The Modest Problem

By: Avie Herman  |  October 19, 2015
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I have a bone to pick with dressing modestly.

I’m a huge fan of tzniut, so much so that I have an outfits page on my website, www.fashionably-frum.com, which provides modest fashion inspiration to over 1,500 followers several times a week. It’s something I care about.

To me, tzniut should never mean frumpy. Dressing in a tzniut manner is about looking like a daughter of The King — a princess, if you will — and representing our glorious people. It means dressing beautifully, flatteringly and stylishly, in a way that expresses who I am, as a unique woman and as a Jew. Wearing aesthetically pleasing clothes, tzniut outfits are the best way I can think of to beautify God’s commandments and make a big kiddush Hashem, just by leaving the house. Sounds great, right?

Except it seems to me that dressing modestly is at risk of being the definitive female mitzvah. I find this ironic since it isn’t even one of the three specific feminine mitzvos, which are lighting Shabbat candles, keeping a kosher kitchen and observing the laws of taharat hamishpacha. While the specifics may differ by gender, tzniut isn’t even a solely feminine mitzvah — men must adhere to the laws of tzniut as well.

These laws are in place to shield our dignities and they pertain not only to attire but also include speech and action. But in the wrong hands these beautiful laws become a means of objectification by placing an inappropriate emphasis on the female body and narrowing our valuation and evaluation of Jewish women to the dimensions of our skirts, our tights (or lack thereof) and the lengths of our sheitels.

But can the dimensions of my skirt encompass the dimensions of my soul? That’s not my modesty. I refuse to think that’s what God meant by this mitzvah.

Attire is an easy target for our focus because it is so visible, so external, and so easy to assess and judge. Through appearances, we cast judgments about who’s who.

“Oh, she’s wearing pants, she must not be frum.”

“She’s fully covered, she must be a tzadeket.

These thought processes are damaging because looks can be deceiving. Yes, the outer expressions can both reflect and affect the inner balance, but on its own, appearance does not portray a full picture. A woman may do few other mitzvot besides dressing modestly, with the intent of blending into the frum community. Is her modest attire valuable? Of course. Every single mitzvah a Jew does has immeasurable value to God, independent of any other mitzvot that person does or does not do. But to merely glance at this woman and assume you know her story is preposterous.

Likewise, there may be a God-fearing woman who does a multitude of mitzvot with a smile, and she walks around in pants or tank tops or short skirts.

Another woman who dresses modestly and appears to be fully observant, texts on Shabbat when no one’s looking.

Which of these three women is objectively better? I’m not God, so I can’t judge. Even more so, it would be absurd to make an evaluation based on nothing but the clothes these women put on one morning. And yet, most of us are guilty, on some level, of doing just that.

I think this mitzvah gets extra attention, in schools especially, because of its visibility. Emphasizing dress codes is an easy way to impose order and conformity because unlike many other mitzvot, it is simple to measure and regulate. It seems more practical to make a girl change her top or put on tights than it would be to send students to the office for not praying with enough focus and intent.

Strict rules may also reflect that for school-aged girls, clothing choices are an easy, highly visible way to rebel against the rules. Perhaps the phenomenon is even in reverse — girls rebel in the arena of attire due to the emphasis that authority figures place on it. Maybe they would rebel either way. But because we place such strict confines on Jewish girls’ attire, we make tzniut feel like a chain bound tighter than the high-collared Kiki Riki shells around their necks.

In doing this, we forget that tzniut is meant to glorify, sanctify and dignify women’s bodies. We instill shame and secrecy, rather than the sense of pride and privacy that I’m sure God wants us to bestow on our beautiful bodies that house our incandescent souls.

When we focus so many glares at Jewish girls’ and women’s knees, we objectify them. Defining women so wholly by our attire, and thus our bodies, takes focus away from our minds, our actions and our words. When we focus so intently on women’s clothing choices, we take the importance, power and responsibility away from all the other choices women make.

Another trap of overemphasizing on women’s tznius is when it is made to center around men. If Hashem had intended for women to dress modestly for men’s sake, I believe He would have made it a mitzvah bein adam l’chaveiro, an interpersonal mitzvah between us and our fellow Jews.

But it isn’t. Because it isn’t primarily about relationships between women and men.

I don’t believe that God commanded women to dress modestly to protect men from us or from themselves. God made it a mitzvah bein adam l’makom, between us and God. As in, it isn’t some man’s business how I dress, it isn’t about me and a random fellow Jew on the street; it’s about my personal connection to God.

This focus on female modesty for the sake of men is just as harmful to men as it is to women. Itimplies that men are animals who cannot control themselves when it comes to women’s bodies and sexuality. It does not give men enough credit for their ability to temper their desires and behavior. Isn’t self-restraint an important part of Jewish character development? This kind of logic makes women responsible for someone else’s actions.

In a very socially relevant way, this thought process screams of blaming the victim. If a woman is assaulted by a man (no, our community is not immune to this) this logic can be used to protect the man and blame the woman. It also sets girls up to potentially fear men because they have been taught that men cannot control their instincts and that, when acted on, that those instincts may prove dangerous.

We do not want to create an environment in which questions such as, “Was her skirt was too short?” and “What was she wearing?” become the norm. These are the wrong questions. Men must be accountable for their actions, and for this to occur we cannot have low expectations of their self-control.

Women are commanded to dress modestly, but when it comes to our interactions with men, the onus is not on the women to cover what should be covered, but on the man not to look in an inappropriate manner.

Modest attire is meant to provide a boundary between a woman’s body and the world, yet when it is so heavily and so consistently emphasized it serves instead to invite much scrutiny of our bodies. Dressing in a tzniut manner is a beautiful, important mitzvah that plays a large role in my life. I only wish we could learn to value and embrace it without placing so much weight on this single facet of Jewish women’s limitless strengths and capabilities.

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