The message was clear by the full-size photograph of an ankle sock. The interminable battle for modesty between the students and administration in my all-girls high school had climaxed to a point that necessitated drastic measures: mailing a letter to the parent body addressing the latest point of contention, the eroticism of the ankle.
Communal expectations of modest dress seeped through my religious education. It lingered in the principal’s office, in the pile of knee socks and solid black, floor brimming skirts, changes of clothes for those of us who infracted the dress code.
We learned about Kimhith, immortalized in the Talmud for veiling her hair, even in the walls of her home.
We heard Peretz’s tale of the rabbi’s daughter, who, when tied to a wild horse and dragged through the streets for sneaking out of the ghetto walls, maintained her privacy by pinning her skirt deep into her flesh.
These women’s stories loomed above us, setting moral goals and much guilt.
Yet, our teachers espoused idealistic motivations. At the heart of their dogma lay a value for privacy. “Your bodies are jewels,” they instructed. “Modest dress displays self-respect. Modest dress communicates deep care toward your relationships.”
At the heart of their dogma lay communal acceptance. “Wear this costume to fit in,” they implied. And wherever we traveled, when we met a skirt-wearing, elbow-covering woman, we locked eyes.
At the heart of their dogma lay a sense of self-identity. Dressing differently served as a personal reminder of our religious existence.
Yet, the hyperfocus on the externalization of these values overshadowed the meaning behind the practice. Covering one’s collarbones, elbows, knees and ankles was the physical manifestation of humility.
Eight years later, I found myself staring at a photo, not of an ankle sock, but a smiling woman. The message was clear by the tightly knotted multicolored headscarf that matted her comely face. “Look great and cover your hair,” the magazine’s advertisement announced.
Covering my hair at marriage shared in the romanticism of falling in love. Covering my hair represented my commitment to my husband.
I purchased a plethora of intricately patterned scarves and labored in front of the mirror, tying them in various formations.
Yet, once the honeymoon period passed, a feeling of unattractiveness replaced the excitement of donning a new accessory. I avoided looked in the mirror at the reflection of the young girl, hair tied back and tucked away. Without my hair, I was incomplete.
So I tried wearing a sheitel. I didn’t understand how placing a two-thousand dollar wig of immaculately styled hair on my head reflected greater piety than revealing my too-often tousled brown hair. I resented the constant heaviness weighing on my head and the combs that dug into my scalp. Was I displaying greater modesty by boasting a head of hair more alluring than my own?
I remember the day that I took the sheitel off. I remember the rush of the cool breeze in my hair the first time I stepped outside, head exposed, winter sun beating down on my scalp.
The feeling of independence was overwhelming. Yet, my actions also untangled a web of doubts and insecurities. Could I stand out from my community and still fit in? If I no longer conformed to the dress code, was I making a statement beyond my clothes?
I carry these questions into motherhood.
I look at a photograph of my two young daughters, radiant smiles, carefree, proud. One is wrapped in full gear for her favorite game, Colder Than Snow, from the glittery pastel owl hat hiding her hair down to the wooly socks covering her ankles. The other one simply boasts a diaper. How do I help them maintain those confident smiles as they mature? How do I guide them to love their bodies, dress in a way that expresses themselves, and feel comfortable in their communities? And how do I teach them to develop Jewish identities that, so tenacious, they would want to announce through their clothes?
For now, I tell them stories, not of Kimhith, but of Deborah, a judge in the Biblical world of male public leaders, who courageously led a counterattack against the nation oppressing her people. I tell them the story of Esther, who used her position as queen of Persia to save her nation from annihilation. I tell them the story of Ruth, who abandoned what she knew for what she believed. I share the stories of thoughtful, ambitious women whose intuition, confidence and courage loom above me, setting moral goals and much hope.