It began in Jerusalem.
Everywhere I looked there were women in long, flowing skirts and colourful headscarves. It wasn’t new to me, seeing orthodox Jewish women dressed this way (how could it be, living along Toronto’s Bathurst corridor), but something about it stirred me. They looked elegant, feminine, utterly composed and serene. On the next day’s trip to the Machane Yehuda shuk (open-air market) I picked up a cheap headscarf to go with my Shabbat skirt. That evening, walking through the old city on the way to the Kotel, I felt the same serenity, femininity, and yes, holiness as I had perceived in those women. I was hooked.
I don’t remember exactly when I started to dress that way consistently. Over time it became a habit, I suppose. I bought myself long skirts and many, many colourful scarves from online vendors who catered to modestly dressed Jewish women. I learned about ten ways to tie a headscarf. I enjoyed it.
In my skirts, I felt liberated. I didn’t worry, as I did when wearing pants, about whether the cut was unflattering or whether the bum was too tight. Most of my skirts were wrap skirts, so I also didn’t have to think about whether I felt bloated or if they were creating a muffin top situation. I felt as though my body was finally (finally!) mine to enjoy without worrying about how it looked to others. If my husband and I enjoyed my body and took pleasure from it, whose business was it what I looked like?
(For the record, it always annoys me when people talk about modestly dressed women as if they’re saving their bodies only for their husbands. What about for themselves? Are women not supposed to enjoy and admire their own bodies? Suggesting that dressing modestly implies a husband’s ownership of his wife’s body – and sexuality – is insulting at best.)
The headscarves solved a long-standing practical issue; I’ve never been the kind of woman to preen, I’ve never owned more than one hair product at a time, and my hair tends towards the frizzy end of the straight-hair spectrum. Inevitably, I could dress as nicely as possible and I still wouldn’t look put together because I just had no clue what to do with my hair. With the scarves I could coordinate with my outfit, tie them in a number of becoming ways, and look… coordinated. Put together.
Not having to worry about my body or my hair freed me up to think about other things. I spent more time contemplating my goals, my actions, and what I could do to better my small sphere of influence. Dressing modestly had lent me some desperately needed balance.
My family didn’t see my costume change as positively as I did. For Mr. December’s parents my appearance dredged up latent fears that we would become extremely religious and be too kosher to eat in their home ever again (and you know that to Jewish mothers rejection of their food is rejection of their love). My mother seemed to feel that dressing this way reflected some form of oppression. She used to ask plaintively if they would ever see my hair uncovered again. My father, well, he keeps his mouth shut, so it was hard to tell what he thought. And Mr. December actually liked it. When I asked why, he said that he was happy to see that I was committed to dressing this way, that he felt it had a positive impact on me, and it was kind of cute. Great.
I wore long skirts and scarves for almost two years. Then my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, and everything changed.