One of the first changes I made on my baal teshuva journey was to dress tzniusly. I threw out the (very) tight jeans, tiny shorts, bright red boots, tank tops, and quickly went shopping to add to my one and only below-the-knee skirt. For me it was an easy change. Yet, for others it seems the change to dress more modestly is much more challenging and difficult and I often wonder what it was in my personality or up-bringing that made it such a no-brainer for me? Where does the challenge come from? What are the obstacles and misconceptions?
While I had my ‘mixed’ clothing period of pushing the boundaries and exploring how much I really need to ‘cover up’, this only lasted about 3 months. After that it was all engines on: elbows, knees and collar-bone never to be seen again to the public eye. Admittedly I still am unsure about the whole stocking thing, especially in the 45 degree celsius days that are so common here. Then there are the shoes – how closed is closed? Front toes are now always covered for me, but what about the back? These are all questions that we go through on the path to understanding what it really means to be modest and what image are we comfortable to present to the world.
Tzniut needs to be looked at from 2 perspectives: the way we see ourselves (our perspective) and the way the world sees us (‘their’ perspective). Always having had a high level of self-esteem I never thought twice about what others thought of me or what I wore. I dressed for myself and myself alone. The change to wearing tzniut clothes was so quick for me because I knew that I was not my clothes – my clothes weren’t a representation of me. Now I realise that it was a centralised and somewhat naive way to view my interaction with the world. It was an approach that gave me strength to do whatever I want, despite what others have to say about it. Since then, I’ve grown up. I’ve learnt to see that tzniut is not as much about others’ opinions of us (and how that may influence us) as much as it is about how our actions influence the world. As you engulf on the world of Torah you realise that the elements of the world, our souls, our actions and our lives are all inter-dependent and our personal actions can have great impact on others far away. We as humans tend to really underestimate how great of an impact each individual has on the world. You don’t have to be the president of a country or be a rights activist to make an impact; Judaism teaches that we make an impact in our daily and sometimes mundane activities. Sometimes all it takes is a kind or rude gesture or word to someone to change the whole outcome of that person. What we say and what we do can have enormous repercussions, whether we see them eventualise or not. There are plenty of stories out there about how someone’s words or actions greatly changed the course of another’s life. It’s a scary thought because of the heavy responsibility it caries with it, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling to realise that our every action matters.
We as Jews dress modestly not because we want to hide ourselves, not because we are worried about how others will evaluate us, but because we are making a statement to the world that we are a holy vessel that is not just body, but also soul. We are Hashem’s workers, trying to be the light unto the nations – we are here to bring all that is good and positive into existence through our speech, our actions and even our dress. Tzniut is not just about clothes. Tzniut is our intention and action to bring our inner selves out into the world, showing the world that our external isn’t what matters. ‘Me’ is the inner self that chooses to be kind to a stranger or to help a friend out when they can’t ask themselves. Tzniut means seeing people for who they are – a canvas for bringing light.
The result? You wear what is respectable, what makes others think about ‘you’ inside, not the you on the outside. If a random person on the street can group you with a ‘style’ (i.e. hippy, fashionista, surfy, etc.) then you are wearing too much on your sleeve, so to speak – you are not letting them get to know ‘you’. Similarly, if a person’s eyes wonder straight onto a part of your body, then that part is not tzniut. You may say, “yeah, but I don’t care if they’re too shallow to get to know me” (as I would have said a while ago), but the reality is that your dress is making the world a place of externalities. It is you who is confusing the message and changing what is acceptable in the world. Acceptable dress codes don’t change on their own, people make them change. We make them change. If you really want to build a world of positivity, soul and inner-being, then realise that even our small actions matter.