Pants, Pants Revolution: How My First Pair of Jeans Redefined Modesty for Me
When I bought jeans recently, I redefined what ‘tzniut’ means to me as an Orthodox woman
When I bought a pair of jeans earlier this year, I felt like I was driving home with a terrible cargo of guilt and sins. They were the first jeans I’ve ever purchased.
As a proper Orthodox girl, I’ve worn skirts for as long as I can remember. Not only were skirts simply what my community, not to mention my parents, deemed appropriate dress for women. To me, pants represented Sinful Temptation. Sure, it’s an extreme association to have with an item of clothing, but the Judaism with which I was raised excelled at playing the guilt card, and I’ve been an eager card-carrying member my whole life. So, dutifully and without question—although rarely happily—I wore skirts.
But now I’ve joined the “Pants, Pants Revolution,” the name a friend of mine has given to the growing number of Orthodox girls deciding to wear pants—which among my peer group is becoming a more common phenomenon. And once I joined the revolution, I couldn’t stop. I went back out almost immediately and bought several more pairs.
When I was growing up as a Modern Orthodox kid, I would cast my eyes longingly at pants. My friends in grade school, who were also Modern Orthodox, wore them. Like any child, I didn’t enjoy being different, but I believed that wearing pants was simply “wrong” and skirts were “right.” I thought I was following halakhah better than they were. When I went to a high school and then a seminary where only skirts were allowed, the issue faded for several years. By the time I finished school and found myself once again in a circle of friends in which wearing pants was common, I didn’t give it much thought. I was no longer uncomfortable being different. In fact, I embraced it. After more than 20 years, wearing skirts didn’t even occur to me as something I could or should change.
But then my younger sister, 21 and living the Modern Orthodox life in Israel with her husband, called me one day a few months ago and informed me that she had done some halachic research and decided that wearing pants poses no problem for women today; she sent me her readings and the rabbinic teshuvot that supported her decision to start wearing pants, and I realized I agreed. I’d been taught that one of the main reasons pants aren’t allowed is because they’re begged ish—men’s clothing, which is forbidden—but had never understood why they’re still considered men’s clothing in today’s age. It turns out, there are rabbis who agree with me. It felt silly, suddenly, to spend my life dictated by social expectations that, to me, didn’t have legal backing. Especially if that expectation was uncomfortable, hard to walk in, and made sitting Indian-style incredibly awkward.
But still, I hesitated. By this point in my life, I thought about all my actions as personal decisions instead of mindless movements dictated by a higher, intractable law; I wanted my life decisions, and my religion, to grow out of mature choices and meaningful thought. Yet wearing skirts wasn’t just about obeying a higher, intractable law that I wasn’t sure I believed anymore. To me and my community, skirts are a symbol of something more than a fashion decision; they are symbols of Orthodoxy, the mark of belief in a religion that can and will guide the minutest aspects of our day. There was something nice about being recognizable as belonging to Orthodox Judaism. When I would spot a man with a kippa or a woman in a skirt and long sleeves, there was an implicit understanding, an invisible head nod of recognition that only we could perceive. This social aspect, more than anything, made me appreciate the strict bindings of modesty laws, especially as my social circles grew and I began working outside the strictly Orthodox community.
I wondered: Why fix something that’s not broken? Even if I was swayed by my sister’s reasoning and didn’t see a halachic problem with wearing pants, I was used to wearing skirts. I was OK with it. But as weeks passed and became months, I would find myself staring longingly as women passed easily in pantsuits, looking so professional and comfortable that my pencil skirt seemed more like a shackle than an item of clothing. It happened on a level I didn’t even recognize, so much so that I was caught off guard the moment my mind was made up: I would start wearing pants. Such a monumental decision didn’t seem like the type of thing that would happen while walking to the bathroom at work one day. But it did. Just like that. Well, “just like that” after months of consideration.
I wanted pants, I decided, which meant I needed to buy some. This fateful shopping trip was the culmination of weeks, or even years, of a mind slowly reaching its own decision. And yet I didn’t even know I would be buying pants that day until I was standing at the register of Fox’s holding a pair of jeans, among all the new clothing I had set out to buy for the upcoming holidays. From the dressing room where I’d tried them on to the register where I laid them down, I went back and forth in my mind: I’ll buy them. No, I’ll put them back. I’m brave enough for this. Actually, I’m not.
But I had gone shopping that day with my sister, and she encouraged me to try the jeans on. I tried on pair after pair, discarding all of them in indecision, until I was left with one pair that I couldn’t seem to get rid of. Snug but soft, comfortable but flattering, they were the type of faded jeans that seemed like a staple for every other woman’s wardrobe—and now, apparently, mine. So, I threw them on the pile and paid for them. They were mine, and I was a step closer to actually wearing pants in public. It felt thrilling and normal all at the same time. I looked good. I felt good. And I was buying jeans. I felt so … normal.
Jeans, beyond pants, are the essence of comfort, the symbol of the average American. Male or female—it doesn’t matter. If you’re American, you probably have jeans. You wear them to your family football cookouts, or whatever typical Americans do in their free time. When I wore them, I knew I wouldn’t stand out as different from everyone else, as I had for most of my life. I would be like any American girl, wearing her jeans.
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