Sitting in the muggy, poorly ventilated shul on the top floor without air conditioning was always tortuous. But the heat on that summer morning was especially oppressive, and I was counting down the minutes until I could escape to the cool basement of my congregation with my friends.
As soon as the service concluded, however, I was waved over by a leader in the congregation and asked to take a seat. I was nervous, as I think many in my position would be, to find out what trouble I might be in. She pointed at my brand-new skirt, the one I had been so excited to wear, and stated it was simply too short and might distract certain members of our congregation. At the tender age of 10, I wish I could say this was the first or last time I would feel the shame and embarrassment of knowing that the physical development I was experiencing was being scrutinized.
Puberty is awkward for everyone, but it was truly awful for me. Being raised in both the Jewish and conservative Christian communities meant I was caught in a gauntlet of tightly held modesty standards from all sides. It felt unfair that it was only applied to girls, and it seemed even more heavily applied to girls like me. To be a good Jewish girl or a good Christian girl seemed unattainable for someone shaped like I am—someone curvy. Zaftig.
This Yiddish word is usually reserved for women with a “full, rounded figure; plump” and it’s not typically used with negative connotations. But when I heard it passed around by adults in hushed tones that they assumed I couldn’t hear or understand, it certainly felt loaded.
Growing up, I felt the impact of the ideal standard, especially in the media. I was constantly seeing pictures of blonde, straight hair, stick-thin girls that made my own curly headed, round figure feel ostracized. Every year, there seems to be a new trend of the “ideal” body type—and it was never mine.
It felt like no matter what I wore, I didn’t look right. Between ideals of beauty and standards of modesty, I began to look at my body itself with shame. Was I just made wrong? I couldn’t imagine that this feeling was what God had intended.
I tried to look beyond the media to culture, religion, and tradition, hoping to uncover a more foundational ideal for modesty and beauty. But codes of modesty in the Torah are continually discussed and argued (how very Jewish of us) to determine how they should be followed in a modern society. On top of that, people add their own religious traditions and practices to the instructions of Scripture but teach them like God’s expectations. And I wondered, Is modesty simply a product of its time, changing and manifesting in various ways depending on culture, context, and social structures? What makes modesty more than just a trend?
One of the first footholds in my climb towards a healthier view of my body was in my rereading of the creation story—I knew the order of events, but as I searched for clues of God’s intent in our bodies’ formation, I was able to see it in a new light.
God formed Adam’s and Eve’s bodies in His own image, and they got to experience the freedom of living without shame. Genesis 2:7 describes God’s care in creating us: “Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.” God gave us a piece of Himself when He created us: His own breath. God ingrained Himself in our very bodies, a powerful statement that the human body is valuable, wholesome, and good.
It was only when Adam and Eve listened to the lies of the serpent and ate of the forbidden fruit that they became aware of their nakedness and were overcome by shame. It was the first time this shame was introduced into the story of humanity. Adam and Eve were still made in the image of Elohim, but their innocence had been shattered and their perspective tainted.
In a way, the pointed, judgmental remarks I received about my body did that to me too: they shattered my innocence. Before I was aware of how others viewed my clothing and my body, getting dressed was fun. Clothes were about how they made me feel, not how they made me look. But the words others spoke changed the way I saw myself, and I shouldered them for many years.
I understood that shame wasn’t part of God’s vision for a perfect creation, but I still struggled to apply that truth to my life. Getting dressed remained a chore, a constant checking and rechecking to make sure I wouldn’t offend those around me. I would still attempt to cover up and minimize myself for the sake and standards of others. I often wore black because it was “slimming.” I wore a camisole underneath everything, even in the summer to avoid the sin that was any hint of cleavage. Modesty began to feel like a prison for my body, a weight of shame, a source of emotional pain, and a constant feeling of inadequacy.
I didn’t want to be clothed in shame—I wanted to experience the freedom of being made in the image of God. Genesis showed me that my body was a home to something greater than just my outward appearance. If I am made in His image then I am created with an inherent aptitude for kindness, compassion, love, and beauty; inside of me, outside of me, for myself, as well as for others. And so is everyone else.
It was easy for me to use this foundational concept of creation as a lens to view others as being worthy of respect and care. Towards myself, this attitude was much more challenging to foster. It took time to understand that “being made in the image of God” meant that both my body and my soul were worthy of care.
Because I hadn’t believed that, I hadn’t taken care of myself. I was confronted by this during a sunrise hike up Masada. This literal climb ended up being the second foothold in my figurative climb towards healing. As I faced the steep incline, I was physically, spiritually, and mentally challenged in a way I hadn’t been before and realized the consequences of my neglect.
That trek would end up being the impetus for many positive changes in my life: eating well, prioritizing fresh air, and keeping my body moving. I began to change my wardrobe to clothing that was creative and expressive (and reminded myself, Clothes are made to fit me; I’m not made to fit clothes). I began weekly therapy sessions which gave me the tools to take care of myself emotionally. Each of these changes brought me closer to addressing my flawed body image and realigning it with the image God has of me.
A lot of people I know now would cringe at the mention of modesty, viewing the concept as outdated at best and as a weapon used to control women at worst. But I’ve come to believe modesty in and of itself isn’t evil. God’s desire was always for us to deeply value and respect the bodies He created, a principle of modesty that I connect with more now than I did when others were dictating what modesty should mean for me.
Thankfully, the words from my childhood that once filled me with shame feel distant now. Finding the balance between honoring myself and finding dignity in modesty is a challenge. I’ve found that I can show kindness by being respectful of other people’s expectations for modesty without it interfering with my own beliefs about what it looks like. I’m definitely still on a journey, but I’m grounded in the knowledge that my body has inherent worth, was crafted with care, and was made in God’s image.
As I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t just see my curves. I see the familiar features of my mother, my father, my grandparents. I see how my body carries a history and continues a legacy. While very few photos of my Jewish ancestors exist prior to my grandparents, I feel I can see the women who came before me in my mind’s eye. Hailing from Ukraine and Russia, they were hearty women; strong in body as well as spirit. Their bodies, like mine, held generations worth of knowledge and fortitude.
On the days when I think I hate my body the most, I think of these women and how I continue to carry them with me in my thick head of curls, the roundness of my stomach, and my double chin, which is most visible when I laugh. They are me and I am them.