Now, I have extremely little experience with women's sexuality, so much of this article was beyond my ken of understanding, and I've understood it only as well as I could.
Now, the first half or so of the article, until "Yet, while Orthodox women's lives...", discusses fairly simple and self-explanatory phenomena, such as the risk of eating disorders caused by weekly Shabbat feasts and men who demand to know their dates' dress sizes. It shouldn't be too difficult for anyone to understand the issues here.
However, the second half (or so) is where understanding is more difficult, and I have more to say. The article says,
Yet, while Orthodox women’s lives increasingly revolve around food and body, the growing incidence of eating disorders in the Orthodox community is often swept under the rug. Women are told to dress “modestly” as an “antidote” to the problems of body that exist for women in the secular world – as if putting on layers of clothing is healthy for a woman trying to experience her own body. In a chilling interview in the Jewish Journal, Gila Manolson, a Jerusalem-based speaker and author and self-proclaimed expert on body image, claims that the Jewish concept of tzniut (modesty) is the most powerful antidote to this problem.Women who possess tzniut have their physical privacy protected; they are simply not on display for ogling or judgment by the public’s critical eye. The beauty industry feeds off women’s insecurities, so the biggest enemy to that industry is a woman who has a healthy soul image and who carries herself with modesty.Laws of modesty protect women? I vehemently disagree. Excess layers of clothing do not protect women from the imposed sexualized gaze upon their bodies, especially not the way Orthodoxy is practiced. When girls as young as five are told to cover up because men are looking at them, this is not protection but over-sexualizing. One first grade girl, for example, was reported to have been asked to switch schools because she lifted up her skirt. Protection? Hardly. It is depriving girls of the freedom to freely be who they are, even when they are merely children in play. It is internalizing the obsessive male gaze, not protection from it. In fact, I argue in my doctoral dissertation (presented at the 2006 Kolech conference) that skirts and hats subject girls and women to a double male gaze — the gaze of secular society, of the fashion and Hollywood dictates, alongside the gaze of religious men.
The skirts thus intensify women’s self-consciousness about their bodies and their sense that their own sensuality and physicality is owned by others, in two worlds. It becomes a case in which women are constantly aware of the fact that every exposed inch of skin is subject to gaze — one of the “threatening” secular society and one of the religious men around her. Putting women behind a curtain of clothing does not remove the gaze but makes her suffer for it.
Now, part of this is surely counter-intuitive at least. Now, granted that I had about two female friends during middle and high school combined, and that I know about women's sexuality as much as a rock does, but nevertheless, I'd have thought that indeed, a woman's dressing tzenua ought to diminish the pressure on her to appear attractive.
It would appear that the issue is when the men are not conditioned appropriately, in correspondence to the tzenua dress code of the women. That is, if women are told to cover their bodies because their bodies are sexual, but men are not told to diminish their leering and gazing and contemplating of the women's bodies, then we have a disproportionate and unbalanced approach to tzniut. Women are only half of tzniut; the women should be told to cover themselves and behave however is appropriate, but the men must likewise be taught to reduce their sexual urges and lusts.
All this emphasis on tzniut, then, subverts the very intention of the laws of tzniut - which are, after all, meant to emphasize the humanity and worth of women by encouraging a deemphasis of physical beauty and sexuality. Instead, Orthodox Jews rather seem to emphasis the physicality and sexuality of women, painting them as nothing but sexual objects, and they likewise emphasize the sexually-drawn nature of men, depicting them as naught but sexually-desiring hounds. Both men and women are hyper-sexualized, which is of course precisely the opposite of the intention of the laws of tzniut. One should not be surprised if any day now, Freudian sexual neuroses, once known almost exclusively amongst dualistic Euro-Christians, become known amongst the Orthodox as well. (See Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits's "A Jewish Sexual Ethics", printed in Crisis and Faith and in Essential Essays on Judaism, for how Freud's notions regarding sexual neuroses depend on the background of a Christian-inspired dualistic ascetic/monastic culture.)
If the men are not educated properly, then the result is that women's bodies are made into a hypersexual object, which is of course precisely the opposite of what tzniut is intended to accomplish. The men are inculcated with that concept that women's bodies are objects to be hidden, but they are never taught, as they should be taught, to see their bodies as anything but sexual objects. As a friend of mine has noted, when you try hard to avoid thinking about something, usually, that thing is all you can think about; if you teach young men to avoid women like the plague, for they are a sexual object, guess what the men will see women as? Sexual objects! But is this not precisely what tzniut is intended to combat?
If women's dress codes is to accomplish anything, then men must be taught properly to not see women as sexual objects, and not to have overmuch sexual lust. If this is done, then when women themselves endeavor to not present themselves as sexual objects, with appropriate clothing and the like, then men and women will meet together in the middle, and the burden will be borne by both sides equally. But when women exclusively bear that burden, it actually would seem to exacerbate sexuality, rather than reduce it.
Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin, in his "Contemporary Tseniut" (Tradition 37:3, reprinted in Understanding Tzniut) concludes,
In a sense, books like Oz ve-Hadar Levusha continue the process of standardization of halakha at the expense of local custom, which began with the Mishna Berura and has continued in earnest since the Second World War. Tseni’ut is particularly ill-suited for such standardization, and what is suitable for kiddush-cups and matsot may not be suitable for the amount of a woman’s hair showing, if any. There is a danger here of losing sight of the real basics of modesty—not to mention being so concerned about not thinking about women that one can think of nothing else.(See also Tamara Bialia, To Teach Tsni'ut with Tsni'ut: On Educating for Tsni'ut in [Israeli] National-Religious Schools. She makes an argument similar to mine, although it is embedded throughout her larger thesis.)
After I had already considered the above, I read the following in the article:
The language of women’s body needs to be reconfigured in Orthodoxy. Rather than making the dubious claim that layers of clothing protect women from the male gaze, let us educate men to stop gazing and start treat women with respect. Let us stop punishing women while excusing men’s mistreatment of women and other vices. Rather than saying, the wild dogs are out so let’s all hide, let’s say, train the dogs and then we will all be free.You know you're doing well when the author's words lead you to think a certain thought, and then the author herself says precisely that which you've already thought.
Also, I later saw Ilana Teitelbaum's "What Not to Wear" Should Never Be More Than a TV Show and Dr. Elana Maryles Szkotman's Ilana Teitelbaum on the oppressiveness of “Modesty” or “Tznius”. There, Teitelbaum makes many apposite points. She remarks on how her Orthodox schoolteachers would insistently inspect her and the other girls' garb, and she notes,
To me, the above examples of my life experience have one thing in common: They are both counterproductive to the goal they purport to serve, which is to protect women’s dignity. (An oft-quoted, difficult-to-translate Jewish proverb that makes this point is "The princess’s honor is in her inner beauty.") The result of a rabbi’s obsessing over knee socks vs. tights or the sight of a married woman’s hair has the oddly paradoxical effect of sexualizing women in a way that tank tops never will.
Whereas when I wear Orthodox garb, I get cat-calls and insinuating comments from men who clearly believe I am an innocent ripe for corruption. Rather than deflecting attention, my long black skirt attracts male stares in the street because as Israeli men, they know What It Means. (Or in this case, think they do.)
Therefore, of course, I hope to raise any male children I have, bz"h (with G-d's help), according to the pedagogical principles I have outlined above. But there is yet another issue to be considered: the education of our female children. Besides their wearing decent clothing, what are they to be taught of the reasons for tzniut? I believe a serious problem in education is that women are erroneously taught to see tzniut as one of the primary, or G-d forbid, the primary, Jewish task of their lives, that their primary or (even worse) sole Jewish expression is in the area of tzniut.
According to Rabbi Yehuda Amital, quoted by Professor Marc Shapiro at http://seforim.traditiononline.org/index.cfm/2008/8/29/Responses-to-Comments-and-Elaborations-of-Previous-Posts-III,
We live in an era in which educated religious circles like to emphasize the centrality of Halakha, and commitment to it, in Judaism. I can say that in my youth in pre-Holocaust Hungary, I didn't hear people talking all the time about "Halakha." People conducted themselves In the tradition of their forefathers, and where any halakhic problems arose, they consulted a rabbi. Reliance on Halakha and unconditional commitment to it mean, for many people, a stable anchor whose purpose is to maintain the purity of Judaism, even within the modern world. To my mind, this excessive emphasis of Halakha has exacted a high cost. The impression created is that there is nothing in Torah but that which exists in Halakha, and that in any confrontation with the new problems that arise in modern society, answers should be sought exclusively in books of Halakha. Many of the fundamental values of the Torah which are based on the general commandments of "You shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:2) and "You shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God" (Devarim 6:18), which were not given formal, operative formulation, have not only lost some of their status, but they have also lost their validity in the eyes of a public that regards itself as committed to Halakha.
It is this vein that I have assumed I'll someday raise any daughters I may have, bz"h [with G-d's help]. That is, it appears foolhardy to me, to raise her with tzniut being her primary Jewish identity. I figure, tell her to wear modest skirts and the like, because she shouldn't exhibit her body as her primary self, and teach some general Jewish sexuality (I prefer Rav Eliezer Berkovits's "A Jewish Sexual Ethics" in Crisis and Faith and Essential Essays on Judaism) in the course of her general Jewish education, but don't make an issue out of tzniut. Rather, teach her what the halacha says, and why it says it, and let that be that. As Rabbi Amital is saying, we shouldn't glorify halacha as something to be deified; keep halacha, and go about your daily life.
Students of Rav Kook would note that the halakhah's post-Temple diminution to the status of the four cubits of personal individual halakhah, is a travesty and distortion of Torah, historically explicable and justifiable though it may be. In like wise, Rav S. R. Hirsch says in "Religion Allied to Progress",
...Judaism is not a religion, the synagogue is not a church, and the rabbi is not a priest. Judaism is not a mere adjunct to life: it comprises all of life. To be a Jew is not a mere part, it is the sum total of our task in life. To be a Jew in the synagogue and the kitchen, in the field and the warehouse, in the office and the pulpit, as ... father and mother, as servant and master, as man and as citizen, with one's thoughts, in word and in deed, in enjoyment and privation, with the needle and the graving-tool, with the pen and the chisel--that is what it means to be a Jew. An entire life supported by the Divine Idea and lived and brought to fulfillment according to the Divine Will.
It seems unhealthy to center a girl's education on tzniut, just as it unhealthy to center a boy's life on kashrut. Since the Temple's destruction, G-d has had only His four cubits of halacha, but really, the Torah was meant to contain so much more; everything that is human is in the Torah. Moreover, as Rabbi Shelomo Danziger says in Living Hirschian Legacy, following Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg, the Torah is only the "how", the Aristolian form; derech eretz, mundane life, is still the "what" and the Aristotelian matter. (See here for Rabbi Danziger's extensive analysis of this.) Rabbi Weinberg's student, Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, expresses a similar notion (Towards Historic Judaism. Oxford: East and West Library, 1943, chapters 3-4, pp. 25-51. Reprinted in Essential Essays on Judaism (ed. David Hazony, Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 2002) as "On the Return to Jewish National Life" pp. 155-175. The following is Essential Essays pp. 156ff.):
Judaism looks upon life as the raw material which has to be shaped in conformity with the spiritual values contained in the Bible. Judaism is a great human endeavor to fashion the whole of life, every part and every moment of it, in accordance with standards that have their origin in unchallengeable authority. Its aim is not merely to cultivate the spirit, but to infuse prosaic, everyday existence with the spirit. Its great interest is not the human soul, but the living human body controlled by the forces of the soul. It is in and of this world. It will never yield to the obstinacy of that gigantic mass of raw material which we call life, and which so reluctantly allows itself to be molded by the spirit. It will never reconcile itself to a divided existence of which part is Caesars’ and part God’s. The whole of life is one piece; the whole of life is the testing place for man. Judaism is in love with life, for it knows that life is God’s great question to mankind; and the way a man lives, what he does with his life, the meaning he is able to implant in it – is man’s reply. Actual life is the partner to the spirit; without the one the other is meaningless.