Religious women share their reasons for dressing modestly

When women get married in the Hasidic Jewish community of crown heights, they commit to covering their heads in public, often with wigs. (Photo by Michael Finch)

As a group of female BYU students stood in a synagogue in the Hasidic Jewish community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, peering through windows into a large room crowded with dozens of young men in black suits pouring over sacred texts and engaging in discussions, they peppered their tour guide, a rabbi himself, with questions about women in Judaism. 

A woman approached the group and asked if she could share a message, to which they eagerly agreed. Perhaps inspired by the topic of their questions, she began to tell them her views about the dress standards for women of her faith.

She explained that she believed the rules of modesty — sleeves past the elbows, skirts below the knee — were meant to defend the sacredness of her body, not to hide her from the world.

“Regular people don’t get to see every part of me,” she said. 

She also talked about the lush brunette wigs that married women often use to keep their heads covered. 

“Being modest doesn’t mean not being beautiful,” she said. “We cover ourselves up in a way that is beautiful.”

From a modern or secular lens, modesty requirements are often believed to be outdated and targeted toward women, sexualizing their bodies and implying that they are responsible for men’s arousal. However, many religious women who abide by these requirements see them in a more positive light. 

From Brooklyn to Rome

Like the woman in Crown Heights, Addison Bollinger, currently serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at the Rome Italy Temple Visitor Center, believes that the human body has a sort of sacredness that ought to be protected. 

“Growing up, I always dressed modestly because that is one of the biggest reasons we came to Earth—to get a body—and why not respect it?” she said. “There’s a difference between loving your body and letting everyone see every single part of it, because there are some parts that are sacred.”

Many Latter-day Saints wear garments, religious underclothing that covers the shoulders and stomach and extends past the mid-thigh, thereby restricting the more revealing clothing that is especially popular for women. Bollinger referred to garments as a physical reminder of her spiritual purpose.

“I love my garments, because they remind me that I’m walking towards my Savior,” she said. “And that gives me so much more joy than if I wore shorts or crop tops or anything like that.”

For Kelsy Stelnicki, another missionary at the Visitor Center, dressing more conservatively is simply a way to express devotion.

“I choose to dress modestly not for any other reason than that it shows obedience,” Stelnicki said. “It shows respect to my Heavenly Father, saying, ‘I choose to do this because I love you and I choose to obey you.’”

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the only one that involves religious symbols in the form of clothing.

Under the painted angels decorating the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy, devout Catholic Adelaide Capion listened intently to the words of a priest leading a Sunday mass. A sheer veil embroidered with white beads adorned her head.

Mass is held every Sunday in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy. Catholic women often cover their shoulders and midriff while attending mass. (Photo by Michael Finch)

Although the Roman Catholic Church no longer requires women to cover their heads in mass, many women continue the practice of wearing veils. 

“For me it’s special because it’s a reminder that my body is a temple,” said Capion. “It also helps to keep me focused because it creates a bit of peripheral vision cut-off.”

Also attending the mass was Kseniia Martynenko, a Protestant from Ukraine. Martynenko’s dedication to her faith was evident in the prayer she muttered under her breath while sitting in the pew, but she does not believe her choices in clothing say anything about her faith.

“God doesn’t care what you look like,” Martynenko said. “He sees your heart.”

Religious and Personal Motivations

Amilah Azam, a Muslim woman from Texas, also chooses to express her faith by dressing modestly, wearing pants or skirts that cover at least her knees and shirts that don’t show her shoulders. 

Amilah Azam wears her traditional Muslim atire. She chooses to dress modestly to honor her religion. (Photo courtesy of Amilah Azam)

Her reasons extend beyond religion and into her personal preferences, contradicting the popular belief that religious women are forced to comply with conservative dress standards.

“Being modest in my own way makes me feel more confident and protected,” Azam said. “I dress in a way that makes me feel comfortable with my body and also protects my self image.” 

Categories: Europe News, Europe Travel, New York, Study Abroad Themes

%d bloggers like this: