I was in tenth grade when my principal called me into her office.
“There’s something wrong with your uniform,” she stated, with little emotion. I looked down at my clothes. White button down Oxford shirt, closed to my neck. Navy pleated skirt that fell loosely down my hips, way down past my knees. Knee-high socks pulled all the way up. No loud jewelry, nail polish, or hair accessories.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked respectfully, truly curious and already nervous about the repercussions of breaking a rule I did not intend to break.
“I don’t know. There’s just something wrong with the way you’re wearing it.”
And with that, she dismissed me back to class.
I didn’t comprehend what she truly meant by her comment until months and months passed — and with that understanding came my first pangs of shame at my developing sexuality.
Years later, I stood at the mirror, gazing at myself before heading out to my friend’s engagement party. I was twenty-three and had just come out of a (what I thought to be promising) courtship. I had long, long curly hair down to my waist. I was thin yet curvy, wearing a black long sleeved shirt that covered my elbows with a white woolen skirt that fell a little snugly down my hips, way past my knees.
I felt weird. Something was off.
I looked too sexy.
The next day I cut my hair to my chin.
Where do we learn that modesty is related to our sexuality? Where do we learn that to be modest, tznius, we have to be devoid of any overt expression of our sensuality?
Of all the virtues we wish to inculcate in our children, of all the universal values we care to nourish, the one that stands out to most is modesty.
Yet we don’t have a clue how to teach it.
We lecture about it. We create point systems to encourage it. We remind our daughters about it before they leave the house. We watch our students as they walk up the steps – and we fine them for not dressing accordingly. We create dress codes for mothers – and we punish our students for their parent’s infringements. We make speeches and more speeches and tell stories and tell more stories all stressing how special it is to be modest. How lucky we are to be tznius.
How we are G-d’s princesses.
But for the most part, it doesn’t work. Our daughters are tired of our rules. Our friends are pushing boundaries. Our sisters are not inspired. Our mothers are frustrated.
And no one’s really talking about modesty. I mean really talking about it.
Somehow, we communicate to our daughters that tznius is about externals. About hemlines. About shame. About sex.
Yet is it?
Some years back, I entered a pop-up sale of modest designer clothes when a woman with a microphone strolled up to me. Cameraman in tow, she gazed at me inquisitively and asked if I’d talk to her on tape. “So I’m wondering, have you heard of this concept of ‘Tznius-Sexy‘? You know, how Orthodox women can dress modestly and still be sexy? What do you think about it?”
Can it truly exist?
As women, we are expected to assume opposing roles of the Madonna and the Whore – except in the Orthodox community, it’s the Hot Chani (thanks Frum Satire) and the Aidel Maidel. Somehow, we flip back and forth on this supposed binary scale – the expectation to be overtly sexy or completely devoid of sexuality.
And just like #slutshaming exists in the modern world, we have our own version of #tzniusshaming, too. We judge. We focus on the externals. We point fingers. We dismiss others based on how they dress. We burden women with the responsibility to curb a man’s desire (when it’s really about cultivating sensitivity and mutual respect). And we blame women if they draw attention to themselves.
So how do we attempt to stay sane and relevant while walking this tightrope?
As modern Jewish women, we do not want to blend into the background. We are trained to express strength, to show leadership, to ooze confidence – yet we are also expected to be demure, at times passive, many times silent.
To be tznius.
There’s something about modesty that stems from an internal reality, from how we see ourselves — yet the gaze of another, male or female, somehow defines our experience of it, too.
There’s something about modesty that demands mystery — but we can’t stop talking about it.
There’s something about modesty that asks us to become invisible — at the same time, while dressing modestly, we stand out so much.
There’s something about modesty that’s almost paradoxical — cover up so you can expose who truly you are.
So we extend the paradox.
We assert, “You can be tznius while being sexy!” or “Dressing modestly doesn’t mean you can’t be sexy!” or “Tznius clothes can be sexy, too!” We endeavour to give women the permission to be sexy while still adhering to the law.
And while I understand, and can even empathize, with this sentiment, it doesn’t sit right with me.
You see, there’s no sex in tznius.
It’s not about being sexy despite dressing modestly.
It’s not about pushing boundaries in ways that make public that which is meant to be private.
It’s not about the shock or suggestion or flirtation or provocation.
And it’s also not about feeling guilty when we are faced with our own sensuality or suppressing our womanhood.
Nor is it about objectifying ourselves – or others – based on our own feelings about sexuality.
Nor is it about cultivating shame in our daughters or ignoring the transition they undergo as they develop from being little girls to blossoming women.
No, tznius is about none of that.
So what was wrong with my uniform back then, a fifteen year old girl whom you were trying to teach about modesty – whom you instead communicated about sexuality?
Absolutely nothing at all.