading other blogs that also focus on the issues of modest dress, homemaking and so on. It seems to me many of these blogs start out meaning well, but then slide down a slippery slope of vanity, pride and outright bragging. The focus starts to be more and more on the external and the end result is an attitude that appears to be a love of material goods, only it is about shopping for or sewing dresses instead of buying jeans. I think the point of modesty is in part to take away some of the concern about appearance so one can focus on higher values and thinking but too many of the "modesty" blogs start to focus on the trivial rather than the opposite. It is good to see you going the other way, striving to maintain a view of the big picture. To do otherwise is to risk becoming one of those judgmental ladies no one really wants to be around, much less listen to or respect!

- Karen

Amy said...

Well said! :o)

Michelle said...

Amen Anna!!!

Anonymous said...

I think you have hit the nail on the head. I feel that I dress modestly and appropriately for my life, but I don't dwell on it too much, as I fear I would come to judge others too harshly.

There is much to be found about modesty on blogs and the internet, but I think it generally does more harm than good.

Nurse Bee

Anonymous said...

I've always felt that "modesty" is a slippery slope, and your post was well-written and illustrated this quite clearly.

The true issue really has nothing to do with what you wear or don't wear; if a woman prefers to dress very conservatively, I have no problem with that and wouldn't dream of trying to convince her otherwise. But the same goes for a woman who is utterly comfortable going to the grocery store in a string bikini (except I would be worried she'd get chilly in the frozen-food aisle). A lot of people might disagree with that, but it's really no different (to me) than seeing someone covered head-to-toe on the beach during a hot summer day -- it comes down to making a spectacle of oneself within a certain context, although I would vigorously defend anyone's right to do either. I wouldn't tell a woman she had to wear a swimsuit at the beach anymore than I would throw a jacket over the scantily-clad lady at the market.

We can't project our own agendas, judgments, and possible motivations onto someone else's choices in this regard, whether we agree with them or not. We can only make the best decisions for ourselves and our families.

I think the bottom line is that dressing modestly is not (necessarily) a condemnation of anyone who chooses otherwise, nor is dressing in a non-conservative manner (necessarily) a statement about those who would not be comfortable making that choice themselves. The are cultural pressures that might compell someone to dress in a way that is considered "appropriate" for one's society, and this could come in the form of both positive and negative pressure.

Oh, sorry to have written so much, this is something I think about a fair amount.

MaryT said...

Yes! True modesty is promoted by the calm and gentle spirit with which one lives - not instant judgement and rigid rules.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for addressing this point.

My in-laws were raised in a church that put extreme value on women's modesty, but also harbored a definite streak of vanity about that dress. My in-laws left because they saw that modesty in dress didn't come with a modesty of spirit.

It was a shame, because that church is one of the only Christian churches that truely believes in the Oneness of G-d.

Now my mother in law dresses modestly, but not according to any outside standard. I've adopted a similar stance. Honestly, this is a very difficult area for me because I really feel that G-d has an ideal for women, but it's hard knowing exactly where modern clothing falls into that ideal.

Bonnie said...

"I think that if we believe in a certain type of modest dress, the best way to promote it is simply to wear it in a dignified and graceful way. A quiet, gentle, modest spirit can reach out so much further than a holier-than-thou attitude."

Well said! :-) This post was an encouragement to me, to not worry what other people think or how I'm meant to 'measure up', but instead to wear and act the way I do for the Glory of God :-)

Thank you Anna!

Asher said...

Mrs. T, in a day and age when too many wear their modest apparel as a badge of pride, your words are inspiring (to us guys, too!).

Thank you for your beautiful blog, and for this lovely post on modesty and humility -- really, stumbling upon it tonight was like G-d holding up a sign right in front of me.

I can't thank you enough.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Thank you so much for all your sweet, inspiring comments!

Anonymous said...

Great Post Anna!!!!


Raquel said...

I agree with you on this issue. Although I speak from a purely Christian point of view, I also wear long skirts and cover my arms and torso modestly. I do not hair cover, but I do not cut my hair. This is a great post. The women who stay home so much - who are they being an example to besides their husband and children? If we do not leave our houses, are we being a witness? I work in a hospital and I have no trouble at all wearing my skirts, although I get some odd looks from time to time. Thanks for sharing this! Much love - Raquel

Julia said...

Anna, this is very well said and I totally agree.


Ahuva said...

I loved this post. Somehow it seems particularly appropriate after simchat torah, a day I've heard far too many women refer to as being only for the men. Modesty doesn't mean being locked away from the world!

There are those who believe that a wig is more modest and those who believe that a scarf is more modest. Luckily, there is plenty of room in this wonderful world for both viewpoints!

May this year bring you many joys!

modest Christian said...

I have to tell you a story of an older woman that used to come to our church. She told me of a priest that attacked women for not dressing modest and started to use her as an example. I knew what she felt because I would not like to be an example. You know what I mean. Like you say you dress modest and dress head because you feel called of God to do so. Not because you think you are better than someone else. What makes it hard is the general culture is not G-d centered. I made sure I didn't put all name down. My case worker is Jewish and he said never mention the all mightys name. I like you just want to be a gentle presence in the world. Bless you