Mayim Bialik, Modesty, and Mainstream Media

BlogHer Original Post

To kick off the current season of What Not to Wear, Clinton Kelly and Stacy London made over former child star Mayim Bialik. Bialik is 33 now, married, and a mom of two. Earlier this summer, Bialik talked with Celebrity Baby Blog about her life: "We do the EC thing, elimination communication. We bedshare. We are a natural living family. We make our own shampoo, our own granola, our own cleaning products. We’re a non-obnoxious green family I like to think! We’re generally kind of holistic."

In other words, she's not your typical Hollywood mom.

Bialik's crunchy green lifestyle had influence her style too -- or so it appeared when she was ambushed on a NYC street by WNTW's Clinton and Stacy. Bialik was wearing long skirts and over-sized shirts and men's shoes. Like so many new moms, it appeared that she had given up and given in. The bloom was off the Blossom.

Stacy and Clinton made Bialik over, in what was a fairly typical WNTN episode (aside from the fact that the subject was a former TV star who once played a kid with an overly active fashion sense). At the end, Bialik looked like herself but more polished, more elegant, and more sexy.

And that's the bit that Bialik took issue with.

This week, in an essay in Tablet, an online Jewish magazine, Bialik writes about her WNTW makeover. She is gracious and funny and honest -- and critical of the way TLC overlooked the things that mattered to her in their editing of the episode. She writes, "The WNTW producers asked if I have any clothing restrictions. Deep breath. 'I don’t wear pants,' I told them. 'I prefer skirts.' You see, I am what I guess you’d call a Conservadox Jew. I started embracing certain aspects of Jewish modesty, or tzniut, before my second son was born, and although I know many Orthodox women who don’t observe tzniut, the boundaries and framework of privacy it provides appealed to me."

Bialik goes on to explain how she came to embrace tzniut in her everyday life, and what it represents for her.  She describes her early Judaism studies, undertaken in preparation for her marriage, as "almost anthropological—I was curious as to how Judaism viewed marriage and sexuality, but I did not really intend to increase my level of observance." But as time went on, Bialik says, she found herself embracing the dress code of traditional Judaism, and feeling empowered by her choices.

During the days of the sheva brachot, the seven traditional feasts celebrated in the days after the chuppah ceremony, I tentatively covered my head with scarves and crocheted hats, trying on my new status as a married woman. Beyond wearing a ring, my lifestyle didn’t have a means of representing the change from single to married, and I was cautious about challenging the feminist ideals I’d previously embraced. But I liked feeling a physical representation in my new life as a married woman. In synagogue, I began covering my head with tichels (decorative scarves) from trips to Israel—just as my Orthodox cousins who I used to consider submissive and trapped in an archaic lifestyle taught me to wrap them—and fashionable hats. No flowers allowed. Too Blossom-y.

As my life progressed, tzniut became a bigger part of it and I started appreciating what it means to keep your sexual appeal for yourself and for your partner. I came to see that not everything that makes me beautiful, sexy, or desirable needs to be on display.

On the set of What Not to Wear, however, Bialik and the producers did not see eye to eye. She was presented with mannequins wearing pants, despite explaining that she didn't wear them; one of her final reveal dresses was sleeveless. Bialik said, on camera, that she would not wear the sleeveless dresses without a sweater of some sort, and that above-the-knee skirts were not something she would wear. None of those statements appeared in the edited version that aired on TLC.

Bialik is not critical of WNTW or TLC, or of Stacy London and Clinton Kelly; in fact, she is incredibly gracious about the opportunity they gave her, telling Celebrity Baby Blog that "They really accommodated all the things about me that are so quirky fashion-wise, and gave me sleek. They kept saying sleek, sophisticated, modern and not frumpy. That’s what they were going for."

But Bialk also makes an important point, not so much about her own makeover but about mainstream fashion media in general: "I don’t wish to claim that there is an 'immodest agenda' on WNTW. It’s a show for the average American, who is most likely not Jewish, and if she is Jewish, she’s most likely not observant. In spite of the fact that the hosts kept telling me that I needed to be 'sexy' and not 'hide' in my clothing, I loved being a part of the show. They were right to encourage me to wear clothing that was my size, and to emphasize my figure where it needed emphasizing. But sexy doesn’t necessarily mean scantily-clad."

Two years ago, Eden Kennedy wrote about her love/hate relationship with What Not to Wear; she summed up the show this way: "the basic premise is that the friends and family of a badly dressed woman can nominate her to have her wardrobe, fashion sense, core beliefs, and self-worth undermined by the show’s two hosts, Stacy and Clinton, who will then replace her very concept of self with their expensively constructed idea of who she should be." She went on: "In other words, they throw out all her old clothes, give her a $5,000 credit limit, and hector her into buying a bunch of unimaginative crap that they think makes her look better."

But it's more than that: The What Not to Wear makeovers insistently push the notion of sexy, in precisely the way Bialik describes it in her essay. The basic premise is that an important component of looking better is looking sexy, and looking sexy means cleavage and bare skin and high heels. What baffles me is why this is so important, this sexy part. Why can't modest be attractive and appropriate? Why can't sexy stay home?

We criticize the media for pushing sexy on our kids, but they're not the only ones vulnerable to the message that sexy is better. What Not to Wear targets women from their mid-20s to mid-50s; each participant has a story about how life got in the way of style. She had a baby or got a divorce or lost a job, and her focus shifted away from her clothes and onto those other curve balls life threw her. The road back -- to style, to self, to happiness -- is new clothes, preferably with a touch of sexy to them.

But what's wrong with modesty? Do we really need cleavage for the carpool line, or a miniskirt in a meeting? It is possible to cover up and still look chic and stylish and appropriate. It is also possible to feel attractive -- nay, sexy even -- in clothes that don't reveal a lot of skin. Modesty, it seems, isn't about religious faith; it's about being comfortable in our skin, and comfortable enough to feel like not everyone needs to see every inch of it.

Readers of the What Not to Wear blog took issue with Bialik's makeover; unfortunately, many of them criticized Bialik for not living up to her "Conservadox" beliefs. Her essay is a nice rebuttal to those critics, and an articulate response to mainstream fashion media's emphasis on sexy. It's also a good reminder that fashion should be about more than just bare arms and hoisted breasts, and that sleek and stylish are not reliant on sexy.

How do you feel about "sexy?" Is modesty a religious issue, or could we all use a dose of physical restraint in the way we dress? 

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