When the person I had been dating for over a year and thought I was going to marry told me he didn’t want Orthodox Judaism or me in a four-minute FaceTime, my first thought was “Oh, this is a punishment for me giving up tsnius.” Almost immediately, I called my rabbi and asked him advice, “Is this a punishment because I started wearing pants?” I had become so wrapped up with somebody else’s idiosyncrasies I forgot my own. What I believed. What I wanted. Who I was. For a year, I had fought for the rights of Soviet Jewry, the intricacies of Chassidut, and the merits of a black hat I hadn’t stopped to think about my identity, my ideology, or my garb.
For the three months that followed, I debated if I should wear skirts again. I had phases of long Shemoneh Esrehs begging Hashem to forgive me. Because clearly when people do the unthinkable, it is your fault. I had to change. I was the problem. I hadn’t stopped to remember that I had already come up with a solution.
Orthodox Judaism teaches young girls two things wrapped up in a single belief system: the world is catered around men. Firstly, you must dress not to attract them and trigger their Yezter Hara. Two, you must search to find that man you need to attract. Our dress and ideology gravitate towards finding the perfect person to shape us. From a young age, we try to find our Chosson in shul, try not to wear something tight enough to trigger his Yezter Hara, and are told our lives aren’t for us. Our bodies aren’t for us. Our choices aren’t for us. Even the Torah, isn’t really for us.
This subliminal and often outright messaging is hard to outgrow, escape, or circumvent. Then, when disaster strikes, and it does a quarter of the time, and we are touched, our boundaries are breached, or we are rejected, our immediate reaction is, “it’s because of what I did with my body.”
Why wouldn’t it be? Hasn’t every class we’ve taken since we are six years old tell us this. Does our religious High School not have a day of learning solely dedicated to an infographic attributing promiscuity to skirt lengths.
But what if our skirt length doesn’t determine our worth. What if a body is just a body. A beautiful thing. A thing that sustains us. Let’s us walk. Let’s us eat. The reason we are alive. What if what we wear is just to keep us warm when it is cold. To keep us unencumbered when we run. To make us feel beautiful when the person we love, doesn’t want us anymore.
I recently have started observing the fashions in Israel, and specifically that of the more Orthodox community. Women who cover up more, tend to buy more expensive clothing and wear more makeup. After hypothesizing with two friends, who also recently started wearing pants, we discussed how long it used to take us to get dressed when nothing was flattering paired with a skirt. We talked about the body dysmorphia that results when you’re dressed like a box but shaped like an hourglass. I realized how much less effort I put into my appearance when I stopped thinking about how my body pertains to men.
In essence, the Orthodox world has metamorphosed tsnius into only relating to how a female body triggers a male’s sexual reaction. So, when I am callously thrown aside, my first reaction naturally would be that it was the fault of my tsnius. A fault in how my body negatively affected a man.
“וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ” (Micha 6:8), the only real instance in Tanach where tsnius is invoked, is unisex. It’s about humility. It’s about living a life for Hashem. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before self actualization can be reached, food, shelter, and sex need to be provided. Our sexuality is the most basic core part of identity. Thus, when something traumatic wounds it, it bleeds to all aspects of our lives and identity. It is psychologically impossible, to self-actualize or reach religious clarity, if we feel who we are is threatened, misunderstood, or served to endanger us. I no longer feel the resentment towards my religious identity, and can humbly turn to Hashem, knowing that my life with Him is a choice for only my benefit.
I’ve heard often from friends that they’ll be tsnius until they attract the right man. Then, they’ll shed their skirt, roll up their sleeves, and do what they really feel is Halachically correct. Ironically, the Halacha in Brachot about Erva is only pertaining to your husband, but I digress. So I too met a boy, thought I would marry him, and finally felt comfortable enough to do what I knew was truly Halachically correct. Then, I was worried I wouldn’t find someone else unless I too donned my disguise. But, what if we all kept our masks on, but stopped pretending to be the woman a man wants. What if we just became what we actually wanted. What if we self-actualized.
Reb Zusha of Anipoli cried on his deathbed. Not because he wasn’t like Moshe. Not because he wasn’t like King David. He cried because he was worried he wasn’t the best Zusha he could’ve been. Be the Zusha you want, not the Zusha you want to marry. Know your identity, be confident in your ideology, and wear the garb in which you are your truest self.