Saturday, November 17, 2007

Modest or Something Else?

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"?


Anonymous said...

Great post!
I totally agree with you.
I am also free thinking (i.e. not religious) and I have the same problem with clothes for me and my daughter.
And reading you I realized what bothered me in the word "tzniut". I have my own dress code, which does not need this word attached to it.
We do not like tight, exposed, too short, too open. The "new sexy" fashion is absolutely not our taste. For her, we drive especially to Bnei Brak to buy her clothes. For me, I resort to crative ideas such as wearing a closed sleeveless shirt under a too open long sleeved shirt...
Only in Europe I can find the right shirts! It's amazing.

Anonymous said...

I admit it, I'm thankful at times like this to have only sons. I look around in the stores at what they are selling for the girls of similar ages (9 and under) and I shudder.

Why would anyone want their young daughter (or old daughter or mother!) walking around with tight fitting pants with suggestive expressions on the tush. Its not a matter of religion....

Before I was religious, I remember struggling to find clothing I felt comfortable in myself in junior high school - and that was back in the late 70s/early 80s when styles were in general far less suggestive (or so my memory says)

Good luck and more power to you for sticking up to your principles.

SquarePeg613 said...

Thank you Anonymous and Anonymous ;-) . And yes, I hate when I finally find my daughter an article of clothing that fits properly and then I discover that there's something written across the tush or the chest. My daughter thinks I take things a little too far to refuse to buy these clothes, but I don't. I tell her that she just doesn't need to draw extra attention to her tush or her chest by having people "read" them.

And I think you're right, that styles are way more suggestive now than they were in the 80's when I was in junior high and high school.

Ariella said...

I also have girls and the same challenges. They do go to a BY school, so we can use tznius as the term. In works as a short-hand term for how long the hem and sleeves have to be and how high the neckline. The lack of appropriate clothing in the regular stores really forces the consumer who wishes to maintain standards to pay the higher prices charged by the establishments that cater to the frum community. So I found myself spending way more on dressy spring outfits for my girls last year than I would have if I could have bought the dresses in regular stores. But I needed the sleeves and more demure styling only available in the frum stores.

mother in israel said...

Ariella--I know of heard of American women, especially from "out-of-town," who stock up on girls' clothes when they come to visit here.

shosha said...

"I tell her that she just doesn't need to draw extra attention to her tush or her chest by having people "read" them."

i also try to buy my son everything without written on it, which sometimes is really a challenge (i am living in europe). the fashion here is at the moment that every little boy is a kind of billboard :-(.
i buy clothes the best when we are in israel.

all the best, shosha

RivkA with a capital A said...

When I speak with my daughter about these issues, I want her to know that my ideas stem from "beyond" the religious world -- that our dress restrictions would be applicable even if we weren't religious. And I stress that modesty is more than "dress" -- it's how we carry ourselves and what we do with our bodies.

Issues of modesty are sub-texts in all the kids TV shows, where the actors dress and act in immodest and inappropriate ways. And the kids are so used to seeing it that they don't recognize what's wrong with the picture.

I try to "shelter" my kids, but sometimes I wonder how successful I can be against the barage of pop-culture.

I asked my daughter the other day: "how often do you see my tummy?" Of course, the answer was never. I pointed out that the clothes I wear don't have to be adjusted every few seconds to prevent "accidental exposure."

She got the point.

But I am not a fashion model....and I can't "compete" with what she sees all around her, even in religious schools/circles.

SquarePeg613 said...

Rivka, you might tell your daughter that being religious gives her more freedom to cover herself adequately. Secular girls seem to have different fashion "requirements" that are more difficult to withstand.

In any event, she's probably absorbing your points, even if the fashion battle is not one she wants to fight among her peers. When she's older, she'll probably dress differently than she wants to now.

Ben-Yehudah said...

B"H You raised some very important points.

What's the point of length of garment if it's too tight?

Even if my community approved of sheitels, sheitels which are "big" and long past the shoulders? I don't get it.

I certainly think I need to be patient and tolerant with women who are exploring modest dress and hair covering for the first time in their lives. That's didfferent, of course, and obviously not what you're talking about. I just want to differentiate/

I used to think it was mostly women who pushing the line and bending the rules, with their husbands using shalom bayis as an excuse to condone this.

Now I hear that I was wrong. Many men want to put their wives on display, and encourage some of the clothing attributes who mention.

Talk about the objectifying of women! Where's the outcry from women? Where's the outcry from Rabbanim?

BTW, before anyone cried that it's "not what's on the outside, it's what's on the inside that counts," I believe it's both.

Loud, crass, and obnoxioux behavior, IMHO, is NOT tzni'us.

That goes for women AND men.

Batya said...

complicated it is
My daughter complains that the shirts for her pre-schoolers are cut short, so you can't tuck them in. We get larger size which isn't good for the slim one.

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