Tzniut Shaming is Body Shaming Too
21st century Judaism has developed interesting ways to determine the religious status of its female constituents.
“Does she wear pants?”
“Is that a wig or her real hair?”
“Does she cover her knees?”
Our religious classification system has come far from our early days as a mostly homogenous and fledgling tribe. But today, the litmus test for a woman’s true frumkeit remains surface level at best, never making it past the quick check for choker-tight shells and mid-calf length skirts — or, God forbid — a lack thereof. What’s worse, Judaism’s obsession with female modesty pits Jewish women against one another and promulgates a negative culture of body shaming.
The idea behind classic body shaming is simple: At its essence, it involves highlighting and criticizing someone’s physical flaws. The result is a person made to feel self-conscious and ashamed about his or her body.
With tzniut shaming, a similar phenomenon is at play. Jews — mostly women — are judged based on a standard. It isn’t a classic standard of beauty, but rather a standard of religiosity. If the archetypal American bombshell is a size 0 with delicate limbs, the ideal Jewish woman dons a sheitel and a black, A-line skirt. And the longer and darker the skirt, the more religious and closer to God she is.
That’s not to say that the women who choose to represent themselves in such a way are at fault. In any culture, modesty is an important and personal value and no one should be chastised for covering up more.
The problem arises when that model becomes the expectation, the bottom line for all Jewish women. In other words, if she wears this, she is doing something right. Everyone else is wrong and therefore subject for discussion. Tzniut is a multifaceted and highly debated topic. There is no perfect formula for how to dress, though some would like to believe there is. And even if there was, women who dress differently should not be chided for doing so, even if they fall outside the realm of classic tzniut.
Though Jewish law outlines basic standards for dress, it also prohibits the shaming and embarrassing of another Jew. Tzniut-shamers hide behind the impenetrable shield of halakhah, what many seem to view as an all-encompassing rationalizer. The words of the sages are used as artillery; they are an excuse for insensitive and disparaging comments about how to dress.
To be sure, standards of modesty are ever-evolving. Whereas pants and denim used to be widely accepted for women in many Jewish circles, a shift to the right has characterized vast areas of modern Judaism, even within YU’s own bubble of orthodoxy.
The laws governing a Jewish women’s dress are meant to preserve her modesty. Berating women who fall outside of mainstream standards of modesty is more than counterproductive. It is bullying; religious shaming in its purest sense. It typifies the opposite of the values that Judaism seeks to uphold — respect and love for our neighbors.
Now more than ever, a tolerance and love for those that are different from us is crucial. Behind the dresses and wigs, we are all praying to the same God.
Tzniut is complicated. It’s just about as personal as you can get when it comes to halakhah. And in an era that has become increasingly dangerous for women of all religions, we might all do well to shift the conversation away from women’s bodies. To the outside world, we are all a unit, skirt-clad or not.
Photo Caption: Modesty Rules in Meah She’arim