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Op-Ed: Power Dressing

by Aliza Bas Menachem

I can get you to look my way. I can cause you to feel uncomfortable. I can compel you to feel you want to stare but you know it is rude to stare. It makes you feel awkward. I dress this way because I am a woman and women should not be oppressed – we are free to express ourselves through our way of dressing and you are committing a faux pas if you object. I can impress you with my clothes. Once you are impressed by me, I have power over you. I am a power dresser. I make my own choices. No one tells me how to dress.

The previous paragraph is in first person for dramatic effect. It is not me talking.  From here on, it is me talking and the first thing I want to do is thank men for not using the excuses above to dictate their wardrobe choices. I am grateful that men do not think the way some women do when it comes to dressing. I don’t want to encounter shirtless men in briefs who claim a right to dress that way because the weather is steaming hot. They would have a point – but I am glad they respect my sensitivities and they cover up.

When women dress immodestly they not only have power over men but also over women. In a broad generalization, I will say that men get interested and women feel threatened. In her TED Talk of October 2012 entitled, “Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model”, Cameron Russel walks on stage in a sophisticated dress that I will describe as suitable for a posh night club. She says she can feel the tension in the room. No doubt the facial expressions and breathing patterns of her audience are filled with tension. Not that the audience wants to respond that way. They are not in control. An average woman may not be able to generate such a response by dressing with appeal, but we can learn from the extreme beauty and power that Cameron possesses, and apply it proportionately to the rest of us.

Cameron then glides to a nearby stool where she has prepared pieces of clothing. She covers herself with a floor length wraparound skirt and a long-sleeved sweater. She takes off her sky-high heeled shoes and slips into flats. She says she can sense the tension has disappeared. There is a new, calmer, feeling in the room. The audience now trusts her and is ready to listen to what she has to say.

I am not claiming that she is less beautiful. But, it is a new kind of beauty. A new dignity. A beauty that others can relate to and feel comfortable with. It is not threatening. It’s a friendly beauty. Through her modest dress, she is communicating the even with her beauty, she can be a regular person who is someone that communicates with regular people.

To the liberal-dressing women of Crown Heights. What is important to you? To be able to dress how you want? What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve that goal? What are you ready to give up so that you can dress in eye-catching fashion? Are you willing to make both men and women feel uncomfortable? To give up communicating as equals? To put strain and limitations on potentially beneficial relationships?

It is natural to judge people by how they dress. Especially when there is a general principle that women should be able to express themselves through their clothing. So if clothing is self-expression, then the onlooker is correct in thinking the clothes represent what the person is about. And yet, some women who express themselves in their choice of clothing, are not able to relate to those who are judgmental of them because of their ‘expressive’ clothing.

For a Jewish girl to dress in a blatantly immodest way is an expression of unhappiness. Tearing down a sign about dressing modestly is an indication of anger. The immodest woman should be treated in a way to help her to find happiness, and to release her from her anger. Her clothing is akin to being the symptom, not the disease, and should be treated as such. Except for one factor. Provocative dressing has an effect on other people. It creates tensions that are beyond control – as Cameron Russell explained. I think we have to respect others and if dressing immodestly is problematic, it is rude to cause other people discomfort.

This phenomena is not just in Crown Heights. I am surprised by women I know, outside the Jewish community, who are generally considerate of others, when they say that women should be able to dress how they want and men just have to handle it. Why do they think it is OK to distract men and cause them anxiety? Is the female self-expression so important to them that they act in a way that is impervious to the inborn nature of male response to women? Or… is it a circle? The women are dressing this way because they are unfulfilled and they are unfulfilled because men have to reduce their interest in women, just to be able to walk down the street. A woman who feels fulfilled as a woman does not need to express her femininity through her clothing. You can tear down one sign, but your clothing is also a sign, of your unfulfilled femininity. But immodest clothing will not fill that need. It will bring the opposite result. Which is why the signs are so offensive. They tell the truth: it is better for us all when we dress modestly.

My point of view is that in Crown Heights the community is trying to accomplish something. I think people should respect it. While in Crown Heights, one should abide by its mode of dress. Crown Heights does not have dress codes that are oppressive. The modesty standards are generally reasonable, and a reasonable person should be able to abide by them. Personally, I am not a Dugma Chaya for Tznius. I am a work in progress. But I consider being respectful as something that is not a work in progress. It is a given.

I just got back from spending two weeks in Eretz Yisroel. I spent a lot of time in Yitzhar and I spent some time in Mea Shaarim, as well as a list of other places. But my point here is, that as different as Yitzhar and Mea Shaarim are – the women I met in both places are modest – and happy!

So what is important? How you dress? Or relationships? A relationship with G-d. With the Rebbe. With family and friends. With a spouse. If you knew that how you dress effects those relationships, would you still give mode of dress a top priority? Or, like Cameron Russell, would you cover up so that you could relate to your ‘audience’ with grace, respect and a calm ambiance for communication.

Modesty is associated with the safety of our nation and especially our soldiers. For all those who trust that a Mezuzah does make a difference, then please accept that modesty also makes a difference. (There are sources, but I am not going to explore the sources in this article.) If only until the end of the current hostilities – please cover up for the sake of our soldiers – they are combating Hamas – please combat your personal feelings and give the soldiers extra protection that a Jewish woman has the power to give.

The Hebrew words for the Iron Dome are Kipat Barzel. In Hebrew, the letters that spell Barzel are BRZL and are known to stand for the iron strength of Jewish women who descend from BRZL – Bilhah, Rochel, Zilpah and Leah.  The Kipat Barzel is one of the power tools through which Hashem is protecting Jews in Eretz Yisroel. And Jewish women are an intrinsic part of it. It’s time to take our capacity for Power Dressing and change it from making a powerful impression to making a powerful tool of protection. Power Dressing with a purpose. Power Dressing with the agenda of being dressed and ready… to greet Moshiach Now.