Note: Halachic holdings presented here are the ones I was taught in school, and are by no means the ones you were taught in school.
Here’s a topic that’s going to get me yelled at, I’m sure, so let me preface by stating for the record that I think Halachic Modesty, aka Tzniut, is a good idea. And in fact, the practice is great too, especially in our modern, instant-gratification era when girls are encouraged at younger ages to dress like they forgot half their shirt at home. There are few things so meaningless and yet so enraging to me as seeing the Halloween costumes meant for women and girls, which aren’t so much costumes as Day-Glo polyester lingerie.
So honestly, I love that we Jew-girls are encouraged to leave some things to the imagination, and to dazzle our audience with our words and wits instead. But I wouldn’t be an Orthodox New Yorker if I didn’t get annoyed from time to time with covering myself from this labeled point to that labeled point, especially during the warmer months or when the fashion gods in Bryant Park have declared knee-length skirts persona non grata.
Let me just say: this is not a discussion of Halacha. You can leave Halacha out of it completely, if you'd like. My difficulties with Tzniut have little to do with the law and practice and more to do with... let's just call them social side-effects. You’ve got the divisive war between skirts and pants (which, due to the sheer length of this post, will be discussed at a later date), and today’s topic: the overemphasis on the Almighty Inch.
Most schools I’ve attended and circles I’ve personally socialized in encourage girls to generally cover their upper arms and legs up to their knees. Some mention has been given to covering collarbones, but most agree that necklines should generally steer clear of being…distracting. Others have different holdings and dress differently, but most of the girls I know dress along similar lines. Not because they’re not individuals, but because they’ve near-perfected the balance between dressing modestly and looking stylish with what I’ve heard people refer to as the Stern Style: Long sleeves layered over a crewneck, jean skirt just covering the knees, leggings underneath to further obscure the legs (and to prevent freezing come February).
It’s an admirable, nice style. Although for the life of me, I can’t figure out where they get those jean skirts. I haven’t been able to find one that covers my knees sitting since the nineties. When I was ten.
But let’s face it. That’s a standard not everyone can keep. Some people won’t, but others, like me and many others I know, have varying body shapes that mean we just can’t rely on the same stores and rules. A woman with very long legs might have a hard time finding a skirt that covers her knees. A heavier girl’s clothes might cling a little tighter. A narrow-hipped woman’s skirt might ride up when she sits. And that’s okay. But those are the times that bring out the most dreaded social side-effect: judges of that Almighty Inch above the knee and the elbow, and below the collarbone.
I’ve been to numerous occasions (weddings, parties, Shabbat meals) where someone had pointed out to a girl that her skirt was just the tiniest-teensiest bit too short, so that when she sat down, her knees were visible. And for the rest of the day, that girl would invariably sit off somewhere to the side, smoothing her skirt and hoping to High Heaven that nobody else would notice her (usually accidental) breach of the Almighty Inch.
I think it’s safe to say she didn't enjoy the party. And that’s a shame, because I don’t think half a kneecap is any reason to condemn a girl, and I think it’s whoever was rude enough to embarrass her by calling attention to it that should be forced to stand in a corner, preferably with a copy of Miss Manners.
This situation would be bad enough, except that it also calls to light the slight double-standard created by the modern view of Tzniut. Don’t get me wrong, I know Jewish guys are required to dress a certain way (and I’m not even talking about Hareidim here) and I laud those who keep it, it’s just that I can’t imagine the same situation ever happening to a Modern-Orthodox guy:
But I’ll admit, the people most at fault for judging each other based on the Almighty Inch are the women and girls themselves. They stare judgmentally at each other and gossip… sometimes it’s like being in a sitcom High School. And why not? Hey, if I could find the ever-elusive stylish top that covers both collarbone and elbow, then why couldn’t Skimpy Suzy over there?
Except that there’s a lot more to Tzniut than just covering your mid-limb joints. There’s an attitude to modesty, and that’s…well, being modest. Not calling attention to others’ mistakes or slight violations of your standards… and I say “your” because there’s no set, written law about how many inches a girl’s skirt should cover. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Jewish source that emphasizes knee-covering over treating each other with respect.
Sigh… what can you do? People will be people, and they will always judge and ridicule each other, no matter their background, race, or religion. But in a weird sort of pouring-lemon-juice-on-a-paper cut twist to Tzniut snobbery, we have the phenomenon of the “Hot Chani.”
Now, when I first heard this term, I thought it was sexist and disrespectful, and even now, I don't quite find it as "ha-ha funny" as many people do. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, a Hot Chani is an Orthodox woman or girl who prides herself on Always. Covering. Every. Necessary. Inch… with clothes so skin-tight that you can see her ribs, among other things. Hot Chanis, I am told, are often the ones who mock and embarrass girls that haven’t been able to find that long-enough skirt and who congratulate themselves on their perfect emphasis on Halacha. I’m not sure what Halacha they’re keeping, because it certainly isn’t Tzniut, but I’m sure it’s important.
It's these girls, who mock each other behind the guise of Tzniut, that really drive me crazy, not only because of their hypocrisy, but because that's exactly the type of behavior that perpetuates the JAP stereotype, which in turn encourages other stereotypes of the Female Orthodox Psyche:
Don't even get me started.
But Hot Chanis and rude judgers aside, I have to admit (begrudgingly at times) that we live among humans (and are often humans ourselves), who possess the instinct to judge based on appearance. And as a girl who warred, fought, kicked, and screamed her way into keeping Tzniut as a teenager, I hesitate to admit that this was what finally got me (and many other women I’ve met) to wear those skirts:
Faced with these two women, which would you immediately assume was Jewish? And that’s it. That’s the only argument I can’t snarkily answer. I honestly don’t care how any girl chooses to dress, it's her body and her business. Even though I’m not discussing it here, I see nothing wrong with long, non-tight pants. I’m not even saying I do or don’t dress like that girl on the left (because frankly, that shouldn’t matter). But I’m the overly-proud Jew who had to be convinced to leave her Magen David at home before going to Europe, so all in all, I have to admit appearance does sometimes matter to me.
So in the end, if I’ve got to wear long sleeves to show others I’m an Orthodox Jew, I’m at peace with that. It’s a much more legitimate reason for me than because otherwise I’ll attract advances from leering guys, because believe me, if I truly wore whatever I wanted in public, attracting too many guys wouldn’t be a problem.
In fact, let’s admit it. We’d all dress differently if we could. At Arbitribe, I’m fairly certain one among our number would dress like a death-metal headbanging overlord, while the others would live out their days in a burnoose (which, let’s admit, is just a hooded Snuggie) or looking like a reject from Disney’s politically-incorrect vision of the exotic East.
Anyway, we’re all happier in pajamas.