In a recent editorial in the Sisterhood, “Why I Cover Up”, Gavriella Lerner explained that modesty to her is an expression of dignity. The extremist view that has women covering up for the sake of men could care less about dignity and therefore it is wrong. In fact it lowers dignity by painting men as creatures that can’t control themseles and women as nothing more than sex objects in the eyes of these uncontrollable men.
The entire argument assumes that dignity is somehow distinct from sexual attraction. But if so, how is it distinct? Earlier in the essay she admits that the same acts that she calls expressions of dignity also serve as breaks on desire. For this reason she won’t wear a bikini.
She never does define dignity. The cloest she gets is this sentence: “Judaism prescribes the dignity with which we are to comport ourselves.”. That’s not a definition, but rather a hand off. Judaism is a vast sea with many philosophies and view points. Where in that sea is the definition of dignity that Judaism prescribes? Is it really reducible to clothes?
Secondly, is being a sex object undignified? If not, then why even worry about a bikini? Wouldn’t it be as insulting to dignity as the segregated buses and separate sides of the street?
If being a sex object is undignified, then isn’t ANY rationale based on male sexual desire also an argument for dignity? Wouldn’t that mean that dignity in large part is really one and the same as one’s sense of what avoids turning on the opposite sex? Should one gender define dignity for the other?
Personally, I think dignity has nothing to do with clothes.
Dignity is something conferred by God and is inherent in our being b’tzelem elokim (in the image of God). Our own sense of dignity comes from our ability to forge a psychological and spiritual connection with that existential and ontological fact. Our ability to respect the dignity of others comes from the same place.
Clothes can neither make us dignified or take it away. That is why a rape or sexual harassment victim who was barely dressed is as blameless as the one covered head to toe. With or without clothes the violation is just as great. A voluntarily naked person has only given permission to look, not to touch or verbally harass. No one has a right to take from another’s body what is not given. Our dignity makes us sovereign over our body. Our dignity is inherent in our being, not our clothes.
In fact, focusing on clothes as the measure of dignity is at the very root of humankind’s fractured relationship with God. When clothes become the focus, rather than what is behind the clothes, they separate us from God. When Adam and Eve could not face God in the garden it was because they thought nakedness invalidated the relationship they had with God. They fixated on their lack of clothes and saw themselves without dignity, i.e. ashamed. Then they hid.
Another essayist at the Forward, Elana Sztokman was disturbed by Lerner’s equation of clothes with dignity. In a rebuttle essay she wrote:
Just because I wear pants, it doesn’t mean I lack dignity. Or self-respect. Or even modesty….. Before I look in a mirror, I look inward and ask myself how I feel about my body at this moment, and I let my inner voice of self-respect guide me.
This is the heart of the matter. Just as words express dreams and help us bring them into a social world, so too, clothes express dignity and help us bring it into a social world. Both dignity and dreams exist in the land of hope, with or without the dressing of words or clothes. Clothes do not make dignity any more than words make dreams.
Like words, clothes form a language. That language is dependent on our surrounding culture. The minute we equate clothes with dignity we yield our dignity to others. We let culture rather than God define our dignity.
Genuine modesty and dignity isn’t about clothes, but truth. It steers a middle road between two core Jewish beliefs: First, no matter how small we feel, no matter how much life knocks us down, God, not our self-doubt, defines our worth. Created in the image of God we are of infinite value. To save even one of us is to save the world. Second, all humans are precious, but no one human being is more precious than the other (Sanhedrin 37a).
So long as we dress in ways that convey the truth of who we are to those we interact with, we are dressed modestly. With pants and without.