Buying clothes for my daughter can be challenging. Fashion today dictates clothes that are revealing and tight, even for little girls. When Y was younger, I used to buy her clothes that were several sizes larger than her true size, in order to get clothes that fit properly. As she got older, finding her clothes got even harder. So when my friend C told me that her daughters heard from a friend that there were nice shirts available for reasonable prices at a well known clothing chain, I decided to take a look.
This clothing chain is known for its fashionable labels, and their clothes are usually outside our budget. Even the murals on their walls have sometimes been so suggestive as to leave me embarassed . Still, if there was a possibility of finding attractive shirts, it seemed worthwhile to check it out.
I should have known better.
At the store I looked around a bit but didn't see anything like the shirts C had described. I tried to explain to the saleswoman what I wanted: an attractive shirt for my daughter, not at all tight. She held up a shirt for me to examine. It was completely wrong – much too tight and revealing. "No," I tried again, "I'm looking for something ... nicer." She showed me another shirt, fancier than the first but no more appropriate. I indicated that it wouldn't do, and she showed me several more. Each was more suggestive than the one before. Finally, I blurted out, "this is for a religious girl!"
"Oh!" she replied, "why didn't you tell me?" She then showed me one or two other shirts which would have been acceptable had they not been so expensive. I thanked her and left the store.
It took me a few hours to realize the answer to her question. Why hadn't I told her that the shirts were for a religious girl? Because I wouldn't have dressed my daugher in those clothes if we didn't observe any Mitzvot at all! It seemed so unfair. Why did secular girls "have to" dress in ways that exposed their bodies and suggested sex? What, only religious girls have the right to cover themselves adequately? For me it wasn't a religious issue, just one of personal dignity.
I've never been comfortable with the word Tzniut. I probably have higher Tzniut standards than most of the mothers in my daughter's class, but I never use the word "Tzanua" or "modest". Clothes are "appropriate", "loose enough", or "long enough", but never "modest" or "Tzanua". Why not?
A post by MotherInIsrael on Tzniut got me thinking about this again. Somehow, Tzniut always seems to me a matter of following externally-imposed rules, some of which make little sense to me. "Appropriate" clothes, on the other hand, cover the body without clinging to it. Somehow skirts are considered modest, although I frequently see women's underwear and upper thighs when they wear even long skirts. Of course this doesn't happen with loose pants, which I consider "appropriate" if not "modest". I often see women who wouldn't consider exposing their elbows, wear tight long sleeve shirts. The rules don't seem to be about personal dignity. At best they are a way of identifying which religious community a women is part of. At worst I feel like other people want to dictate to me what I should wear. I want no part of that.
Many books and articles about Tzniut claim that it is about personal dignity. But focusing on covering as much as possible doesn't seem to shift other people's focus to a woman's inner personality as the books and articles promise. It all seems to be about what other people think of her, not what she thinks of herself. When too much emphasis is placed on Tzniut rules, it seems to me to have the opposite of the intended effect: women get judged based on small details of their outside appearance, rather than on their personality or inner qualities. It seems to emphasize the exterior, rather than the interior.
Still, why should "modest" be "their" word only, and not mine? Can I use it to mean what I want it to mean or will I just be misunderstood? Is it time for me to reclaim the word "Tzanua"?