Live from the Lilith Blog

July 8, 2008 by

Knees and Shoulders: Even Modesty Should Have Its Limits

Modesty is in.

So proclaims a recent Newsweek article, “Girls Going Mild(er)”, that notes an emerging movement to encourage girls to dress modestly. And, right in line with this trend, is a line of dolls that encourages modest Jewish values in Jewish girls. While this trend certainly has its positive points, it also must lead one to ask, how modest is too modest?

Newsweek reports that a slew of websites and clothing companies are catering to

…a growing movement of “girls gone mild”—teens and young women who are rejecting promiscuous “bad girl” roles embodied by Britney Spears, Bratz Dolls and the nameless, shirtless thousands in “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Instead, these girls cover up, insist on enforced curfews on college campuses, bring their moms on their dates and pledge to stay virgins until married.

Not surprisingly, many of these modesty-promoting organizations are rooted in religion, and one of the major proponents of this movement is an Orthodox Jew, Wendy Shalit, who has written books encouraging modesty.

Now a trend of modesty may seem all well and good, but the pressing question is, as Jennie Yabroff asks in Newsweek, “[I]s the new modesty truly a revolution, or is it merely an inevitable reaction to a culture of increased female sexual empowerment…?” Put another way, if we consider scantily-clad, uber-feminine, style-obsessed celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton representatives of a first wave of the post- (read: anti-)feminist backlash, is modesty merely its second wave, a reactionary movement taking women back into the kitchen (barefoot and pregnant)?

To show the potential of this movement to be just that, I want to consider the modesty trend in light of a true story that a friend related to me recently.

His relative from Israel, a young woman, came to New York for a visit and, like most Israelis visiting the States, wanted to go shopping. She was taken to the discount downtown department store Century 21 and headed to the lingerie department to look for bras. After picking out her selections, she went to the fitting room to try them on but was told that she could not try bras on in the fitting room. So she did the logical thing: she left the fitting room and proceeded to strip, trying the bras on in the middle of the store, for all to see.

While this is not the way most of us would behave in the situation, and not behavior we would consider modest, I can’t help but admire this woman’s moxie. The story reminds me that the opposite of being modest is being bold, and that a little or a lot of boldness is often required to get what you want. And so, when I think about the focus on teaching our daughters to be modest, I worry that what starts with encouraging them to cover their bare shoulders will end with encouraging them to stifle their opinions, desires and ambitions.

Take the Jewish-values line of Gali Girls dolls referred to earlier. It’s a nice idea to have a line of dolls that model Judaism for young girls — dolls that they can relate to and that can be used as a tool with which to teach Jewish ritual and values in a fun and natural way. Plus, the line of historical Gali Girls, which come with books about them like American Girl dolls do, sound really interesting (there’s one about a girl in a Jewish community in China).

But what’s not as nice is the internet video ad that sells the Gali Girls as a modest alternative to the scantily clad Barbie-type dolls that are teaching young girls to dress inappropriately. The problem with that message is twofold (at least). First, implying that dolls, rather than everything else in popular culture, are the culprits encouraging girls to dress inappropriately is just plain silly. Second, the idea of limiting Jewish girls’ play only to the realm of Jewish girls and women is (and here’s where the Orthodox world is going to disagree with me) potentially damaging to Jewish girls and the women they will one day become.

For all the criticism of Barbie dolls as being bad role models for girls, it’s been my experience that children don’t look to inanimate dolls as role models; rather, they use dolls to act our their own imagined stories and games, which can be taken from wherever. For example, while my own childhood Barbie games tended to involve the stuff of the romantic comedies and teenage dating movies I watched as a kid, I remember playing with a more religious friend whose Barbie games revolved around Jewish weddings. Barbie was the kallah and Ken was the chattan. Same dolls, very different storylines.

The point is, it doesn’t necessarily matter what the intent of the doll-makers is — children will use the dolls for their own purposes, based on their own experiences or their own wild imaginations. The Gali Girls may come with Shabbat candles to light but they can just as easily be used to act out the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or even a Brittany Spears video, or — God forbid — the story of Mary and Joseph.

However, that said, I wonder how much limiting children’s play only to dolls with such a specific and modest intent as the Gali Girls might also make the scope of their imagination more modest. The one good thing about Barbie is that she can do everything. She’s a rock star, a news anchor, a mom, an athlete, a beauty queen and everything in between. Though it may be subtle, the plethora of Barbies out there shows little girls the variety of possibilities for their own lives. Even the American Girl dolls teach kids about aspects of American history and culture that are different from their own.

Whether it’s Gali Girls or not (and I really have no problem with the dolls themselves), the idea expressed in that video ad of limiting girls’ play only to dolls that look and act just like they do, or like their Bubbe thinks they should, is just another way to shelter religious girls and stifle their potential ambitions for their adult selves.

Not to mention making something that’s supposed to be fun and expansive — playtime — just plain dull.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman


  • http://www.Lilith.org admin

    Awesome post. Check out this interview Lilith ran with Ruth Handler, Barbie’s “mom,” in 1994: http://www.lilith.org/pdfs/ruthhandler.pdf

    Sometimes I think we should just give kids big boxes to play with…

    –Mel.

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  • http://jewess.canononist.com RHF

    Mel, I agree.
    Boxes and pots and pans (to bang, not to cook with) are the most fun.

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  • http://everydayandeverynight.com Shai Gluskin

    I think there are several different issues landing together in the same blog post.
    How can the interest in modesty catching with some young women be understood? Is it a good thing from a feminist perspective?
    Might trends toward modesty prevent women from being strong?
    What is the relationship between the design of dolls and how girls/children play with them? Do scantily clad dolls behave as a role model as the Gali Dolls company would have you believe?

    Outside the direct focus of the piece, sort of subterranean to it, is the question, “Can liberal Jews advocate modesty, or is this solely in the domain of the Orthodox?” Do Jewish Orthodox and feminist interests ever coincide?

    I recently saw the film “Once” with Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. This was a low budget film about an Irish musician trying to break through and his intense collaboration and shared musical vision with a young Czech immigrant. The movie itself broke through and Glen and Marketa won the Academy Award this year for best song. Marketa is only 20 now, she was 17 when she made the movie. I just loved the movie and did much YouTubing on the couple and one thing that impressed is how modestly Marketa dresses. I’m impressed with her ability to stand up to stardom and stay her earthy self. I hope it can last.

  • Charles laster

    Well, dolls *shouldn’t* have an effect on how girls see themselves. I mean, I had a G.I.Joe with a Kung Fu death grip, but I didn’t join the special forces. Parents, in the end, should parent, some of which consists of ‘oh, no, you’re not going out in that.’ We’re supposed to raise kids, not date them.