The recent articles by Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll and Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer here at The Times of Israel have once more brought the issue of women’s place in the public sphere to the fore, and inspired me to directly engage with the biggest concept at the root of the issue of women’s pictures in media: tznius/modesty. I sat down with Gila Manolson to dig deeper into this issue.
Gila is a “tznius” expert. Author of Outside/Inside: A Fresh Look at Tzniut, she has a deeply spiritual perspective on the topic, and has spoken about it in schools and communities across North America, as well as internationally. We focused in on how tznius and the issue of women’s pictures in publications interrelate.
AK: Hi, Gila. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about this issue. So let’s start with an easy question. (Ha.) Aside from hair covering, sleeve length and skirts: What is tznius?
GM: The best synonym for tznius is internality. Tznius means getting beyond the superficiality that is all too pervasive in our world, and instead defining ourselves by who we truly are inside, at the essential level — our soul. It then means using our dress and behavior to project this “I am a soul” message outward, thereby encouraging others to relate to us for who we really are.
AK: People often will say to me that it’s more tznius for women to stay hidden, and that no truly modest woman would ever want to be in a magazine. Put another way, folks say, “Sarah was in the tent, so certainly women shouldn’t be in magazines.” What do you think about women’s appropriate pictures being included in magazines? How does it align with your conception of tznius?
GM: Years ago, I spoke with a Haredi rabbi about speaking in front of mixed or even all-male audiences. He said that if what I’m drawing attention to is not my appearance, but the content of my talk — that is, if I present myself and speak in such a way that people focus on me not physically, but spiritually — then there’s nothing wrong with it. So too with women having their pictures in the paper. If a photo doesn’t spotlight our looks, but rather strengthens our message, then it’s serving a positive purpose.
AK: Tell me your thoughts about publicity. What should a woman’s perspective be, say, when she is promoting her business? If she is being honored by her shul? What do you advise women about how they manage these kinds of situations, and maintain their sense of tznius?
GM: If a photo of a woman being honored by a shul will allow people to connect to her more powerfully and therefore be more influenced by who she is, then a photo should be included. And because people feel more connected to and are more likely to patronize someone they have a visual image of, a photo can be essential in business. But there’s no reason why such photos have to be anything more than a very modest head shot.
AK: There is a phrase that gets quoted a lot: Kvodo bas melech penimah. How do you define the phrase? What does it mean to you? Are you ever concerned about how others use it?
GM: To me, the idea that “all the glory of the King’s daughter is within” means exactly that — that our spiritual essence is the true source of our glory, and we must never forget it. Even when we enter the public realm, we can’t allow ourselves to become externalized, but must continue to relate to others through this consciousness. I know that some people use this phrase to imply that women should avoid the public realm altogether, but that’s not how I see it.
AK: What do you think men should think about when dealing with these new media policies? What issues should they be sensitive to?
GM: Men have to realize that their propensity to view women physically can’t result in a policy in which women are forced to hide. Every individual man has to know his own yetzer hara and how best to deal with it. Men have to train themselves to view women as people, and practice sh’mirat einayim where necessary. But once a woman is doing what she’s supposed to do in order not to be objectified, the ball’s in his court.
AK: If you were stuck in an elevator with the editors of all the frum magazines, and had just one minute before they got off at their floor, what message would you want to give them about how they portray women?
GM: “Please understand that we woman have a ton to contribute, and if a modest picture will increase our impact, including one will only benefit the Jewish world. Isn’t that the purpose of your magazine?”
AK: Is there anything else you would like to add about this issue of women and pictures, tznius, or anything else?
GM: I truly sympathize with the concern about women’s pictures, because so many women don’t understand what tzniut is, and present themselves glamorously and superficially. A magazine has every right to include only those pictures of women that meet their tzniut standards — understated makeup, flattering but not flamboyant wigs, and so on. But to exclude all pictures of women is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
AK: Thank you Gila! It was a pleasure to speak with you about these issues. You’ve given us a lot of food for thought.
If you’d like to learn more from Gila, check out her website at http://gilamanolson.com/. Also, check out www.frumwomenhavefaces.com for more articles, resources—and even some jokes—about the women in pictures issue.
You can also read a second interview with Gila that discusses issues of tznius more broadly.