Jewfem Blog

When modest is hottest

Image: istock The obsession with covering girls’ knees is no longer the territory of religious schools alone. Earlier this month, according to a report in Ha’aretz, a group of 12th-grade girls at the Israeli state Ben Zvi High School in Kiryat Ono were asked to cover their knees for yearbook photos, or stand behind a bench to hide their legs. Their exposed knees, they were told, were not “respectful” of the school.” No boys were asked to cover their knees. The truth is that the spread of the “modesty” obsession from religious school settings to public school settings has been going on for some time, in both Israel and the United States. In Israel, already in 2012, parents at the secular junior high school Gevanim in Kadima complained that the principal was sending girls home for wearing pants that were deemed too short, and for holding “pants checks” for girls at the entrance to the school. In Ben Zvi, girls were also reportedly not allowed to wear sleeveless t-shirts for school photos, and those who did found their arms covered via Photoshop. But it’s not just Israel. In the United States, “modesty” (a tragic misnomer for an idea that has nothing to do with humility) has become a catchphrase for body-policing as well. Schools around the country have been imposing dress codes on girls against pants that are “too tight,”strapless dresses for an eighth grade dance, tops that are considered too low-cut, and even a kindergarten girl whose skirt was considered too short. In many cases, public shaming is considered acceptable practice in the name of imposing so-called “modesty.” Principals and teachers have no compunction against humiliating students, with such practices as rounding up the girls for a spot-check of their knees; making girls wear a “shame suit”; refusing entry to girls at their high school dance after being made to flap their arms up and down and turn in circles in front of male administrators whose stated goal was to make sure that girls had “no curvature of their breasts showing”; or simply yelling at female students, as the Ben Zvi teachers did, in front of the whole school. Much of this public shaming for the sake of “modesty” is of course familiar to me, as it probably is to any other female graduate of an Orthodox day school, where teachers and rabbis would routinely stand by the front door checking our knees. “Skirting” in Orthodox schools, accompanied by this kind of public shaming, has become so routine that even when it is protested – as it was by an outraged student of the Yeshivah of Flatbush last year — educators are mostly unwilling to show remorse or reflection on these common practices. Still, despite their familiarity, it is worthwhile to look at the kinds of ideas that are used to justify the shaming-for-modesty educational practices. The rationales are different but similar in religious and secular settings. Religious educators often cite a kind of esoteric piety, like the need for girls to be “pure,” or the unsubstantiated idea that covering one’s body is the...

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