While tzniut in dress is incumbent upon both sexes, it’s emphasized more strongly for females than for males. For men, public standards of dress are set by the community in which they live. In a community where men recognize the importance of tzniut to spiritual self-development, they usually choose to dress as modestly as do women (albeit in their own way). At the same time, there is an absolute standard which females uphold when men are around, regardless of time, place, and circumstance.
This difference can be seen in “who’s wearing the pants.” Pants outline and emphasize certain parts of the body more than a skirt does. (Of course, baggy pants may be less body-defining than a tight skirt, but a looser-fitting skirt is more “modest” than both.) For this reason, neither Jewish women nor Jewish men originally wore pants without a dress or tunic over them. With the passing of time, however, most men drifted away from this stronger expression of tzniut, while women, by and large, upheld it.
On still a higher level, many women choose to avoid activities which, despite “modest” dress, may lead male onlookers to perceive them less than spiritually. For this reason, on festive occasions, men and women usually dance on separate sides of a partition — which gives women the freedom to joyfully celebrate without concern for how men may be viewing them. (Note: While tzniut in behavior is emphasized for females, it is not exclusive to them. A guy who defines himself internally, although he may not mind women watching him dance, will probably avoid walking with an exaggerated swagger, talking in an overly loud, boisterous voice, zooming around on a motorcycle with no muffler, and other attention-getting behavior characteristic of some males.)
That tzniut is stressed more for women can be appreciated in the light of certain practical realities. Any unbiased observer of the male-female scene will notice that men usually attribute tremendous importance to a woman’s looks. (To avoid the kind of inappropriate thoughts which may result, observant men avoid gazing at women other than their wives, especially those who are covered less than the religious norm.) Women, on the other hand, while by no means oblivious to a man’s appearance, usually attach greater value to having his love. As an unfortunate result of these two phenomena, a woman will often attempt to win a relationship by semiconsciously playing to a man’s tendency to regard her physically.
This can spell disaster for a woman. Most tragically, a woman who accustoms herself to “getting” a man this way is going to internalize an increasingly shallow self-image, to the point where she may lose sight entirely of what she really has to offer. Furthermore, while her feelings in a consequent relationship may indeed deepen, there’s no reason to expect that his will. I know a woman who believed her boyfriend of several months loved her. She experienced a rude awakening when she discovered that his feelings for her were no deeper than when she first attracted his attention at the local pizza shop.
A woman who realizes the danger in projecting a superficial message to men will understand why tzniut is emphasized for females. Being at a greater risk of coming to equate her self-worth with her outside (and winning a very questionable “love”), it makes sense to protect herself by devoting more energy to achieving strong, internally based self-esteem (which will also keep her from settling for anything less than she deserves in a relationship).
This, however, is only a practical argument. On a much deeper level, women are seen as having a greater intrinsic connection to tzniut.
A fundamental of Jewish belief is that God created the entire physical world as a vehicle for spirituality. Good food, wine, a beautiful home, art, music, the outdoors — all can be used to bring us closer to God. Nowhere is this potential more present than in our own bodies.
Judaism sees a woman’s physicality as more encompassing than that of a man. This is apparent in the greater number of activities her body can engage in: besides intimate relations, also pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation, all of which most women feel to be profound experiences of their womanhood. In addition, more of the female body is commonly seen as potentially arousing (as reflected in advertising). These factors combine to give women a strong sexual dimension and presence. A woman’s consequent power to attract and influence men is well known to both sexes — and can destroy her spirituality or express it, depending on how she uses it.
Parallel to the more pervasive and potent quality of her sexuality, Judaism teaches that a woman is gifted with a greater capacity for tzniut, the ability to transform her physical self into an expression of her internal self. In enacting tzniut to its fullest, a woman thereby realizes her innate, feminine potential for internality.
While some people feel the degree of modesty in dress which Jewish women observe is more than enough, others apparently think we could do better. I have often been challenged, “If you don’t want to be defined superficially, why don’t you go all the way and wear a long-sleeved, floor-length, shapeless, dark-colored dress and a veil, like Islamic women?”
Having never been a practicing Muslim, I can’t purport to know the reasoning behind Islamic female dress. Its practical effect, however, is to hide a woman’s physical self almost entirely from view and, at the same time, make her appear nearly identical to all other women. While such a uniform certainly reduces her chance of being objectified, it also doesn’t let her appearance reflect her inner beauty, or her individuality.
This is antithetical to the Jewish concept of tzniut. The goal of tzniut is not to negate the female body, but to employ it for a purpose higher than self-display. Tzniut takes the powerful light of a woman’s physical self and, rather than extinguishing it, uses it to radiate a message about her deeper identity.
This means that, while downplaying their sensuality, Jewish women are not only permitted to look well-put-together and feminine — and even quietly distinctive — but are encouraged to. Tzniut therefore requires sensitivity, as there’s a fine line between looking good in a way that draws attention to your outside, and looking good in a way that reflects your inside. The challenge this poses, however, is obviously one which Judaism believes women are capable of meeting.
One aspect of this challenge is knowing where it’s most appropriate and beneficial for a woman to look her best. For example, a married woman who has her values straight won’t go out dressed as “Vogue” while letting “slob” suffice at home. Instead, she’ll give the most attention to her appearance when in the company of the person who should be most important to her — her husband. (And lest men think this is a one-way deal, any married woman will tell you that she appreciates sharing her space with a clean, nicely dressed husband.)
That Jewish women are not required to hide their faces or disguise their bodies means that one who is faithful to all the guidelines of tzniut may still have features which some man may find distracting. In this case, Judaism says, the problem isn’t hers, but his. Rather than order her to put on a veil or switch her dress for a potato sack, Judaism will tell the man: “She’s doing her part. Now it’s your turn to be modest — with your eyes. If you can’t look at her appropriately, then don’t look.” (And needless to say, the same principle applies when the sexes are reversed.) We’re largely responsible for how we’re seen, but at a certain point, the responsibility shifts to the other side.
Reprinted from “Outside/Inside” A fresh look at Tzniut by Gila Manolson. Available at www.gila-manolson.com