Policing Girls’ Bodies: Legs

Knees and Toes

I wouldn’t mind reclaiming my high school nickname:Legs.It’skindofcute.“HeyLegs!” my favorite school administrator would shout when she saw me roaming the halls, having absconded from class. I would look down at my knees feeling all the traits implied by that sassy little nickname: daring, provocative, cute, outrageous. I would grin at her and pull down my skirt a couple inches, as if to say, “Thanks for the heads up.” At Ramaz, the modern Orthodox day school I attended, my knees were absolutely unwelcome. She was saving me from a potential “tzniut (modesty) violation” by a serious dress code enforcer down the hall. After davening every morning, one rabbi or another would deliver our morning announcements, which on a typical day went something like this:“There’s cereal in the lunchroom for those who want breakfast. There’s a winter clothing drive going on, so bring coats and scarves to the office. And… girls! Because of recent complaints about dress code, we feel the need to restate the requirements for sleeve and skirt length.

The test for shirts is as follows: when you raise your arms above your head, your shirt should not rise to expose your midriff. As for skirts—how many times do we need to say this?! — your skirts should not be above-the- knee, nor should they be to-the-knee. They should cover your knees! If your skirt does not cover your knees, you will be sent to the office.” More than once (hence the nickname), I had been sent to the office, where a huge, shapeless, black garbage bag of a skirt awaited girls convicted of dress code violations.

I remember how inappropriate I found it that reminders about the girls’ dress code were being announced in front of the boys. The thought makes me squirm with discom- fort even today. Our male classmates and friends — whose dress code was about formality (collars, mainly, or the lack thereof), not body-policing—were the audience for these shaming speeches about knees and arms and chests. There was something so perverse and upsetting about the boys almost being invited in as observers/policers of our bodies, taught to objectify us by the school’s example.

While all female students were subjected to the voyeurism and unwanted gaze which too often accompanies school dress code en- forcement, it seemed that only the more physi- cally developed girls got in trouble regularly for “tzniut violations.” I vented about this on Facebook a few months ago:“My big-breasted best friend would get in trouble daily for her shirts (which were perfectly appropriate). I would get in trouble constantly for my skirts/ the butt and hips underneath them. Less-developed classmates seemed to be able to wear whatever they wanted without ever getting pulled over by the tzniut police…”

Stories quickly packed the comments sections. One woman recounted that “[her] niece-in-law is big-breasted, and teaches in a girls’ Jewish school. The head teacher wanted to terminate her, because she wore perfectly tzniut clothes, which nevertheless made it unavoidably apparent that she had breasts—well,she is a woman…I have seen women wearing a kind of waistcoat over their blouses, as if to try and disguise the fact that they had breasts!”“I remember once being called out by a teacher when I was wearing our school uniform shirt,” wrote one woman. “She insisted it fit differently on everyone, but that the size wasn’t the problem. What she must have meant was that certain women shouldn’t ever wear button downs.” Another poster said it drives her crazy “that most rabbis don’t notice that they are applying halacha differently to different people depending on (literally) how Hashem made them look.”

Rebecca Halff on the Lilith Blog.