What’s a girl to wear?

“What the hell am I going to wear?!”

If you’re a woman, you recognize this particular question. We are acutely aware that our appearance says something about who we are. We brush, polish, blow-dry, flat-iron, file, pluck, wax, pluck, bikini wax(!), shave, moisturize, condition, conceal, highlight……and after all this we’re still naked.

It goes without saying – but i’ll say it anyway – that for most men this list is a lot shorter. This morning my husband combed his hair after I reminded him.

And before you accuse me of abandoning my feminist principles and giving in to pressure from the media-imposed beauty ideal, let me just say – I’ve entirely stopped straightening my hair, and have embraced the messy, Jewy curl, thereby regaining a full 15 minutes every single day.

Ok, some of you are thinking, but I reject these societal expectations in my own life, I don’t set my beauty standards based on the makeup industrial complex. I don’t even wear makeup. I leave my legs au naturelle. Well, let’s just agree to acknowledge that you are a far better person than I and move on. Nothing for you to look at here, ladies.

In truth, though, none of us is immune from the demands of the larger culture to look a certain way. Whether its a job interview, or a first date, or the salesperson in a store who may or may not be interested in giving us the time of day based solely on our appearance, we are being judged. And we are judging everyone else. That doesn’t mean we are always being judgmental – but we do think we know someone based on how they look.

Sometimes this is a good thing. Clothing can be a powerful signifier and a way of identifying like minds. Whether its a school sweatshirt, the baseball cap of your favorite team, or the ubiquitous hipster uniform of skinny jeans and an ironic t-shirt, you are advertising about yourself with your choices.

This is particularly true in the Jewish community. As someone who covers her head with a wide headband, the most “liberal” headcovering I can find, I almost never wear a skirt except on shabbat. Some of you are nodding your heads now, and some are perplexed. But I’m aware that in many places skirt+headcovering leads people to make a whole set of assumptions about me, my level of tolerance, my attitudes towards feminism, gays, kosher food, even Barack Obama.

Similarly, my husband refuses to wear a big kippah, even during the heat of the summer, when his skin would be protected from the intense mediterranean sun, even in the dead of winter, when he could use it to keep out the bitter New England cold. He’s so worried how he’ll be judged that he’ll risk heatstroke or frostbite just to avoid being pigeonholed.

And there’s little that is “religious” about the sartorial differences we scrutinize. My long, wide-legged pants are not inherently less modest than the just-to-the-knee fitted pencil skirt that is the unofficial uniform of orthodox high school girls. And their skirts are signifiers just like the different colored bekishes and curved front sheitls in Mea Shearim, or this season’s Chanel suit on Madison Avenue.

A friend, let’s just call her “near haredi,” once told me a story about an acquaintance of hers.
“She’s really frum,” she said.
She’s really frum?” I wondered aloud.
“Oh, yeah,” she answered, “her husband wears tights.”

Objectively, the seductive curve of this man’s thigh, out in full view, as opposed to the calf of another man covered up by thick denim, could be considered immodest. But in neither case does modesty have anything to do with it. Those tights are an outward expression of belonging.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these “uniforms” we’ve made for ourselves. In a world where we no longer always know our neighbors, there’s comfort in finding community by looking across a crowded room and giving a tiny nod to our comrades in outfit. But at some point I need to look beyond the facade.

There’s comfort and ease in our uniforms. It would be exhausting to have to redo my look every single day. One wedding invitation I received implored its guests to wear whatever made them “comfortable.” Then ensued more telephone conversations than I have ever had with friends, family members, acquaintances…. “What should I wear?” A formal gown? Jeans? A snorkel and flippers? All anyone wanted was to be told what to wear. A uniform would have made them, for lack of a better word, comfortable.

Most of the time comfort is a good goal. Walking down the street, sitting on the bus, going to a ball game. Real connections, however, require you to take off the team logo. Take off the mascara and the kippah and the pencil skirt and the skinny jeans. To stand before one another – exposed. Naked. To judge one another by our values and our actions and the institutions we support and the way we do our jobs and the way we parent and the measure of our love. Not by our pants.

Ok, maybe you should keep a towel on.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.