Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Social Side-Effects of Elbows and Knees

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. 


  1. A burnoose? Mayhaps. If it was socially acceptable, I would wear a wizard's cloak. Or a sari. :D

  2. Dear Readers of Arbitribe,

    What would YOU wear if you wouldn't get weird looks from your friends and family?


    I love this blog. :D

  4. A. @Joanna: Prob a pimp rope.

    B. This whole 'dress code' thing is complete B.S. It should not be as big of an indicator as it's taken to be, but what can you do. I know guys who have the whole black hat and jacket get-up and are hardcore drug addicts and sex addicts. The guy who wears colored shirts and a non-black suit gets stared at and probably vilified, yet he might be doing things the better way. Same thing with girls. You have the tzniut girl who sleeps around (have some pretty sad stories about this one) and the girl who wears pants (GASP) who is perfectly fine.
    Not all people judge by the cover. As a general rule of thumb, I like to classify people by the exact opposite of their appearance and go form there. A good idea? Maybe not, but much more fun. :D

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with your first part. It's ducking fisgusting what kind of clothing are being sold to little girls. You have string bikinis for little kids, miniskirts, stilettos, etc.
    It's the whorification of kids (and I'm far from being sheltered. This stuff is just plain wrong).

  6. Being a guy I would ideally wear shorts and T-shirt. year round if possible. Suits are the uniform of slavery.

  7. Hot Chanis! Woo! (The preceding is not meant the way it may sound. המבין יבין.)

    Best I can figure, theoretical tzniut (as opposed to calculus-based tzniut) is premised on the covertly covered not being coveted, and not the Almighty['s] Inch or other trappings. But you know what they say: the higher the slit, the longer the skirt can be. Stilettos also help with this.

  8. sweatshirt and mens jeans. tshirts in the summer. no shoes ever. alternately, heavily corseted gowns with really big skirts and plunging necklines ala mrs lovett.

  9. If I could wear anything, I'd probably wear a big off the shoulder sweater and cute jeans/jean shorts. true story. The outfit just seems so comfortable and cute. Or at least it seems cute for Fall weather.

    About the entire post:

    I agree. Wearing clothing to certain lengths is definitely trying, and it is also definitely a double standard. The truth is, the most of the laws to abide by in terms of tzniut are frustrating for me- not because of what I wear or because I feel I can't show off my fashion sense, but because (as you said) it's annoying to wear longer sleeves all summer. And it's really annoying to not be able to wear cute dresses that come right above the knee when that's all they are selling in stores. UNFAIR.

    In a conversation with a guy friend of mine, we discussed how he sees girls who dress scantily as prettier than the Jews he sees on a daily basis. When I pointed out that it's probably because they were wearing less clothes, he looked surprised but then agreed. He looks at those other girls as a sex object. I want to look pretty (come on, now, who doesn't?) but a sex object isn't my goal. and never will be. Again, i agree- the wits and wisdom is what i want to relay to others.

    For me, it's all about the personality. Similar to "hot chani", I know many girls who flirt with/ tease boys but wear longer skirts. In addition, they judge those who don't- even though the girls they judge may flirt and tease less. Halacha is halacha and I do my best to keep it. But if my skirt rides up a bit, and someone tells me that it's slightly too short, I'll pull it down and then forget about it- because it's my personality that I think God truly cares about. And I think the guidance we get through halacha is just to keep us safe, modest and respectful of our own bodies.

    1. How do hot chanis flirt/tease with guys? That seems hard while maintaining shomer negia.

  10. It's a delicate balance, to which there is no specifically halachic guidelines (no matter what my BY teachers told us). There is the idea to abide somewhat with the current perception of tznius (knees, collar, elbows) while not going overboard.

    Although, if someone told me that my skirt was too short my reaction would be "Bite me," rather than huddling in a corner.

    Although, it is better to leave the magen dovid at home before going to Europe. It ain't like NY over there. Pride in one's Jewishness does not mean inviting the attentions of anti-Semites.

  11. You had me at Day-Glo polyester lingerie. I'm not Jewish. I'm not even particularly modest. But the world has gone mad. I have a job interview coming up and I'm merely googling for fashion advice and I stumbled across your blog. I used to work at a Jewish school and the dress code was the most comfortable part of the job. Now I'm at a state school and sometimes I fear I'm going to catch eye herpes just by looking at my students.

    Sorry for the out from left-field slightly off topic interjection. You stirred up some nostalgia for a former place of employment and I couldn't help but chime in with a "hear hear". Carry on.


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