Midtown, morning rush hour, icy winter day in New York: I took the last empty seat across from a young woman on the B train.
She was bundled against the cold in a floor-length down coat. A hat covered her forehead. A scarf was pulled over her nose. On his way out at 59th Street, a man lifted his chin in her direction. “You have pretty eyes,” he said.
The doors closed. The young woman locked eyes with me. I can’t guarantee that we were on the same wavelength, but I believe we were coregistering the lunacy of catcalling someone whose physical presence was entirely obscured. The woman went back to her book and I to mine. Being a woman is universally odd.
For many, bad weather offers a reprieve from the public gaze. Instead of being men, women and children, we are lumps of different sizes. When I zip into my insulated tube of outerwear on a 14-degree day, I am an ageless, sexless, shapeless agent in single-minded pursuit of a dry commute to work.
The above is from a witty review by Molly Young of a newly opened lingerie boutique. This introductory passage jumped out at me because it confirms that which I believed: Men will ogle anything.
Despite the fact that this woman was "ageless, sexless, shapeless" whilst buried beneath her winter layers, a male was still able to desperately winkle out an attractive feature for him to comment on.
I firmly believe that what is perceived as "tznius" is a corruption from the original meaning. When "hatzneya leches im Hashem" was intoned (in Micha, the haftora this Shabbos) the intended audience was not specifically women. Nor, do I doubt, was it meant regarding arbitrary hemline criteria.
A few years ago Just Call Me Chaviva launched "The Tzniut Project," in which Jewish women of various hashkafos gathered to discuss what tznius means to them. Here's a sampling of responses from different contributors to her series when asked the question, "I say modesty or tzniut … what does that mean to you?":
A) On a deeper level, the concept of tznius comes from the pasuk in Micha (6:8), which says, "hatznea leches im Hashem Elokecha" — walk modestly with Hashem your God. This is often taken out of context, though — the whole pasuk actually says, "You have been told what's good, what Hashem demands of you — asos mishpat (do justice), v'ahavas chesed (and love kindness), v'hatznea leches im Hashem Elokecha (and walk modestly with Hashem your God)."
Tznius isn't just an outfit — it's a midah, like justice or chesed. To me, tznius means striving to be the kind of person who walks with Hashem, and the clothes I wear are just one part of that — it's also about being humble, speaking in a refined way, being sensitive to my own privacy and the privacy of others, and knowing the appropriate time and place for everything. It's about protecting my dignity as a daughter of the highest King.
B) Tzniut tends to be most commonly translated about modesty in reference to clothing. I think defining it down on this level does an injustice to tzniut and people who uphold the ideal of modesty. Personally, I believe that the most important component of tzniut is how we carry ourselves, not how we dress ourselves. Holding your head high with confidence, without boasting. Being a good person and friend, without advertising that you feel you are such. Lending a hand when needed, without making a big show about how helpful you are. That is the inner-modesty which is so much more valuable in today’s society. While how we dress should reflect the person we are on the inside, should a woman’s skirt length be more important than living a modest life?
C) Tzniut is more than just covering your body parts. I practice tzniut in my everyday actions and words. A quote that really helps me remember my tznius values is: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” Long story short, I feel that if I keep my thoughts modest, my character and destiny will keep modest. Modest actions and words to me mean following The Golden Rule, remembering “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” and realizing how lucky I am to have everything that I do, and taking none of it for granted.
D) Refined character clothed accordingly. Honoring Hakadosh Baruch Hu by using proper speech and carrying myself as one who takes his laws seriously.
Because externals are so easy to judge, we make the mistake that means that it is okay to judge. We are supposed to be inspiring and tolerant by example, not wagging admonishing fingers (when has that ever worked, like, ever?) To judge others is merely an expression of personal insecurities, not true self-righteousness. A righteous person doesn't wag fingers.
As we embark upon the terrorizing Three Weeks, let's try to take the judgmentalism out of our interactions.