My son Joel, age 7, and my daughter Talia, almost 10, lean on my shoulders, staring at the computer screen in disbelief. Here was something that didn’t fit their notion of the world. Grown men spitting? At a child? Because her long skirts weren’t long enough? A sincere and sweet boy, Joel wondered if these men, these ultra-Orthodox lunatics of Beit Shemesh, in Israel, had ever read the Torah.
That was last month.
This month, I’m thinking about modesty again. And this time, I find my thoughts turning prudish. Of course, there’s a world of difference between attempting to instill certain values in one’s own family and assaulting young pedestrians who don’t comport with one’s philosophy. Still, I’m surprised to be looking at dress from the other angle. As a feminist, I believe in a women’s right to choose — in sartorial matters and otherwise.
As a mom though? I’m not too keen about the idea of grown men leering at my adolescent daughter.
In a few short weeks, Talia will officially enter tweendom, making me a mother for a decade, and making her — among many other things — even more of a target for retailers. And for my taste, what retailers market to tweens bares too much skin. Or fits too much like a second skin.
If the fervently Orthodox men of Beit Shemesh summoned so much loathing (and sexual appetite?) over an 8-year-old girl’s ankles, I can only imagine how they would respond to the uniform of choice for some 12- and 13-year-old female guests at bnai mitzvahs. To my mind, the outfits sometimes look more appropriate for prostitution than prayer: hip-hugging skirts that barely reach the mid-thigh, high heels almost as tall as the skirts are long.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of tzniut, the traditional Jewish concept of modesty. I like jeans. Tank tops, too. But as a parent, I would feel more comfortable with some limitations, at least for very young adolescents. How though, do I broach the topic without prematurely sexualizing my daughter, without diminishing her pride in her body, and, most critically: How can I do so without argument?
“This is a challenging topic!” e-mails Esther Altmann, a psychologist and mother of two teenage girls, 13 and 15. Altmann, who is the director of pastoral education at Yeshivat Maharat in Manhattan, believes that parents should “begin a dialogue with their daughters and acknowledge that the current culture defines being fashionable and attractive through the display of the body while Judaism defines feminine beauty through the value of modesty and covering the body.
She adds, “I would encourage a protective stance towards young adolescent girls. … As parents, we can vote with our pocketbooks and push back on this disturbing trend.”
On the other hand, Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed, who has two elementary-aged daughters, urges flexibility. “It’s precisely during adolescence that we don’t want to cover them up, but want to engage them in conversation,” says the rabbi who teaches Jewish education at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, and has worked extensively with adolescents in the past.
Rabbi Medwed says she fears transmitting this message to girls: “You’re a sexual being. We’re worried. We want to protect you from that power.”
Mothers who want to gently guide their daughters as they navigate questions of clothing choice might follow the lead of Rabbi Ruth Abusch Magder, mother of a fashion-forward 11-year-old. Rabbi Magder, rabbi in residence at Be’chol Lashon in San Francisco, says she reads fashion magazines with her daughter, and, in this non-combative manner, they discuss the styles of the day.
Of course, Rabbi Magder also bears in mind that when she was 15, her parents didn’t fuss over the large “W” she’d shaved onto the back of her head.
Families who want to explore the subject further might also consider the conference at the Jewish Theological Seminary on Sunday, March 11, “What to Wear: Women, Clothing, Religion.” The conference includes a session on bat mitzvah attire, “‘You Can’t Wear That!’ Aging and Coming of Age,” moderated by Beth Cooper Benjamin of Ma’yan.
Benjamin has been delving into the topic for a few weeks already, along with a handful of teenage interns at Ma’yan, who have been producing a short documentary on “the bat mitzvah dress.” One young filmmaker, Ella Tav, who is 13 and a student at Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, advises parents that when it comes to wardrobe and adolescents, “The less rules the better. Whatever rules there are will be broken in some way.”
But Tav also suggests that parents can explain why one should not “dress provocatively.” She says: “Reflecting who you are through what you wear is important.”
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.