Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Tzniut Project 1: Knowing the Social Norm

This is the first in a multi-part series called The Tzniut Project. Women from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of observances have volunteered to anonymously answer questions that I have written about their practices, people's assumptions, and more. For more information on the project, click here. Please continue to check back with The Tzniut Project to read more stories and comment abundantly!

Note: This post is contributed by a reader

1. How do you affiliate Jewishly? Feel free to elaborate on the words people use to describe you and the words you use to describe yourself.
Modern orthodox. Modern in the sense that I live in the secular world, work in a "white collar" job, and interact with men on a daily basis. Orthodox in the sense that I care what halacha has to say, and that I try to go by halacha in everything I do (even if sometimes I pick and choose at my psakim).

2. Growing up, did your mother or grandmother dress modestly in any way? Do you think modesty was something instilled in you by your family? Did you dress modestly growing up?
My broader family dressed modestly and are very religious. My grandmother and aunts always wore skirts and sleeves, and one of my aunts also covered her hair. My mother dressed modestly in order to make sure that her family and her surroundings did not think badly of her and did not gossip about her, not necessarily because she believed in it. In fact, I think if she had the choice to she would have left a lot of the modest clothing by the wayside. I went to an orthodox girls' school and was required to wear skirts that covered the knees at all times, with no slits, shirts with sleeves till the elbows, and to always have my toes covered. I dressed modestly, most of the time according to school guidelines, even though there were some guidelines that I did not agree with or see the point of.

3. Are you married? How does your spouse feel about your choices for modest dress? Is it a dialogue or does your partner leave the mitzvah to you?
I am married. Before we got married, my husband and I learned together some of the various halachot relating to tzniut, particularly those pertaining to hair covering and discussed what we both felt comfortable with. Since then, the decisions on tzniut have been left to me, with my husband having the right to veto what I am wearing if he thinks it is too exposed, or if we are going to meet his family or friends and he would feel uncomfortable if I wore certain outfits in that company.

4. What would you wear on a typical day? On Shabbos? If you dress differently on weekdays and Shabbos, why do you make this distinction and how?
Typical day: Pants and T-shirt, or long skirt and T-shirt. T-shirt always has sleeves, but not necessarily down to my elbows or past them. Pants or skirt always get to knees and cover them when I am standing. I make sure that my shirts aren't low enough to show cleavage, and I try to make sure that this is kept also when I am bending and such, but that is not always the case. This is an issue that my husband comments on most frequently of all these types of issues. On Shabbat I always wear a skirt or dress, and a more elegant shirt. My hair is always covered, typically with a tichel or beret of sorts, and my bangs and/or ponytail sticking out. I don't allow my hair to get too long out of the head covering because then I feel it misses the purpose, but I most certainly do not cover every possible millimeter of it. I do not wear pants on Shabbat, because I feel they are inappropriate for shul, though I do consider them modest, and I feel I look more elegant in skirts and dresses and like to honor shabbat by looking more elegant.

5. What do you think other people infer from your clothing and hair covering choices? Has anyone ever said anything to you outright that expresses a judgment based on your appearance? (Ex: “You don’t cover your hair or wear skirts, so why do you keep kosher?”)
In Israel, people infer that I am religious Zionist, but as they say, not TOOO religious, since I wear pants. Someone once asked me, in a very inappropriate manner, "If you were pregnant and knew there was a problem with the baby, you would abort it no problem, right?" When I asked what made them say that they responded "Well, you wear pants and such so I figured you wouldn't ask rabbis about issues that are very personal and would affect your life, and about which halacha is very archaic. You would probably do what you want and only ask a rabbi when you thought you would hear the answer you want..."

In the states, people have a difficulty with the pants and head covering concept. I was once asked to bring a snack to my son's preschool (a kosher school) and was taken aside by one of the teachers to make sure I knew that the snack must have a Chaf-K or OU symbol on it. When I told her that of course I know this, after all I am frum and cover my hair, she said to me: "You wear pants and go to THAT shul, I wasn't sure if you were just covering your hair to respect the school or you are really frum." So yeah, people have definitely judged me based on my appearance.

6. Have you ever surprised someone by dressing more or less modestly and making them rethink their stereotypes about what it means to be an observant Jew?
Yes, as in both stories above. People were surprised to hear that halacha was important to me even though I wear pants and some of my hair sticks out of my tichel. I guess people think that if you don't go by the strictest halachic opinion, that means you are just doing what you feel like, and don't base your actions on halachic heterim, or permissions, given my other reliable rabbis.

7. When you see someone who observes tzniut differently than you, what are your initial thoughts? How do you deal with them?
I often wonder what psak they used to decide how they would dress, and if they are dressing that way because of knowledge of the various halachic opinions and a conscious decision to follow that halachic way, or they are being driven by the surrounding society and its expectations, or by what they feel is right without consulting any rabbinic authorities and/or without regard to such authorities.

8. I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?
Being dressed in a way that does not draw attention to you. This includes being covered in all the right places, but also other things such as not wearing shirts or dresses with strategically placed prints which draw attention to specific body parts and not wearing things that are too glitzy or glamorous, and would draw attention even though they are modest in length and what they cover. Also, after talking to several men who made it very clear to me that they cannot distinguish a sheitel from a woman's hair, and after seeing some sheitels that look ABSOLUTELY AMAZING, and realizing that you would never have a bad-hair-day in a sheitel, I also choose for it to be my modesty not to wear a sheitel but to wear something on my head that people can clearly identify as a covering and not mistake it for my hair.

That being said, I do see the usefulness in sheitels in situations where your work would not accept a tichel or hat, such as when a lawyer represents people in court. If I were ever to be in such a situation, I would of course opt for covering my hair using a sheitel rather than ignoring my belief that married women should show that they are married by covering their hair.

9. Anything else you’d like to add about your choices, experiences, and more!
To me, modesty is very much influenced by its social context. Not all of it of course, things like not wearing mini skirts or having very low neck lines seem pretty obvious and undebatable to me, particularly knowing what this does to men ... However, I feel that things like covering hair and sleeve length very much depend on a social context. Unless they live in Williamsburg or Meah Shearim, all men today see women with their hair uncovered on a daily basis, with this having no affect on their attraction to such women. Therefore, I don't think that women who do not cover their hair are doing so particularly to attract or seduce men, or that they are immodest in the fact that they do not cover their hair. On the other hand, social context should be used not only to allow ourselves to be more lenient in our interpretation of tzniut, but also, when necessary, to be more stringent in such interpretation. For example, just like no self-respecting woman would walk into a lawyer's office in a bikini and expect to be taken seriously, in social context where more stringent tzniut guidelines are expected, such as when visiting ultra-orthodox neighborhoods or yeshivas, I would expect women to dress according to the social norm in the place they are visiting, even if that is not how they would dress on a day to day basis.