Ah, tznius (modesty) – one of the frum world’s most-talked-about topics, of unique obsession to Ba’alei Teshuva. It is one of those observances that can encompass myriad chumras – more than a new recruit can even keep up with at first. Coupled with the often-publicized notion that improper observance of tznius by the Jewish women is to blame for a number of the communities’ tragedies, the topic of tznius is overwhelming for the newly religious (and a great challenge to undo for the formerly frum).
I’ll preface this post with a little information about myself,now and pre-Lubavitch. I have always been a pretty quiet person. I like to read, have coffee with friends, shop, and go for long walks on the beach (ok, the last one is a dream, but you get the idea). With the exception of some trendy outfits as a teenager, I’ve always dressed fairly conservatively – jeans, pretty tops, low heels. When I started making the transition into Orthodoxy, however, my perception of modesty was altered and corrupted – to the detriment of my self-image and confidence.
In my early stages of becoming frum, one of the most profound aspects of frum life was tznius. I was absolutely fascinated by the glamorous, silky, stylish sheitels of the rebbetzins I met. The swish-swish sound of the floor-skimming denim skirts the “girls” wore during the week was captivating. On Shabbos, all the women at the Chabad house looked like models. Their barely-covering-the-knee skirts, knee-high leather boots with heels and stunning jewelry were high-fashion. I started to change my style of dress slowly, and within a month or two, I had purged my closet of all the jeans, open-toed shoes, short-sleeved tops, and anything else immodest. All of these items were replaced with long skirts I purchased at Goodwill, crew-necked long-sleeved shirts and a collection of stockings and knee-high socks. I never quite mastered the “Hot Chanie” look, but I was pretty satisfied with my progress. I wanted acceptance, and the community seemed to be responding favorably (my barometer was all of the phone calls, Shabbos invitations and whatnot). All was well. I was adapting very nicely to the tznius rules…in my city, anyway.
When I got to the yeshiva, however, I was in for a surprise. The second day I was in Brooklyn, I selected a just-below-the-knee, pink and white paisley skirt, a white, long-sleeved button-down blouse, sheer stockings and a pair of black flats. I went out to do my errands on Kingston – but didn’t make it too far. Blocks from my basement apartment, a lady stood on the corner. As I came into her view, she called me over and harshly reprimanded me for my immodest clothing. According to her, the reason I hadn’t found a shidduch yet and started a Jewish home was because of my lack of tznius. I went home and cried. Because I was in such a fragile and easily-influenced state of mind (we’ll talk more about this during book club discussions!), I really took her words to heart. I became obsessed with tznius.
There’s a bus in Crown Heights that takes you to the heart of Boro Park, where you can shop to your heart’s content for anything and everything Jewish, frum, and Kosher. Along the lengthy blocks, one can find Chassidim of all backgrounds. Walking from store to store, I attracted less-than-kind looks from the Chassidish women. I quickly realized that my dress was to blame. Dressed in a deliciously swish-swishy denim skirt, long-sleeved tee and a hoodie, I was not in uniform for Boro Park. The ladies there were decked out in fancy skirt suits, dripping in diamonds, and wearing vintage-looking stockings with seams running up the backs. Their sheitels were simple, and many wore an additional headcovering on top of the wigs. I was sold. This, I thought, is modesty. They look so elegant. “We are meant to dress like daughters of the King,” I remembered hearing. These women look like that!
And so, I began to emulate the modesty in dress of the Chassidim. I received accolades from many in my Lubavitch circle of friends in Crown Heights and elsewhere. “Leah, you’re amazing! Such an eishes chayil!” I came to enjoy the attention and the now-sickening notion of “out-frumming” others. It was a spiritual high that came at the cost of others’ self-image. I was doing to others what the Tznius Police lady on Kingston had done to me. Blinded by my pursuit of holiness, however, I kept going. Sheer knee-hi’s became stockings, which became opaque, which became full tights. Skirts had kick-pleats; denim was out. Pajama pants were definitely gone, too, and replaced by matronly robes.
The height of my obsession with modesty came when I received the book pictured at left, Modesty – An Adornment for Life. I joined an online study group that helped me navigate the expansive tome, which even included quizzes. This book, authored by the famed Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk of Gateshead, UK, covered every conceivable minutia of tznius. It was terrifying fodder for the constantly-racing mind of the Ba’alat Teshuva. I made it my goal to adopt as many of the chumras in the book as possible. I became very, very plain, very quickly – and extremely quiet, to avoid immodest speech. I went above and beyond the book in many areas, including shaving my head a la Satmar to ensure total immersion in the waters of the mikvah, and to prevent myself further from exposing my hair to anyone, even my husband.
I felt accomplished, but at the same time, I experienced twinges of sadness at times as I gazed at the nearly-bald person in the mirror each day. On the road off the derech, I let go of a lot of my tznius chumras before totally frei-ing out. I did my very best to become a Hot Chanie, but I just couldn’t handle those boots – and I felt kind of stupid in a Jessica Simpson-style, expensive, flippy, silky, long, shiny, one-eye-covering (you know what I mean…see the pic below right for example of hairstyle) sheitel at the grocery store. It just wasn’t me – and neither was the concept of modesty in the Orthodox world.
The hardest part of phasing back into wearing pants/short sleeves/open toes/you name it was coming to terms with the idea that you can dress normally without looking like a lady of the evening, euphemistically speaking. Like so many things in the frum world, tznius is all or nothing. You’re either with us, or against us (literally, as community tragedies are so often blamed on a lack of female modesty). For about a year, I experimented with my clothing and accessories. At times, it was too much. In jeans and a sweater, I felt horribly exposed. I had been taught that leg contours in pants were extremely provocative. Wearing a baseball cap instead of a wig or a scarf, I felt like a traitor. But as time went on, I became comfortable being myself. It became fun to go to a store and have the choice of buying whatever clothing I felt like. I looked attractive, conservative and modest by my own standards. Little by little, my Old Navy style came back. I became more confident, too – two weeks ago, I ditched the sheitel for good. My hair is still growing out from the final buzz cut over a year ago. It’s not a hairstyle yet (more like lots of bobby pins and a can of hairspray), but I’m proud of it. It’s a tiny ponytail, yes, but it’s mine.
I’ve come up with my own definition of modesty. It’s not about stockings, or wigs, or skirts – it’s about valuing oneself enough to dress and conduct herself in a way befitting a human being worthy of respect. It doesn’t matter what color your nail polish is, or what kind of shoes you’re wearing, or whose head your sheitel’s hair came from – it’s about fostering a healthy sense of self-worth. Showing off every inch of one’s body doesn’t work with this philosophy, and neither does covering up from head to toe. What are your thoughts about tznius? Have you ever had an encounter with the Tznius Police? How have your views evolved or changed?