The use of tzniut, modesty, as a cudgel against Jewish women has been well documented in the JOFA Journal, conferences, and blogs — and rightly so. I’m sure the reader is well aware of how tzniut is used as a pretext to silence women, squelch spiritual growth, and create prohibitions on mitzvot that halakha, Jewish law, tells us women should (or at least may) perform.
However, if you want to make a change, it is not enough to say what is wrong. You also have to present a positive model of what is right.
Right now, secular society provides the only alternative to this oppressive and perverse depiction of “modesty,” and it’s not much better with its sexual objectification of women and girls. The media’s depiction of females wreaks havoc on women’s self-esteem, and reinforces the idea that they must be beautiful, silent, and always ready to please men. Men are taught that they are entitled to judge and use women for their own needs. The negative effects of growing up female are well documented: negative body image, eating disorders, unhealthy relationships with men, and self-hatred.
In fact, these two depictions of how women should dress and act are only superficially different. Imagine that you are a photographer trying to photograph a woman so that the viewer can really see who she is. You need to have just the right amount of light. If there is too little, the photo is too dark and the woman can’t be seen. If there is too much, then the photo is overexposed, and you can’t see her either. The misuse of excessive modesty is like the photo that is too dark, whereas secular society’s sexual objectification is like the photo that is overexposed (pun intended). The two extremes have the same effect: preventing the woman from being seen. True modesty means having just the right amount of light.
Modern Orthodoxy should be at the forefront of developing a positive model for what modesty ought to be. The approach needs to differ for men and women because they have very different challenges in today’s society.
For boys and men, we need to address the deleterious effects of pornography (whose messages are so ubiquitous in secular society) and the cult of male entitlement on retarding men’s ability to have a healthy, long-term relationship with women. Also, boys’ self-image is often bolstered through the degradation of females (and the daily blessing “she’lo asani ishah, Thank you God for not making me a woman” doesn’t help). We need to help boys develop their own self-esteem as men without the need for lowering their esteem of girls.
For girls and women, modesty starts with developing a positive self-image (and women need these messages just as much as girls). At the highest level, it means knowing that we are not bodies with souls, but souls with bodies. It also means developing a positive body image based on the wonderful things the body can do — involvement in athletics and dance can be very helpful here. It is feeling that one is beautiful, and challenging society’s narrow and heavily photo-shopped image of what beauty is.
Girls’ clothing, the battleground for many modesty battles, also needs to be addressed. Not that boys’ clothing is not important. It’s just that in secular society, with few exceptions, standards of dress for boys mean being well covered up in loose clothing — there is simply not much to fight here. A girl, however, is expected to be “confident about her body” by wearing skimpy and tight clothes. The clothing should not be the focus of discussions on modesty, but clear standards need to be established that provide girls freedom to express themselves without allowing degrading styles of dress.
Finally, any talk about modesty inevitably leads to discussion about sexuality. We need to keep in mind that, till about one hundred years ago, twelve was a common age for girls to marry and fifteen for boys. Today, we expect teenagers to delay sexual activity for about ten years after they become sexually mature. We need to have frank discussions about sexuality with young adults that don’t infantilize them, or imply that those with stronger sexual natures are “bad” (particularly the girls), but recognize the very normal feelings that they have.
As modesty is increasingly used by the right-wing as a pretext to blot out women, Modern Orthodox Jews need to be careful not to have a knee jerk reaction against it. Instead, we need to create a positive model of what modesty should be — a powerful tool to bolster female self-esteem, help men respect women, and maintain healthy relationships. In this way we can fight back, using modesty as a means of ensuring that women are seen and heard, and are active participants in Orthodox Jewish life.