I still think a lot about that day in Junior High, when my teacher really confused me. It was definitely not the first time a teacher had confused me, nor the last, but it was definitely the longest confusion a teacher had thrown me into.

It started innocently enough. She told us an interesting story from millennia ago. The Queen of Sheba had heard tales about King Shlomo’s wisdom, and wanted to verify it for herself. She came to visit him, and gave him quite a few tests, which she thought only the wisest of men could solve.

In one test, she brought a group of children, all of the same height, and dressed in the same fashion. She asked him to sort out the girls from the boys, a task which seemed impossible. King Shlomo didn’t blink, he asked his servants to spread an abundance of treats all over the floor, and then told the children to collect as much as they’d like for themselves. In a moment, the king declared his answer. Faced with too many treats to hold in their hands, the boys had picked up their dresses from the hem to use as a basket. The girls meanwhile, only used their aprons.

The Queen of Sheba praised King Shlomo for his wisdom – he knew he could pick out the girls for their natural modesty.

Spaced out kid that I was, the story sent me into whirlwind of thought. It was fascinating. Were we girls really naturally more modest than the boys we grew up with? Maybe it was like a talent that we were just born with. It explained a few things I had been wondering about the wild neighbourhood boys. Did it mean we girls were smarter? More perceptive? Did this newfound fact have any advantages for me?

Whack. A booklet of black and white photocopied sheets landed on my desk. Back to earth. The teacher had some illustrated diagrams for us, and it was time to read through them together. Pictures and diagrams are usually a great break from the typical text-filled school days, but these ones just had me more and more confused.

See, I knew there were some rules to modesty, according to Jewish halacha, and that made total sense to me, but these diagrams were really intense. They analysed everything a woman can wear, down to the tiniest detail – the inches, the thickness, the many shades of color, everything was measured and accounted for in a strictly literal manner.

I didn’t get it. What happened to our story? What was even the point? Why did we need all these diagrams if modesty was our natural instinct? Where did these come from?

I wanted to know more about the story. I needed to understand what the natural modesty was and what it meant. But I didn’t want the teacher to think I disliked modesty, or was rebelling against her diagrams. She thought I was a good kid, and I had to keep it that way.

So I remained confused.

That was only Junior High, and I was just a kid with a delayed sense of fashion. Those diagrams were easy to follow. Modesty did feel natural.

Until it didn’t. The giant wall-sized advertisements in the mall were glamorous, but far from modest. At first I wondered if the women in the photos felt okay with it, and then I wondered if I could look as beautiful as them.

Some of my friends were brilliant at fashion. They could stick to every rule in the diagrams, and still be fit for a Paris runway. Shopping became all about trying on beautiful pieces, hoping they could check off the boxes. Sometimes one detail wouldn’t be right – but the price was, and I looked great in it, so I excused it all the way into my shopping bag.

Soon the notion of natural modesty faded into a distant preteen memory, and the detailed diagrams became nothing but a heavy burden, often too exhausting to carry.

The thing is, modesty can be a truly beautiful thing, and I really did appreciate it. I also wanted to follow the Torah, and if modesty was in there, I wanted to do it. But a burden of rules in a world obsessed with beauty just felt suffocating.

I discovered that the rules of modesty originated in a very simple way. God requested that we be modest, and left it up to the women’s natural instinct to determine what that meant. A few ideas became rules set for all time, and some became customs different to each community.

At the very core it was based on woman’s nature. A natural sensitivity that women are born with. The sensitivity only had to be woken up with a request, and it was there.

In today’s world, that sensitivity is very easily drowned in a sea of magazines and ads where women’s bodies are but powerful marketing tools. In fear, it seems, hoping that it would preserve our Torah values, we reacted with an obsession for rules and diagrams. We mapped everything out into a manual that even a soulless computer could follow. Soon enough though, these good intentions were only joining the rush in drowning out our nature.

It’s time to bring sensitivity back. We need to refocus, and talk about that natural feel for modesty, inborn to all women. The place where we can breathe and simply enjoy who we truly are.

(More on the source of Jewish modesty laws: https://www.chabad.org/1248044)