My mother wore tight pants. It was an integral part of the uniform worn by other Dominican women in the Washington Heights neighborhood where we lived. And my Dominican mother, an immigrant to this part of New York City, always dressed to code.
My mother’s ritual for getting dressed was…elaborate. My sisters and I marveled at our mother’s ability to squeeze herself into tight jeans. Throughout our childhood, my sister B. and I watched from our bed, lying on our bellies, as my mother began by hopping up and down to get the jeans to shimmy past her hips. Then Mami, as we called my mother, would lie down on the bed to try to zipper them over her stomach. After three kids, her body never as slim as she wanted it to be, Mami was still gorgeous. Thirty years old and with an hourglass figure with hefty proportions on the top and as Dominican stereotypes go, heftier proportions on the bottom, she was a “looker.”
Mami’s straightened hair, different shades of auburn from the bottle, cascaded down her neck and to her shoulders in waves. We watched eagerly as she mixed foundation to match her honey-colored brown skin before she coated her lips in luscious red tones. She powdered her thin long, straight nose and outlined her eyes heavily in mascara and layers of 1980s pastel eye shadow. I don’t remember her ever owning sneakers. When I discovered my artistic talent at three years old, I hid in her closet, drawing pictures of beautiful women in the soles of her three-inch heels. B., attempting to follow in my mother’s footsteps, stole into them at the same age, teetering dangerously as she strutted through our apartment like a comparona, a conceited little girl.
“I don’t think her pants fit,” B. whispered solemnly as we watched our mother fight her way into her stretch pants. B. was five and I was eight.
I put my hands over B.’s mouth so Mami wouldn’t overhear us before whispering back in agreement.
And so Mami often wore the tightest, brightest outfit she could find in her closet. Sometimes, even for church, paired with her shortest skirt. She dressed to kill in formfitting Technicolor. Even for a regular visit to the doctor’s office.
This meant that my sister B. and I spent the better part of our childhood protecting my mother from the unwanted advances of the dirty old men parked on the street corners of Washington Heights. My mother was used to this sort of street admiration but B. and I, young in our feminism, were not. We rose to the challenge whenever we were called upon to protect our mother from leering men. We yelled at them. We stuck out our tongues at them and, when Mami wasn’t looking, our middle fingers.
From these encounters, I learned that women were on a permanent catwalk in front of men. And at first, I hated it. I wore baggy clothing all through my early teens. My pants were always three sizes too big, held up precariously by one thick black belt. The sleeves of my flannel shirts went past my wrists and I didn’t bother to roll them back. I wanted to hide from these men and their prying eyes. I hated my body. And in my neighborhood, when you hated your body, you covered it up.
By the time I went to high school, the majority of my friends were boys. Because I dressed so much like them, I was treated like one of the guys. But I saw the way my guy friends treated the pretty girls prancing about on high heels and swathed in layers of makeup. I watched as my guy friends pulled out seats for these pretty girls and loomed over them acquiescing to every single whim. I learned that being a pretty girl, that wearing a miniskirt, meant power. And I wanted it. So I pushed my baggy jeans to the back of my closet and I stole my mother’s old mini-skirts. With a trail of boys following after me, nodding along to all my whims, I finally felt beautiful but more importantly, powerful.
But that got old fast. In college, I was treated like a dumb blond despite my long, curly black hair. It didn’t matter that I was a good little Catholic girl because that wasn’t how I dressed. Boys made assumptions about my character based on the length of my skirts. I earned a reputation for being a “man eater” even though I didn’t date anyone. I couldn’t get on the subway without some swarthy guy trying to hit on me at every other stop. And worst, people often commented that they hadn’t taken me very seriously until they finally talked me. My miniskirts were actually covering up who I really was.
I settled down by the end of college. My life was overly dramatic and I couldn’t focus on my clothes. I was kidnapping my sisters from my mother’s abusive home. I was recovering from having run away from home at 17. I was fighting my mother for custody of my sisters. I was eradicating every bubblehead stereotype that had ever been written about me since I had slid into my first pair of tight jeans. I stopped dressing to evoke the praise of others. I dressed for comfort, for survival and sometimes, even for war.
When I made the decision to convert to Judaism, I was in my friend’s car wearing a pair of short-shorts and a v-neck halter top that my now frum best friend, Igor, despised. Ever since arriving back in New York after his year at an Israeli yeshiva, Igor had been talking to me about tznius and dressing modestly. He even made me read Gila Manolson’s “Outside/Inside” just in case his words weren’t sinking in.
“But doesn’t it mean you hate yourself when you cover up?” I asked him afterwards.
“No, in Judaism, it means that you care about yourself,” Igor responded. “Your body isn’t for everyone else’s eyes. It’s special. And only one special person, your spouse, is allowed to look at it.”
I nodded thoughtfully.
I started to worry less about my body being in top form for bikini season. After some time, I traded every single pair of pants in my closet for a skirt that fell well past my knees. I was reformed. And it didn’t take long before I noticed that men looked at me differently, too.
I found myself walking around Washington Heights again. I had moved back to live there as part of the Jewish community. Without any cleavage on display and the outline of my body shrouded by less formfitting clothing, I was largely ignored by the men who had never failed to call out to my mother and me before. Now, if they complimented me, and they often didn’t, they looked at my face. They were more respectful when they noted that my pale oval face with its olive skin was pretty. I didn’t miss the leering gazes of my youth.
When I lived there, I often had to explain to Jews in Washington Heights that the way my mother dressed, the way many Dominican women still dress there, is normal. It’s not only the way everyone dresses, it’s the way women dress when they have self-esteem. In Washington Heights as in the rest of the world, covering up is still for girls who don’t like themselves. I have also had to explain to Dominican women and others that Jewish women cover up for different reasons. Jewish women, I explained much to my amusement, cover up because that’s what Jewish women do when they have self-esteem.
I don’t judge women who choose either road. I know that cultural norms are different from one block to the next. I choose to follow Jewish law though I know that we still live in a society that wants to convince women that the only power they have is skin-deep. I know now that the only person’s praise that matters, the only person whose gaze is important, is my own. And when I now slide into my long skirts and my long-sleeved shirts, I know that I am beautiful in my eyes and I don’t have to be in anyone else’s.