When I was a teen, long before I became religiously observant, more than anything in the world, I wanted to be thin. I had been obese since childhood, feeling like a spectator on the sidelines of life, and I would have given anything to look like the beautiful women I saw in magazines. One of my ultimate fantasies was losing all the weight and going out to buy myself a glamorous bathing suit.
After spending summer after summer poolside looking like a linebacker in an oversized t-shirt and a pair of mens' mesh shorts, the idea of feeling the sun and breeze on my skin seemed like the ultimate in freedom.
And then it happened. I lost over a hundred pounds, gave myself a makeover, looked in the mirror and saw the beautiful woman I’d always dreamed of becoming. One of the first things I did was head out to buy myself that perfect bathing suit. The visions I’d played in my head for years were finally coming true. I went straight from the store to the beach...
Jessica Rey, the actress-turned-swimsuit-designer, talks about the evolution of the bikini in her viral Youtube video. When the bathing suit was created in France in 1946, it was so scandalous that no French model would go near it. In the 50’s, Modern Girl Magazine wrote that “no girl with tact or decency would ever wear” a bikini, while another writer said the bikini “revealed everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name.” Just a few decades before the bikini came around, most women swam in “bathing costumes” consisting of long, knee-length shorts and jackets. At the beach, women changed in horse-drawn “bath houses” that looked like small wooden huts on wheels, which they rode down to the shoreline, getting quickly in the water before anyone saw them.
Then the 60’s brought the sexual revolution and the feminist movement and all social conventions were tossed to the wind. By 1965, women had claimed the bikini as a summer staple, telling Time it was “almost square” to wear a one-piece. By the time I was ready to hit the beach 40 years later, a bikini was a no-brainer. In fact, if you judged by the magazines, there was no higher aspiration for a woman than being able to pull off wearing one.
Down to the beach I trotted with my book and chair. I took a walk along the shoreline, passing children at play in the sand, middle-aged women walking their purse dogs and bronzed surfer dudes tossing Frisbees. But unexpectedly, I felt more uncomfortable than I had been in my skin 100 pounds ago.
In her talk, Rey quotes from a Princeton University study that measured men’s brain activity when looking at pictures of women in bikinis. “Some men showed zero activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex,” Rey says, “which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions...it’s as if they’re reacting to these women as if they’re not fully human. It’s consistent with the idea that they are responding to these photographs as if they were responding to objects, not people.”
Men are responding to these photographs as if they were responding to objects, not people.
When women decided to make a statement by wearing revealing clothes, they believed they were taking ownership of themselves – as people, as females and as equals. But it may have backfired. It turns out that the less women wear, the less likely they’re viewed as fully human. And if you’re not seen as fully human, there’s no way you will be considered an equal.
The driving force behind Rey’s speech, her new, modest bathing suit line, and a new book called Decent Exposure is a call for a return to modesty. Rey promotes modest dress as the means by which women can truly make a statement: My identity is defined by who I am inside, not by what I look like on the outside.
Rey is broadcasting an age-old truth straight out of the Bible. King David wrote, “The honor of the King’s daughter is within” (Psalms 45:13). The value of true royalty comes not from her outward appearance, but from being created in God’s image. Dignity and royalty are inherent in every human being, to the extent that he or she develops a self-image based on one’s spiritual inner core – one’s soul. Once a woman’s self-identity is based on her soul and inner worth, she has no need to draw attention to her body because it doesn’t define her value. In fact, it might distract from her true identity and worth.
I was invited to a Shabbat dinner for young professionals by a local rabbi and his wife. I dressed in my most fashionable outfit: a low-necked, sleeveless dress and high platform sandals. My hair and makeup were perfect. I was ready to meet and mingle.
I arrived early and headed to the kitchen to offer an extra pair of hands to the hostess, whom I had never met before. I found a woman darting like a sparrow across the kitchen, spooning out olive dip, putting challah rolls in baskets, all the while picking up and putting down the various children who were tugging at her for attention. The heat of the ovens made her skin flush and her dark wig frizz around her face. She wore a long-sleeved dress of basic black, nothing dazzling, with dark stockings and flats. Everything about her was simple, understated.
But never in my life had I seen a more beautiful woman.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she said, her dark eyes shining as she pulled me into a hug.
Throughout the evening, I couldn’t stop staring at her. With grace and calm she fielded requests for a second bowl of chicken soup while introducing guests to one another, smiling at everyone as if she were greeting a long lost friend. Wherever she stood, the room seemed brighter.
That night, I went home mystified. What was it about this woman that I found so spellbinding? Her hair and clothes weren’t out of style, but it was unlikely you’d find them on a Paris runway. Her face was pretty enough, but was it model material? Not even close. By all accounts, I was the more fashionable of the two of us. And yet, I knew inherently that she had the kind of beauty that even the top model couldn’t touch.
Throughout Jewish history, women have been valued for their modesty. Out of thousands of women, King Achashverosh chose Queen Esther, a Jewish girl, as the most beautiful woman. The Talmud says, however, that Esther wasn’t actually that beautiful. In fact, her skin had a greenish tint. So why would Achashverosh pick her? Because her inner character was so refined that it shone outward, giving her the appearance of the world’s most beautiful woman. It’s no coincidence that the meaning of the name “Esther” is “hidden.”
My wedding dress was a dream, with intricate Indian beading that made the whole gown shimmer like a jewel. When I tried it on at the fitting, I felt every girlhood Disney-Princess fantasy I’d ever had come true. We had bought the gown strapless, then had it built up with a layer of tulle to cover my shoulders and arms. But the tulle on top was transparent; my skin showed from underneath.
“Do you want us to line it?” asked the seamstress. “We can put in a layer of material underneath so your skin doesn’t show.”
I felt an inner tantrum brewing. The gown was so exquisite; I didn’t want to change a thing. And technically, my arms were covered, even if the material was as diaphanous as smoke. I had already given my wardrobe a complete overhaul when I made the commitment to become religious, and to be honest, there were still moments when I felt a twinge of longing for the gorgeous miniskirts, tight jeans and low-cut tops that I’d given away. I was repelled by the idea of being another cookie-cutter bride in a sweet, modest dress. I didn’t want to be one of the crowd. I wanted to be unique. And, of course, I wanted to be beautiful.
But then I remembered that day at the beach, how I sought other people’s attention, but when I got it, it made me want to hide behind the closest jetty. And I thought of the rabbi’s wife, one of the dynamic women who inspired me along my Jewish journey, who in basic black could light up a room.
I had spent the last few years looking inward, refining my character and building the sense of wholeness and value from within that I’d spent a lifetime convinced would come from without. Now that I had developed the beauty inside, I actually felt better covered up on the outside. I would be a beautiful bride because of who I was, not because of what I wore.
I considered my reflection and smiled at the seamstress.
“Put the lining in.”