Wednesday, January 04, 2006

On Tznius and Modesty

Oh, girls- and their clothes and shoes.

Let's speak a bit about uniforms.

I don't mind uniforms one bit. I almost liked not having to pick out my clothing in my morning. I understand why they're in place and feel no anger towards the system. As to the idea of 'being unable to express one's individuality,' well, one definitely underestimates the intelligence of a Templars girl. Striped socks, colorful hair-pieces, snazzy shoes and colored shirts underneath the uniform shirt all clue you in to who is cool and who is not.

Anyway, according to the handbook, "Jackets or any outerwear may not be worn to class. It is the student's responsibility to come to school dressed appropriately (i.e. wearing a uniform sweater or sweatshirt on a chilly day). We suggest you leave a school sweater/ sweatshirt in your locker for emergencies."

All good, thus far.

Except then Templars became a little lax, and it became the newest fashion to wear scarves around your neck (though not tied, simply hanging loose) and gloves on your hands. The gloves and scarves were always very colorful.

Anyway, I really wanted to wear something bright and cheerful to school, but alas, my scarves were not as colorful as I'd like them to be.

And then I had a magnificent idea.

I like to act. While at Templars, I acted in both Erev Shiras, having main parts (one of the leads in the first one) in both. As an actress, I enjoy costumes, especially those that are in any way shiny or sparkly. Since the time I was little, creating my first Dress-Up Box, I've hoarded away all the shining fabric and I've always been a royal figure on Purim.

So I decided that if everyone else could wear scarves to class, then I could wear a piece of sequiny fabric to school.

It wasn't a long, draping piece, because that really would have been out of bounds. It was a small piece of fabric that I wore as a very short cape (I had cut a hole in the top of it). People were entertained by it, liked the sparkle and glamour of the sequins, especially when the sunlight shone on them (because then they threw reflections all around the room.) Except then, at davening, my Chumash teacher stalked down upon me and said, "Take that off."


"You know very well why. Now take it off."

Anyway, I took it off during davening, but I put it back on for the remainder of the day. Yes, I was acting out and deliberately testing authority. That's true. But I wanted to wear it.

She called me to her office after Mincha and decided to talk to me about my chutzpah.

"You deliberately ignored me when I told you to take it's not tznius..."

I almost yelped. "It's not tznius? I'm totally covered and I'm in a girl's school, please, Mrs. Chumash, how could it possibly not be tznius? Besides, the other girls wear gloves and scarves to school-"

"They wear them because they're cold."

"Even if that were so, it's not officially allowed in the handbook. Look- (I ripped the fabric from my shoulders), I can wear this as a scarf (I draped it around my neck) or in my hair (I tied it as a ribbon) and then it would be fine!"

"No, it would not be fine. You are wearing sequins."

I mutely look at her, questioning.

"Why are you wearing the sequins?"

This was such a preposterous question that I hardly knew how to answer- because I wanted to? Because I liked color? Because I thought they were pretty? I finally settled on, "I like to act and I like costumes, so I also like sequins. That's why I'm wearing them."

"Think about what you're doing when you're acting, Chana. You're attracting attention to yourself. Now, when you're acting, that's okay, Chana. There are stage lights and you need to stand out, so you can wear sequins. But today, you're wearing this cloth, even after I deliberately asked you not to, to attract attention."

I almost started in my seat.

Now that I think back on this, Rita Skeeter's words to Harry (from the 'Goblet of Fire' movie- run in my mind)

"This shows a pathological need for attention [entering the Triwizard Tournament] or at worst, a psychotic death wish....

I spluttered. "I- I'm not wearing it for the attention- I'm wearing it because- because-"

She looked at me, a knowing smile plastered on her face.

I had a breakdown. Half-crying, half-screaming, I shouted, "You think you know me but you don't. You think I deliberately planned wearing this to be sexually attractive or to get attention, when in truth I just wanted to wear it because I like sequins, I like them, and besides, according to what everyone else is doing I can wear this as a scarf, and it would be fine, if I had a shimmery scarf it would be fine- you're projecting on to me; you're projecting your own ideas and emotions on me! You think that you would wear this to attract attention and to get others to notice you, so you assume that's why I'm doing it, and that's not why- that's not why at all."

I shuddered, crying, realizing that I had just done the unthinkable and not only screamed but had accused a teacher of something.

She half-choked. "Me? You think I'm projecting on to you?"

I looked at her defiantly and nodded.

I don't recall how exactly I left that office but I do remember two things-

1. I did not receive a Uniform Violation
2. I did not receive Detention

This is what bothers me. If she had given me a uniform violation, I would certainly have deserved it. After all, sequiny bits of fabric aren't part of the plaid skirts, button-down shirts look. But she didn't. Instead she made it into a tznius issue, a modesty issue, and tried to tell me I was being immodest.

When I went back to my locker at the end of the day, I saw, to my fury, a copy of 'Outside Inside' with a post-it-note on the cover of the book. The post-it note told me that Mrs. Chumash wanted me to read the book and come back to discuss it with her.

I was angry. I wasn't the girl with "modesty problems." I didn't leave my buttons deliberately open, I didn't wear skintight shirts, I didn't wear cap sleeves, and so on and so forth. Yet because I had decided to wear a piece of fabric to school, she was picking on me- me!

I went home and read the book that night.

Lest I misquote (since I don't own the book/ have it with me) I will not discuss the various problems I found within it. Suffice it to say that there were many. I loved the reply Mrs. Chumash gave me when I pointed out one of the more obvious ones-

"Well, it's not like this is Halakha L'Moshe M'Sinai."

If it isn't, and if I don't have to hold by it, then why did you give me the book to read in the first place?

Thank God she hadn't given me Oz Vehadar Levusha, because then I really would have enaged in some full-fledged verbal sparring.

Modesty. I spent classes and classes learning about modesty, about how slits in skirts were provocative, about the fact that it comes from a verse discussing the burying of excrement (that was a very entertaining class), about the fact that women are responsible for a boy/ man's missed learning/ lack of attention, and then of course, all the apologetics from people stating that modesty is good for the woman, not the man, that it makes the woman a whole person, makes her feel better about herself, and so on and so forth.

I think that all this emphasis- this endless discussion, the rounds of Mechanecheses (a Mechaneches, at Templars, is a teacher who is in charge of your class and leads interesting discussions. Except for when they turn into fights. I believe they believe this is supposed to help us. In truth, it just wastes time) are pointless. This emphasis, if anything, makes modesty into a chore, a burden, and so on and so forth.

Then there's the question of whether or not you agree with the premise.

In one Mechaneches in tenth grade, a very nice woman decided to teach by example. She went to Target, bought a lot of untznius clothing (think transparent shirts, v-neck maroon silk, pants, and so on and so forth) but left the tags on. Then she had us look at the clothing/ if we wanted to, try on the clothing (though on top of what we were wearing, if possible) and describe the feelings and sensations we had when we wore the clothing.

The premise is- "It's very sad, but we are defined by what we wear. Therefore, as a bas melech you must wear royal clothing, not untznius clothing. Etc."

Many of the girls said- though not this bluntly- that the clothes made them feel sexy. Attractive. Beautiful. They gave them confidence. Others said they felt disgusting, like a piece of dirt.

I have a couple of problems with this idea/ premise.

A) If you have spent your whole life wearing a certain set of clothing that is not (at least to your view) defined as fashionable, then of course you are going to long for other clothing and state that they make you feel beautiful. Then again, if you are scared of the system/ intimidated by teachers, of course you will say the clothing makes you feel dirty. And then there are those who really think all such clothing is awful.

B) You're not going to get true/ accurate response out of us. Why would we trust the teacher? Suppose we felt the clothing was okay, acceptable, nice. Could we dare say so? Obviously not. Then what's the point?

My third issue had to do with the teacher's actions and not with the clothing.

The teacher had gone out and specially purchased clothing that she had no intention of keeping. She was going to go back to Target and return it the next day. Isn't this dishonest? Isn't it wrong? Isn't it misleading the Target personnel, and more importantly, the Jewish girls you are attempting to teach about tznius?

Is modesty more important than lying?

I was very disturbed by this. I had thought she was joking about returning the clothes; I had tried some on (over my shirt), worn them, etc. If this was something the teacher did every year (as Mechaneches) I assumed she would just keep the clothing in the back of her closet and bring in the same clothing every year. Why not?

When I found out she was serious, I was upset. I told my parents so.

I'm not sure exactly what happened next, but whatever it was caused the teacher to realize her error and to decide not to do this again.

But she didn't tell the class.

This is something that bothers me as well. It's all well and good if you tell my parents something, but you have effectively taught the class it's permissable to mislead others for a mitzvah, and you have never corrected that impression.

Now, I'm relatively certain that the majority of the class didn't analyze her actions as I did, and probably they weren't as upset/ disturbed as I was. And it's possible it didn't make an impression on them at all. Still, however, I felt that if anything, that was the real lesson, not the tznius ideas.

What is tznius? To me, it is modesty. However, I think that this modesty is dependant upon a person. It has nothing to do with inches below the knees, centimeters below elbows, collars and necklines and so on and so forth. Those are, if anything, the trimming. Modesty comes from within a person, a desire to be beautiful but not trashy. To my mind, this can include girls wearing skirts, jeans and even miniskirts. It really has to do with intent.

Girls at my new school (non-religious/ non-Jewish) wear miniskirts all the time. But they do this in a way that says this is normal, accepted, not in a way where it is meant to be provocative. Most people don't look twice for the very simple reason that this is accepted. Now, there are obviously some who do, and there are sometimes miniskirts that go too far (in which the girl is talked about, usually by other girls, and called "slutty") but the majority of them are perfectly fine. It's normal attire.

By keeping everyone on edge in the Jewish world, nothing is normal attire. I (not me personally, but many girls) have to be dissatisfied with what I wear if it does conform to the ideas of modesty because it is not my choice, but a restriction imposed on me. I envy girls who wear jeans or miniskirts. If I see a girl wearing a miniskirt, however, I say hurtful things about her and believe she's deliberately out to attract attention, when most of the time, she's simply wearing what to her are normal clothes.

All these books, these laws, these ideas- while I am sure that some have merit- do the opposite of what they are intended to do. They simply enlarge the issue and make girls more resentful of those who can wear what they want. If we left it alone, people wouldn't feel so self-conscious about what they wear- whether it be jeans, cap sleeves, skirts, polo shirts, or designer outfits- because it would simply be normal.

This issue really doesn't apply to me personally because my parents let me choose what standard of modesty I would agree with. I happen to wear long-sleeved shirts and skirts, but not because these were forced on me. I chose not to wear pants past fifth? or sixth grade? Who knows...I don't wear socks in the summer, and wear open-toe sandals. I'm very comfortable with my perception of myself.

But at Templars- the conversation always, always came around to "Why do I have to wear kneesocks?" "What's wrong with a boat-neck shirt?" "Why can't I wear.....?"

For God's sake, stop, please stop making tzius the pivotal issue in a girl's life, and let them live as they will. You'll see- they'll be more at home with themselves, their bodies, their clothing, than they ever were when it was imposed upon them. Let them make the decision for themselves. Please don't say that "You decided to come to this school, and this is our standard, so you have to obey." After all, there are many people who do not decide to attend Templars. Their parents force them to go.

And the yearbook! The fact that there is actually a squad of people who take felt-tipped pens or markers and color in the necklines that are too low, the skirts that are too short, the sleeves that don't reach the elbow- is so pathetic that I can't find words to describe it. She was wearing a perfectly fine shirt, but when she leaned forward it sagged a little toward her shoulder. Oh! Aveirah! We must color this in!

With this approach, you cause disgust for the human body instead of reverence, or on the other side of the spectrum, you cause a great desire to be sexy and a hatred of supposed "halakha." People who talk about the 'yetzer hara' while one is in a fitting room are just.....I don't know. I don't have a word. Demented, maybe. "The yetzer hara to buy a dress even though it does't reach my knees...." Please! There are so many other issues to Judaism, so many other ideas, why do you choose to focus a woman's entire attention on what she wears and her body?

At school, we don't learn about theology- why we believe. We don't learn about God. We don't even learn second or alternative opinions. That would be, as one teacher once told me "too confusing for teenagers." But we do learn about tznius.

Does it sound laughable? It does to me.

But it's true.



the rov of my shul insisted we all buy a copy of oz vehader........then burn it.

Ezzie said...

Another excellent post, Chana. You seem to becoming quite a hit - congratulations.

I, and someone else, were wondering how to email you - perhaps you could create an email account for your blog (just remember not to put your name on it if you wish to remain anonymous)?

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Chana - Its so depressing reading your interactions with your least the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon is cheerful!

Anonymous said...

My pet peeve with jewish educators are that teens struggle with self esteem during these pivitol years in high school and seminary. The last thing they need is some moronic teacher breaking their fragile confidence.

Masmida said...

I mind uniforms alot

I like the idea that you have to take into account the way you look when you buy clothes because you know you'll be wearing them to school.

There are two types of tzenius,

Personal- is a self-effacement, is to not show off or display, to act and speak with ostentation, simply and to the point.

you seem to have attained this to an admirable degree.

Sexual- this is where it gets touchy and where many loss their perspective. The morass of impluses and the power of reactions that sexaulity by its nature evokes makes it a very difficult subjuct to view from with any objectivity.

sometimes the obsecenity is in the mind of the reader.

If I understand you, you think that the sexual component of modesty should be removed entirely. After all, it is hardly modest to be speaking of such things. Skirts are just skirts, immaterial of their length, provided, of course they are not too short.

The difficulty with the way modesty is taught, is that modesty does not really have to be taught. Every adolescent is excruiatingly familiar with embaressment at the suddenly changing body they inhabit. All the teacher and parent has to do is gear that embaressment into a very healthy sense of privacy and personal space. Of what is inside and what is outside.

The teacher's method is useless at best, those girls who feel dirty probably knew that already and those who enjoy them also knew that as well.

Both types of modesty are really one and the same. They are both a deep seated sense of self that balks at being needlessly or purposlessly exposed to the rest of world.

Semgirl said...

I just received an email a few minutes ago :

think this is your twin sister. Her last posting on tzniut is amazing...

He is so on the money...


Eshet Chayil said...

I liked wearing a uniform. Actually even my day to day clothes now are kinda a uniform. But wow...I've never seen anyone go off on a teacher like that. That really happened? I think I'd half expect to get slapped.

GregoryT said...

Great pos

asher said...

Did you see that ad on tv where they have this little girl talking on her cell phone...she's probably Chana's age. They want to see if someone who does alot of talking can use up all her minutes on her cell phone. Why does it remind me of your rantings?

My God, get over yourself.

There is going to be a severe shortage of nurses in the next 20 years..have you looked into it?

Chana said...

Asher- you're more eloquent when you're silent.

Leave people we both know out of this. I won't have you insulting people I love. You don't need to do her dirty work for her.

I'm not afraid of what you say, and I won't close this blog.

Reveal everything, if you choose.

See if I care.

P.S. In the rare occurence that you're not who I think you are, the first line of this reply still stands.

Anonymous said...

Asher,you are being narrow-minded! This blog is not for the likes of you.

Irina Tsukerman said...

Thanks for posting this!

That's an issue that troubles me a lot. As I'm a secular Jew, no one has tried to "impose" any such standards on me, but I realized that wearing clothes that are too provocative is tasteless and make me feel uncomfortable. And I agree completely, that it's not so much what you wear, but how you wear it, about your body language and general behavior.

At the same time, however, it seems to me (though I could be wrong) that there are enough very observant women who consider the issue of modesty very important and who agree that women should cover up. *of course, it's a slippery slope, in my view, but...

But... but who really makes the decision about these issues? Who sets the standards and based on what? Is there a debate within the community your school is in on what should be acceptable, considering the world we're living in now?

FrumGirl said...

Gosh, my ideas on this topic can get me in major trouble and even call me an apikores so I think I will mostly stay quiet. I do want to say that for some - and you know who you are - try to understand that sometimes a girl can dress a certain way because she is expressing herself artistically or because she feels good doing so. It doesn't always translate into wanting attention, particularly from males. Grow up guys, its not all about you.

Chana... as usual, excellent post. When do you have the time to write this stuff!?!?!

Lab Rab said...

Excellent post, Chana. I am enjoying your blog.

There is a fine line between the need for self-expression - so crucial to the teenager developing a sense of her self - and the desire for self-promotion. I can understand where your teacher was coming from, as well as why you interpreted your actions differently.

Please keep in mind that there are reasons for halacha which are beyond our comprehension. Perhaps you have not yet experienced the way that a woman's body can distort a man's judgment - which in turn might lead you into a harmful relationship. [And no, not every harmful relationship involves violence; in fact, most don't.]

Maybe I'm drinking the tznius kool-aid, and I know that young women suffer through it terribly, but I do think tznius is a wonderful way to enable women to put their best qualities forward.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Asher: To "out" someone is the lowest pssoible behaviour you can reach in the blogosphere.

Besides being against halacha, its immoral and possibly illegal.

See R' Gil Student's posting about it:

Leave Chana's blog alone.

Joe Settler said...

My wife tells me a story from one of the Beit Yaacov’s she was kicked out of.

One of her friends had very long blonde hair, which she always kept neatly in a braid.

One day the Rabbi came over and actually tugged the braid and then asked, when is she going to remove her Yetzer Harah.

Now that's projecting.

Caveman said...

I just wonder if these teachers don't need to get a life. How old was Mrs. Chumash, 19? Don't they realize that they do more harm than good?

Moochy said...

Chana, First time listener, this is my very first time I ever read a post on a blog this long..
And the first time I agreed with almost everything too.

my thoughts on the matter...
1) The Mrs. Chumash likes you a tad too much....
2) By explaining all thats sexy, I think they are doing more harm then good.
3) What is the point of handing girls untznius clothing? just to give them the drift? the taste of it? see how they responded,, of course a short mini skirt makes you feel daring and sexy, so now take it off and feel like a Yuntch???

Zeh Sefer Toldot Adam said...

isn't Calvin and Hobbes wonderful?

Labrab - I am really concerned about your use of the blanket cover-all excuse "G-d commands things we don't understand." How far does this go?

And in terms of Jewish education for teens there is an article written by Reuven Kahane (with Tamar Rapoport) discussing post-modern youth in which they note that today's youth grow up more than ever against a changing backdrop of uncertainty and disorder and that part of life is trying to make sense of this chaos and disorder - which is much harder than it ever was before. Sadly, i think, teachers who have black and white perceptions of reality make this process much more difficult.

Do uniforms help by removing some of these issues from the table and leaving more mind-space for others, or do they just create more issues? I think it depends a lot on the individual and on the specific environment.

p.s. fantastic blog

David_on_the_Lake said...

I have to disagree with you on this one..

I'm trying to figure out where you're going with this on a practical level.

We are who we are..because we zealously guard over our Mesorah. Mesorah is a proccess ..perhaps in a hundred years we'll look and dress differently but it has to be incubated and has to come naturally. To suddenly alter the rules of tznius is not a good idea.

However I do agree that your teacher displayed typical close minded and over zealous behavior by having you take off what clearly was not a black and white tznius offense. There is a definitely a grey area...which has to be dealt with delicately...

westbankmama said...

Chana - I grew up in an American assimilated home and attended public school. I wore what everyone else did in the '70s, and in the summer this included shorts and haltar tops.

I joined NCSY and slowly became frum, and now am married with three kids. In other words, I see this problem from both sides, so I would like to put in my two cents.

One, as an adolescent girl you have absolutely no idea how your physical attractiveness affects a man. There is no way that you should know this, and it is extremely frustrating to "take it on faith" from other, older people, but that is the way it is.

Two, I understand perfectly the desire to be an individual and not be forced to be exactly like everyone else, and one way to express this individuality is with what you wear.

Three, what is considered "immodest" and attracting too much attention is extremely subjective. In Israel, dressing like a dati-leumi (national religious - example: hats versus wigs, open sandles vs. closed shoes) would seem too "dossi" (super religious) in the middle of Tel-Aviv, but would be "pritza" in the middle of Meah Shearim.

So, the whole issue is very complicated and should be treated with sensitivity - and it seems it wasn't in your case.

My only advice to you would be to find a religious woman that you admire and feel close to - and discuss the issue. Not once, but over and over again.

Good luck.

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