Reclaiming Our Bodies

It’s been known to happen that a “modestly” dressed person will broadcast a mixed message. This occurs when the clothing aspect of tzniut operates in the absence of any underlying desire (or with only a halfhearted one) to define oneself internally. It’s not hard to observe the letter of the law while being oblivious to its spirit. Hence a nonobservant person will often say something like, “I’ve seen women in loose-fitting pants and short sleeves who radiate more ‘internality’ than an Orthodox girl I saw wearing a clingy shirt and a knee-length, tight, slit skirt” (otherwise known as the “frum provocative look”). To which I respond: So have I. That girl is following a dress code. But a dress code is not tzniut.

Why do we sell ourselves short like this? The majority of us want to be respected for who we are, and intuitively recognize the connection between dress and self-definition. At the same time, many of us believe that the power to turn heads is prerequisite to self-esteem.

This feeling doesn’t necessarily disappear once one is married. Still, it is singles — particularly in the secular world — who generally feel the strongest need to play on the dynamic that exists between men and women. Quite correctly, they recognize that in order “get” somebody, they have to be not only personally but physically attractive. The mistake usually comes in deciding which foot to put forward first.

I once heard a story which clearly illustrates this. A woman named Judy was visiting her friend Laura, a bright type in her mid-twenties, not observant, who’d just passed the bar exam. Sifting through the clothes in Laura’s closet, the two were trying to decide what she should wear to an interview with a prestigious law firm the next morning.

Judy, who’d recently become religious, pulled a miniskirt and matching tank-top from a hanger. “How about this?” she suggested.

Laura looked at her in disbelief. “Are you crazy?” she exclaimed. “Which credentials do you think I’m trying to sell myself on? I don’t want a potential employer to view me as a body. I want to be taken seriously. I want to be appreciated for who I am!”

Judy responded, “But when you go out on a Saturday night, hoping to meet a man with whom you can have a genuine, deep relationship — a man who will appreciate you for who you are — this is what you wear?”

One of the most tragic and self-defeating behaviors people engage in is trying to attract a partner based on their outsides. If we’re secular, we can be quite blatant. If we’re religious, we may have to be more subtle. In either case, if we would just step back and clarify what we really want, we’d probably present ourselves very differently. Like Laura, we are neither shallow nor stupid. We have unwittingly accepted a social norm stemming from collective confusion about who we are supposed to be.

This confusion is particularly evident in the advertising world — or, more accurately, advertisers are skilled at exploiting it.

A friend of mine, newly observant and married, was driving in a car with her rabidly anti-religious relatives. Her uncle, incensed at his niece’s recent “conversion,” decided to use the opportunity to vent his hostilities towards Judaism.

“Look at the oppressive lifestyle you’re living,” he fumed. “You’re covered from head to toe. How can you possibly express your personality in such a sexist society? In the religious world, women are considered to be nothing.”

Knowing it was pointless to argue, my friend looked out the window to divert her attention from the onslaught. At that moment, they passed a large billboard. The product being advertised was a perfume called “Personality.” Featured was a revealingly dressed, seductively posed woman, fixing her inviting gaze on her audience while holding a perfume bottle in her hand. The caption announced, “You can see that she has Personality.”

My friend shook her head. If that’s what’s called expressing your personality, she thought, then in whose world are women considered to be nothing?

One of the symptoms of defining ourselves by our bodies — particularly for women — is an obsession with weight. Every spring, as beach season approaches, women across the world frantically undertake to lose those extra pounds accumulated over the winter so they can make a good appearance in the “bathing suit competition.” At the opposite extreme, several women I know have attributed overeating and overweight to an unconscious resistance to being objectified. In either case, whether they comply with or reject the ideal expected of them, women’s weight is often dictated by the outside.

Not surprisingly, when such women adopt tzniut, either of two things generally happens. A “complier” — one whose slimness is rooted in her desire to please men — often gains weight. As one newly religious woman told me, “For the past year, I haven’t been presenting myself physically, and it feels great. The only problem is, I’ve put on thirty pounds.” While other factors may play a part in this (anxiety in making major life changes, having to find new exercise outlets, and in Israel, the delicious, fresh bread), prominent is the reasoning that with more of her body under cover, men are less likely to notice those extra pounds. To a “complier,” tzniut is a license to “let go.” (If you recognize yourself in this description, be assured that this stage doesn’t last forever, and its results are reversible.)

A “rejectionist,” on the other hand, who has gained weight to avoid undesirable male attention, will find that dressing more modestly frees her to be slim while still preserving her personhood. Some such women I know effortlessly dropped both their excess pounds and their unhealthy relationship with food in the wake of adopting tzniut in consciousness and dress.

In either case — and whether you are male or female — if you want to have true control over your body, your choice to be heavy or thin must be rooted not in the eyes of society, but in self-respect. And it is this self-respect which tzniut builds.


Reprinted  from “Outside/Inside”  A fresh look at Tzniut by Gila Manolson.  Available at


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