I've been wanting to write a post explaining my decision to dress modestly for a while now, but I needed some time to put all of my thoughts down here and make them as coherent as possible. I didn't always dress as modestly as I do now...it was a long process that required a lot of thought and reflection and looking back on it, it was a life-changing decision that I now cherish dearly.
I began to dress modestly 4 years ago (September 2006) at the beginning of my senior in college. I had been undergoing a personal transformation in terms of becoming a more Torah observant Jew for the previous year and a half. I made the decision that I wasn't going to wear pants anymore (I would only wear skirts below the knee), I wasn't going to show any cleavage and I wasn't going to wear any sleeveless shirts of any kind. I decided to make all of these changes 'cold turkey'. I packed a box of all pants, tank tops and low cut shirts and stuck it deep under my bed. It went well for a few months, but then it started to get cooler outside. This made it easier in terms of the neckline and sleeves, but as it got colder I began to miss my pants. I envied all of the girls that I saw with their jeans tucked into their UGGs. Even though I was wearing tights and boots, my legs were always cold. Every morning as I was getting dressed, I would wish that I could just put on my jeans and after a while I began to resent wearing skirts. Around December/January I dug my favorite jeans out from under my bed and that was the end of skirts (except on Shabbos - I always wore skirts on Shabbos).
In May 2007, I graduated from college and started my first professional post-college job. I wore skirts to the office for the first week because I thought it looked more professional. I was working for a Jewish non-profit in Washington D.C. but only a handful of Orthodox Jews worked there. One of my Orthodox co-workers (who incidentally wore pants) asked me if I only wore skirts. In that moment before I answered her, I felt an incredible urge to try out only wearing skirts again. I was now in a new environment and I could totally reinvent any aspect of myself that I wanted. I decided to take this as an opportunity and a challenge to myself. However, I went about it with a much different emotional and practical approach. I told myself that when I woke up that I would try to put on a skirt, however, if I wanted to wear pants, then so be it - I would put on a pair of pants and the next day I would reevaluate and try to wear a skirt. I left myself with an option and took away the limitations that I had previously put on myself. So I took the plunge saying, "Yes, I only wear skirts". Well, it's been 4 years and I haven't looked back. I still apply the same logic every day I get dressed. If one morning I decide to wear pants, then I will.
The next May (2008) I made the decision to only wear sleeves past my elbow. This was also really hard because D.C. in the summer is BOILING! It was a VERY uncomfortable summer. Not only did I get a lot of strange looks from people on the street, but people were constantly asking me, "Aren't you so hot?!" "YES! yes, I am burning up," but this is a very important and meaningful decision to me and I know that I have the resolve and determination to follow through with my promise to myself. In July 2008, I moved to Chicago and started working in an Orthodox day school. There was a dress code for all students, faculty and staff. Women had to wear skirts, sleeves below the elbows and necklines couldn't be lower than 2 inches below the collar bone. I never intentionally made the decision to wear necklines that covered my collar bone. This step was very organic and I didn't even realize that I had been doing it until a few months later. It was not a decision that I had to think a lot about; it basically just happened and I adapted my wardrobe accordingly. Every once in a while, I see a cute top and think that wearing an undershirt with it would ruin the look or just look plain weird but then I get over it. All in all, I love the decisions that I have made to dress more modestly. At this point in my life, I can't imagine dressing any differently.
When people find out that I am ba'al teshuva, they always are interested to hear my story of becoming more religious. I try to be as honest as possible and not to sugar-coat my decisions or the reasons behind them. I try to be very open about my own experiences because I am proud of my decisions and I support myself 100%. I don't make any apologies for how I grew up, the journey that I took, and my life and religious practices today. Dressing modestly, before my religious observance changed, seemed very antiquated and oppressive to me. I felt personally offended that a religious document thousands of years old (and then later interpreted by rabbis who outlined codes of law) could dictate how I should dress. I felt that it hindered my self expression and that the laws were set in place to subjugate women. I began sifting through the various original texts dealing with women and modesty to try to understand this concept from its' sources. With help and support from friends (and my amazing then boyfriend/fiancee, now husband) who followed the laws and seemed to live happy daily lives while covering up, I realized that it would actually open doors for me as a woman. I started wearing skirts exclusively (women are supposed to wear skirts past their knees, as to not show the outline of the upper leg). I then progressed to wearing shirts that covered my elbows (another guideline of modest dress as outlined by Jewish codes of law - Laws of Tznius). The final stage was to wear shirts that cover my collarbone (another guideline of modest dress outlined by Jewish law.)
One of the most important goals of Jewish modesty laws is to "be attractive, not attracting." Modesty laws are not out there to make me feel bad about myself, or ugly or to take away any part of my self expression. Judaism wants me to look nice and feel good about myself! These laws are to safeguard my dignity; to make sure that I am not attracting negative attention, or any attention that I may not otherwise want. These laws were established so that when I met people they would see me - a whole person - not a set of individual body parts highlighted by certain pieces of 'barely there' clothing. People meet my personality and my sense of humor and my smile, not my arms or my legs or my cleavage! People take me more seriously as the intelligent woman that I am and forgo the preconceived notions based on what I am wearing.
Dressing modestly has a strong impact on my marriage as well. My personal goal of "being attractive, not attracting" means that I can dress in a way that makes my husband proud while still maintaining my own sense of personal style. However, I don't have to worry that I am soliciting attention from other men inappropriately. I know that I am not showcasing anything that is inappropriate for anyone else to see. I still feel good and confident about the way I look. Dressing modestly has become very personal for me. I love that I am covered up; it's like there is a bit of mystery about the way I dress. I love that it allows my personality to shine through more vividly! And lastly, I love that I can still have a sense of style that is all my own and still maintain my own personal and religious integrity.
For more information and further reading about Jewish modesty laws (Tznius), see here, here and here.
If you have any questions or comments for me, feel free to post them, or, if you want to have a more personal conversation, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org