Discussing dress and modesty with women – part I

I have decided to temporarily use my blog to allow women that I know discuss their outlooks on dress and modesty. The reason I am doing so is that women much more so than men are judged for the way that they are dressed. I have come across men and women who will disparage a Jewish women for observing Tzniut. One particularly horrible involved a friend who was a former tour guide be told that she should take off her snood because it looks like a do-rag. (and this was a tour that discussed slavery in Savannah) I also see it similar language used against Muslim women and women who don’t dress in very much who are told ‘that they don’t respect themselves. It is the same problem of judging the woman for her dress often at the expense of respecting the woman. So I asked a couple of friends to be interviewed from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Secular backgrounds to discuss their views on dress and why they dress the way they do. The following two interviews are from the first two women able to take the time to be interviewed Victoria DiNatale a Mormon Christian woman from Savannah Georgia and Joanna Felsenstein a Jewish woman from New Jersey.

Victoria DiNatale’s Interview

Q: Are there explicit rules (in LDS tradition) on what parts of the body should be covered?

Victoria DiNatale: As Latter-day Saints, we learn from youth that dressing and behaving modestly is an outward expression of respect and obedience to God. Our modesty standards include avoiding revealing clothing of any type. We wear cap sleeves that cover the shoulders and shorts, dresses, and skirts that are of an appropriate length. Most LDS women wear dresses and shorts that fall knee-length, or just above the knee. We also don’t wear low-cut blouses or bathing suits that show our stomachs. We strive to represent the Lord in all we do, and by appropriately clothing our body, we show that we love Him.

Q: Are the rules of modesty different for men and women?

VDN: The standards of modesty are the same for both Latter-day Saint men and women. Neither sex wears short shorts. Both should dress neatly and appropriately per occasion.

Q: Would you say your observation of modesty customs affect how you view gender relations in society? In politics? And within your faith?

VDN: I believe that both men and women should treat each other as equally valuable, intelligent, and capable children of God and members of society—regardless of dress or appearance. While society at large doesn’t adhere to our standards of modesty, we shouldn’t judge others who don’t hold our same modesty standards.

Q: How do you view nudity in the arts? Would it be appropriate for an artist to use nudity in a secular work like Bocelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ ? Or a religious work such as a depiction of the Crucifixion?  Would it appropriate for a model to pose for either a secular or religious work? Does it make a difference if those involved are Christian or not? Part of the LDS Church or not?

A: I’m not aware if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an official stance on nudity in the arts. However, I believe that the body is a sacred masterpiece of the Almighty and that we should respect and celebrate its God-like qualities and functions. There are many classical secular works that present the human body as a piece of art, not as a sexual object. In these instances in which artists respect the human form without sexualizing it, I think nudity in a secular work of art, such as statues, can be acceptable. However, it’s never appropriate to depict Christ as nude out of utmost reverence for Him.

Q: How is modesty important to you? How does it make you who you are? In what ways do you use modesty to define yourself?

A: As a Latter-day Saint, I believe that my body is a sacred temple of God that houses my spirit. Just as I would not desecrate the House of the Lord, I should not disrespect myself or God by dressing in a manner that doesn’t honor Him. Being modest is being beautiful. It is like proudly wearing a badge for Christ that says, “I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” Modesty in dress and behavior helps me show the world who I really am—and that is a daughter of God.

Joanna Felsenstein’s Interview

Q: Do you follow Tzniut or any other religious modesty customs? If so how strictly? What is the reason you choose to follow or not?

Joanna Felenstein: I do not follow the Tzinut standards of modest dress. Growing up, and still now – particularly as a teacher – there has always been an expectation of appropriate dress, which is not limited to skirts and dresses, and I LOVE my work trousers. It is important to me to dress my age, and also occasion appropriate. If I attend a Shabbat at the Chabad house, or a Bar Mitzvah for my Orthodox cousins, then I am certain to dress slightly more modest than usual. Additionally, as a lady who is rather tall, standing at 6 feet, I am very conscious of the length of tops and bottoms and where they fall on me – particularly skirts, shorts and dresses.

Q: Does dress effect the way you view gender? In Politics? Society? In the Jewish community?

JF: I think I am very aware of the perception of gender based on clothing, but I do not think that dress affects my gaze on gender or politics. Regularly, snap judgments are made about people, purely based on the clothes worn. Whilst dressing yourself is a matter of habit, if I completely changed my look and my clothing choice, the impression and perspective others have of me would likely change. I think that society sets a strong expectation of dress based on gender and religion. In my gaze, dress influences the way I view society, the way that I perceive society views me, as well as the Jewish community

Q: What do you wear in a Synagogue setting? Do you wear Tallit, Tefillin, Kippah? What is the reason behind this choice?

JF: When I go to synagogue, I wear a dress or skirt, that comes near to my knees, and the sleeves go near, if not past, my elbows. In synagogue, I wear a tallis and kippah. Whilst I am respectful of Orthodox Jews, when I attend services at an Orthodox shul, I typically still wear a tallis and kippah. I do not wear tefillin, but I have explored this option and I am interested in trying it soon. Men wear them, why not women? Why do men wear them? Same reason applies here. I attended a Women of the Wall Torah service in summer of 2015. Here, I wore my tallis and kippah and loved participating in the service. Participating with Women of the Wall also made me realize how many other Jewish women feel that they have the right to wear a tallis, and lead a service at the wall.

Q:Outside of a religious setting do you believe that there should be an obligation to dressin certain ways? Do you think it should consistent or situational (ie bikini on the beach but suit in office)?

JF: I think there should be a priority and expectation to dress appropriate for your age and the occasion at hand. Whilst a bikini on the beach is fine, but too many children nowadays are wearing adult, sexually-charged, inappropriate dress. However, it is difficult to set consistent societal expectations, particularly with the role models elected for today’s youth.

Q: How do you view nudity in art? Is this effected if the nudity is sexual vs. non-sexual? Could you be involved in a project that involves nudity? (For example could you be involved as either a model, student, or teacher in a figure model class?)

JF: I love art, so this is a very interesting question for me. I think there is a fine line between pornography and classy nudity in art, but I do think that nudity in art is okay. There is so much good art that features nudity, often in a non-sexual way, and I think I would not be involved in a project with nudity. I am a teacher. I do not even share my Facebook with my students. Besides this, I do believe that there is a certain sanctity of keeping the nudity for a select few, such as romantic relationships or visits to the doctor.

Q: How does the way you dress define your identity?

JF: I dress like a teacher dresses. Like, a combination of Ms. Frizzle from Magic School Bus and Jessica Day from New Girl. I wear work trousers like cords and khakis and dress pants, and long dresses, and the occasional skirt too. Being a teacher is a big part of my identity. Most of this clothing is great for synagogue too, another important part of who
I am. When I see my students outside of school, per say I am in shorts and a tee, on a run or bike ride, my students are surprised to see me in another context. Just the same, my dress certainly defines my identity.

About the Author
Merritt Skidmore-Hess is a graduate at of Georgia Southern University where he studied the history of Islam and the Middle East. Merritt also studied Judaic Studies with the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
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