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What Not to Wear: Wendy Shalit Goes Deep Into Your Closet

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Quick: What is "modest fashion" for a girl or woman? Is it crewneck tops and loose, shapeless pants? Buttoned-up cardigans and ankle-grazing skirts? Are sandals ever "modest"? What about a few inches of bare legs peeking from beneath a calf-length hem?

After 279 pages of Wendy Shalit's Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to be Good, I still don't know what the author means exactly when she upholds "modesty" in female attire. Since the book is a love letter to Orthodox Judaism (Shalit grew up in a Reform Jewish household but became traditionally observant, or Orthodox, as an adult, and never misses the opportunity to wax poetic about how Orthodox Jewish females are superior because they know from modesty), allow me to report how the women in my own Orthodox community dress on a typical Sabbath morning. Last Saturday, when the sun beat down brightly, I saw regulars in cap sleeves, scoop-necklines, pegged knee-length skirts, and high heeled sandals (sans hose)--and others in skirt suits, blouses with sleeves that brushed the wrists, and long tiered skirts. To my eyes, every one appeared to be dressed in a dignified, appropriate, and modest style befitting religious worship. Would Shalit deem only those totally covered kosher?

(Disclosure: Shalit criticizes my first book, about the dangers of the sexual double standard, but my opinions about her work had gelled before I reached the reference, which appears on page 271 and which I didn't know about in advance.)

If I had to characterize my own manner of dressing, I would call it "sexy-schlumpy." I typically pair a fitted V-neck top (a high neckline accentuates my bust more than a low one, and a loose top makes me look pregnant) with an A-line skirt that falls below the knees. I like my hourglass shape and enjoy dressing in a feminine way, but a dash of schlumpiness adds necessary comfort, especially when I'm chasing down my kids to shmear sunscreen all over them before they board the day camp bus. And yes, I do value modesty, a great deal actually--but on my terms. Would Shalit advise me to go completely schlumpy to conform to her ideal vision?

On this issue, the definition of modest dress--the crux of the book, really--Shalit is coyly vague. She celebrates "Pure Fashion Shows" and even offers detailed tips on how to produce such a show, never explaining what the clothes themselves should look like. The closest we get to specifics is her approval of the fact that stores are now carrying shirts that go past the belly and jeans that cover the behind--evidence, she argues, of a backlash to skimpy clothes.

Yet on every other topic she addresses, she writes in absolutes. In many instances, I agree with her completely: Little girls should never wear "Care Bear" thongs and shirts that say "This T-Shirt Would Look Better Wet," nor dress up like prostitutes on Halloween, or on any other day. Teenage girls and young women should never feel obligated to say "yes" to casual sex, oral or otherwise, to please a guy or because they believe this is what girls and women are supposed to do. Females of any age should never be made to feel ashamed for thinking that sexuality is private and special. Stripping should never be upheld as a profession for girls to aspire to. Ariel Levy covered this ground two years ago in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, but it's worthwhile to cover it again since the equation of "femininity" with "sexuality" continues to be widespread, together with the message that looking sexy is what females do best.

Clearly, the oversexualization of females is not empowering anyone and is causing a tremendous amount of damage in terms of how girls and women regard themselves and how boys and men treat girls and women. It is a huge step backward for women and it is endlessly disturbing. At its root, this phenomenon stems in part from the desire of females to please males to an extreme degree. Shalit admits this and offers quotes from young men who shake their heads over teenage girls who perform oral sex on guys because they worry that if they don't, they will be friendless or ostracized.

But instead of expressing sympathy for the girls caught in this impossible situation, and instead of showing any judgment of the boys who press their advantage, she blames the girls themselves, as well as feminists (much as Levy did in her own work, which is why her chauvinist pigs were "female" -- get it?). Shalit is downright disdainful of girls who succumb to the pressures of oversexualization, and applies just as much pressure on them to dress in a certain way that they already experience -- but from the other extreme end of the fashion spectrum. In a typical passage, she relates how she shared a Toronto bus with two teenage girls who had just come from the beach and were wearing "midriff-baring shirts and skintight pants." Shalit asked if she could quiz them on their opinion of new clothing trends.

Well, midriff-exposing tops aren't 'in' anymore, they volunteer, without batting an eyelash. 'They're not?' I say, surprised. I feel it's rude to point out that their stomachs are visible this very moment, so I just nod politely. Perhaps they didn't realize they had put on cropped tops that morning. 'Yes, you know, like, the long polka dot shirts? They're very "in" now,' they continue, seemingly without any self-awareness. 'OK,' I begin slowly, not sure of how to broach the topic of their clothing. ... 'So do you guys see yourselves as ... rebelling against this new trend?' They look at me as if I'm batty, and exchange glances. How could they resist a new trend? Why would they resist a new trend? The blonde rolls her eyes and explains to me, patiently, as if to a small child, 'Nooo! The polo shirts, with like the V-necks and the collars? We're going to the mall to buy some now.'

There was only one responsible thing to do, which was to let the girls get off the bus and buy those shirts as soon as possible.

Girls who wear revealing clothes, we learn, are brainless trend-chasers, which Shalit repeatedly tells us is "sad" and "depressing." Later she informs us that they are also bullies because their parents don't teach them about boundaries or good manners and that because of them, a number of "good" girls have committed suicide. Girls who reject sexual clothes, however, are consistently praised as precocious and "wise beyond their years" because they penetrate the sexualized hype and recognize that dressing modestly showcases their individuality, not their bodies.

But I would argue that instead of dismissing these girls, we should listen to them very carefully -- so that we can help them, not shoo them off to the mall. No matter what females wear, males who want to objectify them will objectify them. I've learned this firsthand -- a number of years ago I wore exclusively over-sized, baggy clothes and that did not halt the objectifiers, not at all.

It seems to me that the unhealthy desire on the part of girls to please guys goes hand in hand with their feelings of worthlessness, with their sense that their sexuality is the only power they possess. Shalit criss-crossed the U.S. and Canada, speaking with a hundred girls and young women, but it appears that she exhausted all her thoughtful conversations on the girls who made choices she approved of. It would be far more illuminating--and helpful--to analyze the thinking of the girls she does not approve of. Only then can we educate girls--and their mothers--that while they should feel comfortable with their sexuality, pole dancing does not equal liberation.

Then again, neither does a collared polo shirt.

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