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Tznius 2.0

As preteen pop stars play sexy, it’s time to rethink modesty

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Noah Cyrus, Emily Grace Reaves, Sophie Texeira, Keana Texeira, and Krista Texeira at the 2009 Totally Texty Teen Choice Awards Pre-Party. (Kristian Dowling/Getty Images)

February has been a big month for prosti-tots, tiny demi-celebrities who dress like the ladies who used to ply their trade on the West Side Highway. Three-year-old Suri Cruise was seen out and about in electric red lipstick and custom-made red patent-leather Roger Vivier ankle-strap shoes. Rio’s Carnival parade on Sunday featured a 7-year-old samba queen, despite the misgivings of the Brazilian child protection agency that felt she was too young to dance seductively for hours in the middle of the night atop a float. My own little girls came into my office as I was watching a video of little Julia Lira gyrating wildly in a red sequined bikini top and low-slung miniskirt. “She’s hot,” Josie, 8, observed. I was shocked. I didn’t even know she knew that use of the word. Maxie, 5, certainly didn’t. “She’s probably not hot,” Maxie said. “She’s wearing a bathing suit.”

And then there’s Noah Cyrus. Blogs were abuzz last week with news that Miley’s 9-year-old sister was designing a lingerie line for little girls. This didn’t seem shocking, since Noah was photographed on Halloween at a children’s AIDS fundraiser in a slinky black dominatrix outfit, sexy makeup, and knee-high, high-heeled, black, shiny PVC boots, then seen in the boots again the next day, along with a super-short ruffly polka-dot mini, black sheer stockings, and a black spaghetti-strapped top. A few weeks later she was filmed performing Akon’s “Smack That” (“Smack that/give me some more/Smack that/Till you get sore”) while smacking her own teeny butt. And then there was that time she played around on the stripper pole.

That she was not, in fact, designing a children’s lingerie line (the story was misreported by icky gossip cretin Perez Hilton, then picked up by the mainstream media) was not the point. The point was that it seemed completely credible, because hey, look at her. As Chris Rock once said of becoming the father to a baby girl, “My only job in life is to keep her off the pole!” Billy Ray Cyrus has already failed on that front. But look at us. We’re the ones who watched Noah squeal, “Smack that, all on the floor” 943,869 times on YouTube.

When I was Noah’s age, I attended a Jewish Day School run by Orthodox rabbis. The girls were drilled in tznius, or modesty. We prayed behind a mehizta, a divider. We were urged to be quiet and demure. And we were expected to cover up. The high school girls taught us little girls a song, to the tune of the march from The Bridge Over the River Kwai:

Tznius, it is our battle cry!

Pritzus, halakhah‘s do or die

Tznius, cover your knee-us

Your collar, your elbow, your toe!

In my school, Noah Cyrus’s semi-clothed dance moves would have caused mass seizures. Today, I view these little girls through the distant lens of momdom, and I’m horrified. But as a liberal Jew who chafed at the confines of my rabbis’ definitions of women’s roles, I’m hesitant to issue fatwas about how other people should dress and behave. As Nessa Rapoport pointed out in the Fall 2009 issue of JOFA Journal, the magazine of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the social exhortations of tznius have always been disproportionately aimed at young women. “Rather than help young Jewish women view their bodies as exemplifications of the Creator’s work,” she wrote, “the edicts further objectify them, reifying their bodies solely into potential temptation for young Jewish men.” Exactly.

In that same issue of JOFA Journal, Naomi Marmon Grumet, who received her doctorate in sociology from Bar-Ilan University, wrote about her doctoral fieldwork; she interviewed American and Israeli Modern Orthodox women about their experiences of tznius. For many, the repercussions included “feeling ill at ease with one’s own body, being embarrassed that others should see it, feeling afraid to engage in bodily pleasures, and being unable to enjoy doing so.” For many years, in many cultures, girls’ bodies have been constrained and controlled under the guise of “this is ennobling; this helps you achieve the full flower of your womanhood. It’s not oppressive; it’s freeing!” I don’t buy it.

Yet I wonder if liberal Jews could have their own guidelines for tznius, a kind of modesty for our immodest age that isn’t, in practice, all about rules for women and girls.

Before we can begin to think about this new agenda for modesty—let’s call it tznius 2.0—we have to know what it is that we don’t want. We don’t want the kind of modesty conservative thinkers like Wendy Shalit have in mind: long sleeves, long skirts, covered hair for all the married ladies. Those are the same tired, shaming rules. We need to help girls feel at home in their bodies, but in a way that celebrates them instead of hectoring them. Because the damages caused by reducing them to how they look are serious.

According to a recent report by the American Psychological Association on the increasing sexualization of girls, the objectification of young women is linked to three of the most common mental health problems for girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression. Sexualization, says the APA, views a girl as “a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.” No one wants girls to internalize that message.

The problem, however, isn’t limited to women. In our secular culture, men and boys are increasing sexualized, too. They’re under more pressure than ever to be hip, thin, fashionably dressed. And it starts early. I once saw a onesie for baby boys that read, “Hung like a five-year-old.” Tznius for today should encourage boys not to view girls as objects, but not to buy into their own objectification either.

Maybe we can all agree that one kind of modesty worth embracing is one that preserves childhood—when children are unashamed of their bodies and think “hot” only refers to the temperature of the bath water—as long as possible. Tznius 2.0 would involve keeping newborns away from spike heels (Heelarious high heels for babies, I’m talking to you!) and toddlers away from Bratz dolls. It wouldn’t stuff little boys into outmoded gender roles by discouraging play with “girly” toys. And nobody would wear a Huggies Thong.

Still, you can be completely covered—or a boy—and be wearing an outfit that flaunts values that are plenty non-tzniusdik. A key element of tznius 2.0 would involve discouraging cynicism and snideness, in clothing and in life. “If you don’t like my attitude, quit talking to me,” says one little-kid t-shirt I saw recently. “Caution: Zero to Brat in 2.5 seconds,” says another. “Isn’t it cute that you think I’m listening,” says a third. When you’re a parent, smirking at your kid’s disrespectful or dismissive behavior isn’t cute or cool. And it should be considered immodest, not something to boast about in bubble letters on cotton.

My version of tznius would also encompass materialism. Designer labels aren’t modest. And princesses aren’t great role models. Sure, there are wonderful books about empowered, self-rescuing princesses out there, but we all know that to a 3-year-old, the Arbah Imahot, the four biblical matriarchs, are Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Belle from Beauty and the Beast. And

only Belle has a real spine or any sense of agency. I’m not humorlessly saying we have to deprive little girls of their dress-up gowns—my 3-year-old niece would hate me forever—but I am saying we should turn our tznius energies toward making sure our kids don’t think being pretty, having a castle, and being well-swathed in taffeta are the most important things in the universe. This means we do not get to take them to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the beauty salon in Walt Disney World, where a preschooler can choose from three hairstyles—Fairytale Princess, Disney Diva, or Pop Princess—and where for $189.95 your kid gets a hairstyle plus “shimmering makeup,” a manicure, five photos in a princess-themed holder, The costume of the child’s choice, and a dwarf retinue. OK, I lied about the dwarves.

Ultimately, I think, the pinnacle of this new modesty would involve teaching our kids to value themselves for who they are rather than what they wear, whether that’s a floor-length denim skirt or a micro-mini. Of course, we want our kids to know they’re more than their looks. I’m just not sure how we achieve that. It’s easy to be horrified at the little Noahs and Suris. But more nuanced struggles with self-expression aren’t easy for anybody.

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Elvin Kaplan says:

Now I know where I can find Marjorie’s insightful writing, thanks to a note from Carol. Is there a published collection of Marjorie’s columns??

Once again, a self proclaimed “liberal Jew” realizes that the wisdom of the “rabbis” was not so bad after all. I have 4 (count ‘em) four girls…all of them dress in a very fashionable yet “tznius” fashion. Skirts below the knees, sleeves below the elbow, neck line to or over the collar bone. Do my girls suffer from negative body image? On the contray, Tznius, when taught correctly, tells girls specifically that they are not to be judged solely by their looks ( looks are important to EVERY girl, let’s be honest) but to also be looked at as a Bat Yisrael, someone with a higher calling and a heck of a lot to offer the world otehr than a beautful visage…but the girls DO want ot look beautiful, that is just the female way. Yes, halachah like every other legal cultural system can be used to shame and control anyone. And yes, some communities are VERY guilty of that. But look at the halacha for what it is, not what it has socially become. The Rabbi’s were on to something. I DARE you to find a group of more confident, beautiful, and refined girls than those you find in the Orthodox Jewish world.

Stuart Rose says:

“Ultimately, I think, the pinnacle of this new modesty would involve teaching our kids to value themselves for who they are rather than what they wear, whether that’s a floor-length denim skirt or a micro-mini.”

While I’m not advocating or inclined to even dream of frum wear winning the day, don’t you think,Marjorie, that most young women who go in for ultra-sexy looks(and I am referring to their regular day wear) are by definition putting their bodies above their minds. Isn’t it clear that for most young women wearing modest clothing- modest in the 21st. century American sense- is the only reliable way to avoid seeing themselves as sexual objects.

i think you’re cherry-picking your way thru my argument, bucky! i was pretty explicit about my objection to the notion that ANYTHING is “just the female way.”

this is a nuanced and troubling topic for me.

thanks for reading, in any case.

Yehudah Mirsky says:

Thanks for an important essay.
Here’s a link to an article by my wife, Tamar Biala, “To Teach Tsniut with Tsniut” on the state of ts’niut discourse in Israeli religious education. In it she critiques both the repression of religious education and the objectification of women in secular society and reformulates tsniut as an ethical ideal challenging both.

Marjorie, I feel like I’ve been waiting for this post my whole young(ish) adult secular, Jewish life! In 2000, I spent a year abroad in Jerusalem after a pretty crazy bunch of years as a secular, sexually empowered NYC girl. I explored Tzniut and found much of practice fascinating, empowering, and quite frankly, radical. I tried talk-only Jewish-style Dating, not in an effort to “reclaim my virginity” like some of my friends, but because it was a radical idea to get to know someone before sleeping with them! I read Wendy Shalit and agreed with some of “A Return to Modesty”, most often the way that she referenced what was relevant to my life -hook up culture, pop culture, and turned it on its head.

Unfortunately our lives – sexual desire, patriarchal culture, corporate media, and gender-based oppression are more complicated than pat answers. The problem with all of the rules that confine women’s body’s to regulate men’s behavior, is that it so quickly leads to victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault or harassment. We lose sight of our shared responsibility to love and respect ourselves, and to love and respect each other.

My work explores these themes in my documentary film “The Line” (a Media Education Foundation release) and my group blog:

Would love to discuss with you sometime ways to incorporate the Jewish piece.

Amen Marjorie! As the mother of an 8 year old girl, good luck trying to find dress shoes without 2″ heels. It is a difficult challenge to clothe her in what I feel are age-appropriate clothing. I can limit my daughter’s (over-)exposure to the media “darlings”, but then she sees her age-peers parading around in mini-skirts; lip-gloss; 3″ heels; shoulder length earrings; and low cut, spaghetti-strapped tops – and that is in a synagogue on a Saturday morning! We turn down invitations to make-over/mani-pedi birthday parties, but halloween, Purim or a bar mitzvah party – forget it!

There will always be stupid parents who can’t say “no” nor set reasonable limits. It just makes parenting more difficult for my husband and me, but not impossible.

Rachel says:

The problem with the whole discussion is the idea that sexuality is something to hide…or that it’s something dirty. Or…according to the highly patriarchal hierarchy of Judaism it’s something to hold dear and precious for that one and only man who has ultimate control over your sex life. I have a 13 year old daughter who dresses in the tight Abercrombie/Holister look of the day. I have to say it is not what I would have been comfortable with at her age, not because I went to an orthodox yeshiva (not my idea) but because I did not have even 5% of the confidence and sense of power over her body and sexuality that she seems to have. She celebrates her body and loves having it in view…but is not promiscuous…and is a straight A student. I like the idea of women being comfortable in their bodies and with their sexuality and in control of that. Not hiding it and demonizing it and afraid of it’s power. PS…my father was orthodox and very strict and a predatory pedophile….so go figure! Clothes are not the issue…

Rachel: having a 13-year old who has not yet started to have sexual hookups is no big victory. Come back in another 20-years and tell us if you have raised a confident, mentally-stable woman.

As a man raised in a VERY-sexually charged secular atmosphere, and the older brother of two sisters and numerous female cousins, I can tell you that the gross sexualization of America is one of the defining characteristics of its slow and steady yet obvious decline. Consider:

-Shortly after receiving television, island nations like Guam quickly saw increases in anorexia and bulemia due to the popular media images of attraction.

-Numerous studies have shown the benefits of all-female education for girls, due to the lack of sexualization, teasing from boys, and the fact that girls do not feel as self-conscious in single-sex environments. It’s better for the boys too!

When is our society going to wake up and recognize that when a girl talks about “celebrating her body and her sexuality,” what she means is that she enjoys developing attachment, body image, and self-esteem disorders later in life. She is specifically defining to herself and to men that she is body, not a person. And for all the women here, stop deluding yourselves, that is how men see you all when you dress like that. Just watch men watch women; there is not much eye-contact going on.

I married a smart, confident, and attractive woman. And I was able to take her seriously from the beginning not because she presented herself as a floozy, and not because she tried to look “smart but sexy.” Instead, everything about her, from how she dressed, to how she acted, to how she spoke, to how she regarded others conveyed her poise, confidence, and dignity.

In a word: respecting others starts with respecting yourself.

charlie salem says:

agree with the piece and especially Nancy Schwartzman.
Excellent piece and comments. Charlie Salem

Stuart Rose says:

Nancy, I grant there is a element in the culture that blames women for triggering sexual harassment and assaults. But I wonder just how influential it is.
I also wonder just how important an easily expressed sexuality really is, how crucial it is as a component of one’s identity. Is sexual experimentation really a linchpin of happiness that it has been made out to be? I guess I’m suggesting that a more restrictive approach to sexual behavior, coming from both the culture at large and one’s mores, is worth the price of liberating women from a culture that tries to impose the tropes of pornography onto women at large.

EliReb says:

If you want to read a challenging, compelling and thought provoking work on tzniut, get Eliyahu Safran’s book: Sometimes You ARE what You Wear (Xlibris). It’s real, contemporary, straight yet very sensitive. For all ages.

Thank you for this very refreshing piece on tzniut. I feel that tzniut is important in relating to oneself and the world at large. However, coming from an Orthodox community I find that often stringencies are enforced to such a degree that ultimately it objectifies women, just in the other direction. I am currently wrestling with the fact that in the observant community it seems that a woman is only as pious as her clothing is, without any consideration given to character. As a mother of a young daughter it disturbs me greatly and I thank the poster who posted the link to the Meorot article. THe prospect of looking at tzniut with a fresh perspective is something I am really looking forward to doing.

This is all very interesting. Living in a religious community in Israel, I am proud of the fact that I do not need to wear less to fit in. I am even more happy that my children are not exposed to the sex culture braught strait to our living rooms from all over the world.. Nope! We dont have a TV either.
I also am happy that my husband isnt constantly tempted by seeing other women dressed that way.
Tzniut, in my opinion can and should be expressed in different ways and interpreted a bit differently from one to the next.
Dressing modestly is for me the more professional look.

Ellen Levitt says:

I think that modesty in dressing is a difficult issue and always was. Why do people think it’s a new issue? For crying out loud. I also think that the vast majority of Orth women I know (especially on the right-wing side) are among the most awkward with their bodies, no b-s, and do not seem all that happy. I’m being honest, seeing them over the years in my neighborhood and all around NYC. Nor do the hyper-sexualized women seem so happy. Somewhere in the middle, darn it, is the somewhat happier medium.That has been where I have resided. yes, your blouse or shirt can reveal your shape to some extent. But you don’t have to wear super-clingy stuff. How about that? Being realistic.

Given the fact that I do not observe tznius, I honestly tried to read this article, and these comments, with an open mind. While I can appreciate many of the points that were made in the article itself, I’m having a very tough time “buying in” to many of the comments that have been posted.

I’m typing this comment while wearing a pair of well-fitting (not at all low-rise or snug) dark-wash jeans and a ribbed mid-weight turtleneck sweater. My hair is clean and recently-trimmed, and is pulled back in a ponytail, with loose, whispy bangs. To me, it’s all fairly unremarkable wear for a winter weekend. I’m covered from just below my chin to my ankles and wrists.

Yet, to many of those who posted to this article, because I’m not covering my hair and because I’m wearing pants and a sweater that – while not at all tight – does skim my “curves, I’m considered to be inappropriately dressed as a “good” Jewish woman and, further, indecently provocative to men. Even though I am a faithful wife, loving mom, well-educated, funny and kind and empathetic and generous, active in my synagogue, well-regarded in my career field, et al … according to many of you, I’m somehow “less-than” a good Jewish woman, and would be a poor example to your wives and daughters, because of my (not remotely extreme or revealing) sartorial choices. Some might even say that my clothing choices would justify any sexual harrassment or even assault that could (G-d forbid) be directed at me. And yes – I do take exception to all of those conclusions that might be based on my mode of dress, and find them terribly judgemental and closed-minded and – in their most extreme permutations – horrific and alarming.

Please note: I don’t condone young girls wearing skintight, flesh-revealing clothes, either. But there are so, so many incremental points on the contiuuum between “modestly covering legs, collarbones, and elbows” and “skin-tight and flesh-revealing”. Again, because it bears repeating: CONTINUUM … As with many other topics that are discussed on Tablet, I’m having very difficult time with the superficial, binary mindset of many readers. Life is seldom that simple or black-and-white – even if some would like us to believe it is.

I strongly believe that G-d gave us the the ability to make our own decisions from among a variety of diverse choices because we are supposed to do so as long as we treat others with respect and kindness, and because G-d meant for this world to be enriched by the different choices of different individuals – how boring it would be if we all looked, believed, and behaved in exactly the same way! Dictating that a woman dress within a very narrowly-defined set of parameters because she otherwise might make clothing choices of which some people do not approve, and because her choices might attract attention from men – well, that doesn’t give much credit to the woman for being able to use our abilities that G-d gave us to make good choices, OR to men for being able to resist being “tempted to stray” by the women with whom they come into contact.

Further, my understanding of “tznius ” is that a woman’s hair must be covered, and that women are not allowed to wear “men’s” clothes, such as pants. I have to confess: These prohibitions, to me, are incredibly demeaning to both women and men. Just as a skirt can be loose or clingy, tasteful or slutty … so, too, can pants. So are men honestly tempted with a “reminder” that a woman in a well-fitting pair of pants has legs??? Are men honestly tempted by a woman’s hair if it’s her own, but NOT if it’s a wig???

@Annie posted at 5:08 AM on 2/17: “I also am happy that my husband isn’t constantly tempted by seeing other women dressed that way.” Really? All husbands are “tempted” when they see an attractively-dressed woman, if the woman is dressed tastefully and shows even a minimal amount of skin? I honestly don’t think that the men I know are that shallow and – yes – weak, because I don’t equate finding someone to be attractive as being “tempted”. Geesh, if you see a beautiful picture that really appeals to you, do you ignore it because there is too much of a risk that, if you admire it, you’ll try to take it home with you? Or do you look at it, and admire it, but then go about your life? (And, from a practical standpoint, I can tell you that I would not have to have had to weather (no pun intended!) the recent frigid, snowy weather in my region without being able to wear pants!)

If a woman is adhering to the parameters of tznius because she, herself, wishes to do so … then no harm, no foul. It’s her choice and it’s all good. But if a woman is dressing in this manner because she is being pressured to do so by a man, or because it is being implied that otherwise she is less of a “good Jewish woman”, or that she won’t be taken seriously, or that she is a “temptress” or somehow deserving of being sexually-harrassed or even assaulted, then in my opinion the rules are being applied inappropriately and are an affront to the women who are being compelled (tacitly or expressly) to follow them.

I think that what is most amazing is this wonderful dialogue. We are living in a time when all Jews can consider how tznius can, and should, have some place in the Jewish community. How we define it will differ. Why we do it will differ. But imagine how positive our world would be if we used modesty in our dress and in our speech. It really will affect how we value ourselves and those in the world around us.

Using this at shul for sure!!!

Not a bad piece, and certainly nuanced, but at times it falls into the tired stereotyping of repressive observant childhoods with those classic bogeymen, the “Orthodox Rabbis”.
There seems to be an underlying understanding that tzniut is just for women. Since when? Any school that has dress codes for young women has them for the young men as well. Tzniut is far beyond clothes- it is purposeful moderation in all things. That includes dress, speech, physical pleasures, and personal relationships. It means not being hyper-aggressive but not being a pushover either. Trying to fit it into this narrative of feminist liberation from Orthodox Jewry really misses the point. If the article was referring to a haredi upbringing, that would be a different story, but I don’t get the sense that it is.

Ruth- (Not necessarily referring to your specific case of how you dress)- You say that “G-d gave us the the ability to make our own decisions from among a variety of diverse choices because we are supposed to do so as long as we treat others with respect and kindness, and because G-d meant for this world to be enriched by the different choices of different individuals.” Yes, God gave us free will, but that definitely does not mean that every choice we make is therefore the right one. We are free to ignore the very clear guidelines and expectations laid out for us. The Torah does not say “Keep my Shabbat, or don’t if that is your choice, as long you treat people with respect.” It unequivocally instructs us to keep it (and a host of other commandments). We are physically free to choose to keep them or not, but that does not mean that any choice we make is therefore what God wanted. Yes, that stands in opposition to contemporary values in which everyone is right and every opinion must be treated as legitimate- in short, moral equivalency- but Jewish values were around long before and will be around long after the fashionable values of the day.

Jessica says:

NYC1:Who are you to judge another human as a “floozy?” I’ve never seen you. Maybe you dress like a floozy, yourself? Or do you think that the same rules don’t apply to you?
I’m a 36-year-old woman, and guess what? I don’t CARE if you are looking at my face or not. I will wear what I decide to wear, and you can keep your patriarchal crap to yourself.

JLSF says:

I’m a Christian, and I know the Torah is inspired and comes from G*d. I can’t speak with authority as a person of the Jewish faith, obviously, but I think what I have to say is important to the discussion.
I think it is wrong for a man to think he can judge a woman based on her dress.
So she is wearing a mini-skirt? News flash: if you approach her, you may actually annoy her. She may not have even known that you existed until you made a judgment about her, then approached her.
That is a very, very arrogant attitude. The men in both Christian and Jewish circles need to be called out on it by ministers and rabbis. I don’t think G*d wants us to judge others in such a legalistic and harsh way.( I know our faiths vary because I am convinced Jesus Christ is the Messiah and my Jewish friends have not accepted that…but our faiths come from the same G*d.)
Christ said, “If a man looks at a woman lustfully, he’s committed adultery already in his heart.” He also placed the responsibility for not lusting with the man..(IF your right eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it from you for it is better to enter into life with one eye than to have two eyes and enter into hell’s fire.”)
In light of this, I don’t believe a woman’s dress is a “pass” for the way a man chooses to order his view or her or his own behavior.
On the other hand, women also have a responsibility to not perpetuate these mindsets, too.
I liked how Marjorie said that modesty has to do with the attitude of the heart. I believe that is what Christ was teaching Christians: That we are to view ourselves in the spiritual instead of the materialistic and sexual.
We should view ourselves in relation to G*d, not in relation to another person. Then, we treat others respectfully because we know how loved we are by G*d.
This is a very touchy subject in Christian circles, too. Some churches have strict dress codes (usually for women, although some also have dress codes for men, too.) And some Christians will judge another Christian church by how the women dress.
I hope I haven’t offended anyone because I’m outside of your faith, but this a very tough subject for me, and I wanted to offer my two cents.

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Tznius 2.0

As preteen pop stars play sexy, it’s time to rethink modesty

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