A few weeks ago, I talked about Meg Keene’s “Don’t Pin It – Do It” post on A Practical Wedding, and I’d like to continue that thread today while talking about my reasoning behind dressing modestly, something I hinted I’d cover back when I first mentioned it in “Grocery Shopping While Female”. I’ve already mentioned that my boundaries when dressing are similar to those of the Orthodox Jewish concept of tznius, meaning that I only wear skirts and I keep up to my knees and elbows covered. Observance of tznius varies across different Orthodox sects; some women also prefer to keep from their collarbone down covered in addition to covering up to their elbows and knees, some women only wear full length skirts and long sleeved shirts, and the list of observance goes on (if you want to read a really interesting article about a women who went full-on tznius and then decided it wasn’t for her, click here). But why tznius? Why dress modestly?
I’ll admit I’ve always had a fascination with the modest style of dress portrayed by Muslimahs and their hijabs; this probably started in high school when a girl in my circle converted to Islam. She mentioned that the scarf she wore over her head had a name, and I made it a point to complement Muslim women who wore the hijab because goodness knew that they were getting flak from other Americans about it in the wake of 9/11. In college I ran into more Muslim women who adopted the hijab style of dress, and once back in Massachusetts I noted the fashionable but modest outfits Muslim women donned in the city. After reading books like “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, I imagined what it would be like to visit a country where the hijab was mandatory and how I would allow my fashion sense to show through in this (for me) radically different style of dress. My fascination continued to a Pinterest board where I posted (and still post) pictures of modestly dressed fashionistas.
When I first started looking into a conversion to Judaism, the conservative fashions of the Muslimahs were far from my mind. I remember attending a Rosh Hashana service at the local Chabad center and running into an Orthodox woman in a beautiful long cranberry colored skirt and a black blouse; she commented that if I converted I wouldn’t be able to wear the kinds of clothes I had on. I explained to her that I didn’t want an Orthodox conversion, and at the time the idea of tznius seemed incredibly limiting to me – no pants? Never? Fuck that shit.
And yet, by the time I attended Worcester’s Rock and Shock festival with my newly-proposed-to-fiancée, I was attempting to keep tznius with the limited wardrobe budget that I had. Go figure.
Initially I was keeping tznius as a symbol of my interest in a conversion to Judaism. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to have an Orthodox conversion (I was under the misimpression that I could be gay and Orthodox at the same time; I was thinking the reasons barring me from an Orthodox conversion had to do with marrying out), but the idea of adopting various mitzvah and becoming a sort of “Conservadox” Jewish woman influenced by radically queer politics was appealing to me. When I finally looked into taking a conversion class, I found that it would be too difficult for me to access the class I had found via public transportation, and I also discovered that finding a sponsoring rabbi for said class who was comfortable with intermarriage would be difficult. Feeling that I didn’t have the support I needed from loved ones to continue, as well as not having a way to get to classes, I put my dream of conversion to Judaism aside and with it my adherence to tznius. I went back to wearing jeans and short sleeved shirts for the rest of the winter.
With springtime services at the local Catholic church came another crisis of faith, and I once again rekindled my desire to convert to Judaism. Immediately tznius dress became an option again, and one that I welcomed. However, as I mentioned previously, said crisis of faith did not lead me to an easy path to Judaism – in fact, it made it clear that due to circumstances beyond my control, a Jewish conversion might not even be an option for me. So I started to think of my modest dress code in terms of what it meant outside Judaism. Even if I couldn’t pursue a conversion, dressing modestly had become important to me for no other reason than it helped me feel closer to a higher power. And if I wasn’t actually Jewish, could it also mean things like wearing pants – something Muslim women do – and could it still mean covering my hair, something married Orthodox Jewish women frequently do and something Muslim women, regardless of marital status, also engage in? Did wearing pants symbolize a genderqueer identity (something I’ve been debating recently, despite my normally femme presentation), and was it a more radical action than most non-religious women give it credit for? Is wearing a head covering after marriage (one similar to the coverings popular with women who keep tznius, versus wearing a hijab) – so that only my wife can see my hair – a sweet gesture, or one that looks odd on a woman who vacillates between Protestant Christianity and Neo-Paganism? Which is more important – wearing skirts or the length of the article of clothing that I do wear? Would a normally conservative looking work-out skort from LL Bean suffice as modest, or do I need something longer? Is that normally conservative looking work-out skort from LL Bean more modest than, say, a pair of sweatpants? What do I wear when I’m swimming? Are board shorts and a rash guard acceptable, or do I need more coverage or more of a skirted bottom? These are the questions I ask myself as I negotiate my own definition of modesty and try to figure out what I’m comfortable with. This has been a huge exercise in meeting my spiritual needs while learning not to give a fuck what other people think of that strange Christian Witch who feels the need to adopt more conservative dress norms. I do this because it makes me happy and it makes me feel more like me, in addition to aiding my spiritual growth. So this is one pin that I’m most definitely proud to be doing.