I have heard it said that women wear their Judaism, while men learn theirs. While that statement might mean other things to other people, to me it means that a woman’s Jewishness is expressed by how she dresses, while a man’s Jewishness is expressed by how much Torah he studies.
Ironically, while the traditional Orthodox Jewish viewpoint claims that it is a woman’s nature to be modest, focus on her home, and not be overly concerned with superficial appearances, a woman’s religiosity today is judged largely on her external presentation.
The standards of tznius (modesty) by which women are judged vary confusingly between communities. While in one town an ankle length skirt is perfectly acceptable, in another town only ¾ length skirts are considered kosher. While denim might be an appropriate skirt material for some ladies, others frown upon it. Some women are comfortable wearing stretchy lycra skirts, while other women are told not to wear the clingy material.
Requirements also vary as to permissible levels of clothing tightness. In some communities, ladies would rather wear a size larger, than risk donning a potentially form fitting outfit in their own size. Colors are also a disputed issue. In some cities, you will see women sporting dresses, hats, and scarves in every color of the rainbow. In other cities, loud colors are frowned upon, red and hot pink being among the worst culprits. In those areas, women’s wardrobes are a sea of blacks, greys, navy blues, and browns.
Leg wear is a hotly contested debate between Orthodox communities. The first issue is whether to wear or go bare? In many Orthodox communities, during warm summer months, it is acceptable for women to go without stockings. Sometimes the custom can vary within the same city. In one city, there can be one group that goes without hosiery, and another group that always wears stockings.
There are also differences of opinion on what stocking colors are allowed. In some towns nude or beige colors are permitted. In other towns, only stockings of black, brown, or those that are obviously not a woman’s own flesh are allowed. Some communities require seams to make the same point. Additionally, some community leaders insist on high denier stockings; the higher the denier, the more opaque and heavy the stocking. Some communities have no such denier requirements, and stockings can be virtually transparent.
Hosiery is an endless subject of controversy. Patterned or brightly colored tights are worn by some gals, but would not be considered tznius by others. Socks are another point of contention. Thigh high or knee socks are acceptable to some, but for others, only full tights will do. Some women will wear bobby socks or even ankle socks, while others who believe in covering the lower leg don’t find this practice acceptable. Differences of opinion also occur over leggings. Leggings are a mix between footless tights and form fitting pants. Some frum women wear them under skirts for exercise or an extra warm layer in the winter. While some rabbis permit leggings worn underneath skirts, others are adamantly opposed, fearing a slippery slope to shorter skirts or wearing leggings without skirts altogether.
There are so many other areas where a woman’s level of frumkeit is displayed by her clothing. Does she wear sandals or open toed shoes? Does she wear sky high heels? Is she careful to wear shoes that don’t click, tap, or otherwise make noise and call attention to her gait? Does she wear ¾ shirt sleeves or always down to the wrist? There are so many nuances to this thing we call tznius. There are so many ways to go wrong, even when we finally thought we got it right.
Perhaps the most emotionally charged issue regarding tznius is hair covering for Orthodox married women. There have been many online discussions about women bemoaning their head coverings, trying to find a compromise between covering completely and a looser interpretation of kisui rosh, and finally, some making the decision to give up covering their hair. Again, hair covering practices vary widely among communities. Women cover with wigs, hats, scarves, and sometimes a combination of those options.
Different groups have different interpretations over how much, if any, natural hair can be left out of their coverings. Some women cover every last inch, some let out a tefach (a finger-breadth), while some only cover the top of their heads and leave the rest of their own hair down. Often, the type of head covering and the amount of hair covered announce which Jewish community a woman belongs to before she’s even said a word.
Because of varying psaks (rabbinic rulings) and interpretations between Orthodox communities, there is an automatic tznius hierarchy that emerges. Women who are the most covered are deemed the most “religious.” Women showcasing more skin, hair, or colorful and trendy clothing, are deemed “modern.” In other other words, they are less religious.
This frum version of “Project Runway” robs tznius of its meaning. When we judge the level of a woman’s spirituality on superficial qualities, we are making modesty a hollow middah (quality). When women are given the message that their intrinsic value is personified by their skirt length, that’s where their focus will concentrate. Instead of basking in a sisterhood, we will wallow in an endless game of one-upmanship to prove our religious mettle. Disguising superficiality as a halachic mandate doesn’t change the heart of the matter. If we want women to embrace modesty, we can’t go about it in a way that is inherently immodest.