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Op-Ed: Power Dressing

by Aliza Bas Menachem

I can get you to look my way. I can cause you to feel uncomfortable. I can compel you to feel you want to stare but you know it is rude to stare. It makes you feel awkward. I dress this way because I am a woman and women should not be oppressed – we are free to express ourselves through our way of dressing and you are committing a faux pas if you object. I can impress you with my clothes. Once you are impressed by me, I have power over you. I am a power dresser. I make my own choices. No one tells me how to dress.

The previous paragraph is in first person for dramatic effect. It is not me talking.  From here on, it is me talking and the first thing I want to do is thank men for not using the excuses above to dictate their wardrobe choices. I am grateful that men do not think the way some women do when it comes to dressing. I don’t want to encounter shirtless men in briefs who claim a right to dress that way because the weather is steaming hot. They would have a point – but I am glad they respect my sensitivities and they cover up.

When women dress immodestly they not only have power over men but also over women. In a broad generalization, I will say that men get interested and women feel threatened. In her TED Talk of October 2012 entitled, “Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model”, Cameron Russel walks on stage in a sophisticated dress that I will describe as suitable for a posh night club. She says she can feel the tension in the room. No doubt the facial expressions and breathing patterns of her audience are filled with tension. Not that the audience wants to respond that way. They are not in control. An average woman may not be able to generate such a response by dressing with appeal, but we can learn from the extreme beauty and power that Cameron possesses, and apply it proportionately to the rest of us.

Cameron then glides to a nearby stool where she has prepared pieces of clothing. She covers herself with a floor length wraparound skirt and a long-sleeved sweater. She takes off her sky-high heeled shoes and slips into flats. She says she can sense the tension has disappeared. There is a new, calmer, feeling in the room. The audience now trusts her and is ready to listen to what she has to say.

I am not claiming that she is less beautiful. But, it is a new kind of beauty. A new dignity. A beauty that others can relate to and feel comfortable with. It is not threatening. It’s a friendly beauty. Through her modest dress, she is communicating the even with her beauty, she can be a regular person who is someone that communicates with regular people.

To the liberal-dressing women of Crown Heights. What is important to you? To be able to dress how you want? What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve that goal? What are you ready to give up so that you can dress in eye-catching fashion? Are you willing to make both men and women feel uncomfortable? To give up communicating as equals? To put strain and limitations on potentially beneficial relationships?

It is natural to judge people by how they dress. Especially when there is a general principle that women should be able to express themselves through their clothing. So if clothing is self-expression, then the onlooker is correct in thinking the clothes represent what the person is about. And yet, some women who express themselves in their choice of clothing, are not able to relate to those who are judgmental of them because of their ‘expressive’ clothing.

For a Jewish girl to dress in a blatantly immodest way is an expression of unhappiness. Tearing down a sign about dressing modestly is an indication of anger. The immodest woman should be treated in a way to help her to find happiness, and to release her from her anger. Her clothing is akin to being the symptom, not the disease, and should be treated as such. Except for one factor. Provocative dressing has an effect on other people. It creates tensions that are beyond control – as Cameron Russell explained. I think we have to respect others and if dressing immodestly is problematic, it is rude to cause other people discomfort.

This phenomena is not just in Crown Heights. I am surprised by women I know, outside the Jewish community, who are generally considerate of others, when they say that women should be able to dress how they want and men just have to handle it. Why do they think it is OK to distract men and cause them anxiety? Is the female self-expression so important to them that they act in a way that is impervious to the inborn nature of male response to women? Or… is it a circle? The women are dressing this way because they are unfulfilled and they are unfulfilled because men have to reduce their interest in women, just to be able to walk down the street. A woman who feels fulfilled as a woman does not need to express her femininity through her clothing. You can tear down one sign, but your clothing is also a sign, of your unfulfilled femininity. But immodest clothing will not fill that need. It will bring the opposite result. Which is why the signs are so offensive. They tell the truth: it is better for us all when we dress modestly.

My point of view is that in Crown Heights the community is trying to accomplish something. I think people should respect it. While in Crown Heights, one should abide by its mode of dress. Crown Heights does not have dress codes that are oppressive. The modesty standards are generally reasonable, and a reasonable person should be able to abide by them. Personally, I am not a Dugma Chaya for Tznius. I am a work in progress. But I consider being respectful as something that is not a work in progress. It is a given.

I just got back from spending two weeks in Eretz Yisroel. I spent a lot of time in Yitzhar and I spent some time in Mea Shaarim, as well as a list of other places. But my point here is, that as different as Yitzhar and Mea Shaarim are – the women I met in both places are modest – and happy!

So what is important? How you dress? Or relationships? A relationship with G-d. With the Rebbe. With family and friends. With a spouse. If you knew that how you dress effects those relationships, would you still give mode of dress a top priority? Or, like Cameron Russell, would you cover up so that you could relate to your ‘audience’ with grace, respect and a calm ambiance for communication.

Modesty is associated with the safety of our nation and especially our soldiers. For all those who trust that a Mezuzah does make a difference, then please accept that modesty also makes a difference. (There are sources, but I am not going to explore the sources in this article.) If only until the end of the current hostilities – please cover up for the sake of our soldiers – they are combating Hamas – please combat your personal feelings and give the soldiers extra protection that a Jewish woman has the power to give.

The Hebrew words for the Iron Dome are Kipat Barzel. In Hebrew, the letters that spell Barzel are BRZL and are known to stand for the iron strength of Jewish women who descend from BRZL – Bilhah, Rochel, Zilpah and Leah.  The Kipat Barzel is one of the power tools through which Hashem is protecting Jews in Eretz Yisroel. And Jewish women are an intrinsic part of it. It’s time to take our capacity for Power Dressing and change it from making a powerful impression to making a powerful tool of protection. Power Dressing with a purpose. Power Dressing with the agenda of being dressed and ready… to greet Moshiach Now.

48 Comments

    • 3. Wake up and smell the present wrote:

      There is no basis whatsoever, halachic or hashkafic, for your statement. None.
      Beautiful article from beginning to end. If you don’t know that this is what many of our girls and women say and think, you are probably living under a rock. If you don’t realize that 95% of our Lubavitch community knows about models, has seen them and knows exactly what this author is talking about, then you live in 1965. I’m very happy for the tmimusdike people who really don’t have this exposure, but they are a teeny tiny minority. Every part of this article, first 5 paragraphs included, applies to the Lubavitcher community of 2014.

  • 5. Thank you wrote:

    Wow, what a beautiful article. You really brought out an important topic in such a positive way. May this enter into many hearts and see a positive change….

    Reply
  • 6. BH wrote:

    Also if men don’t let immodest dress have power over them then a woman wouldn’t feel powerful by flexing that muscle.

    Reply
  • 9. Rivka wrote:

    Excellent article! Very well written. And very true.
    If women and girls would understand the impact we have on men and on society around us, we would take the responsibility to heart and would improve our standards and our attitudes to tznius. If Bilam harasha blessed the Jewish people for the inyan of tznius, obviously that is the area that hakadosh Baruch Hu is blessing us. and the responsibility lies with the nashim tzidkanius. And that is why the yezer hara attacks this inyan so strongly in these last moments of galus. We need to stand up to the nisayon and overcome it with strength and simcha and bezras Hashem we should be zochen to the geula shleima bkarov mamash.

    Reply
  • 12. Powerful wrote:

    That was powerful. And your words are not for naught. Your words will definitely inspire other at least a little. Thus you have already made a change.
    Thank you

    Reply
  • 16. emt wrote:

    to #2……the reason the words are seemingly not fitting of a Chabad neighborhood is because one would think that in a Chabad neighborhood, people conduct themselves with the values of the Rebbe (which has some space for personal interpretation). However the way people are dressed, lets do it how the therapists do it with autism….meet them eye to eye, let them know we’re right there with them, and get the message across clearly with truth, with love, with devotion.

    Reply
  • 17. talented wrote:

    I don’t know who you are but you are unbelievably talented. This article puts so much into perspective especially at the end. Please publish this in other spaces online nshei magazine. You deserve alot of credit. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Reply
  • 19. wow wrote:

    perfect.
    so true as a man every time i pass a frum women dressed untzniusdick i think why is she unhappy.
    so true.
    what is so important for her to show?
    what is she missing at home?!
    you can see a sens of anger….

    Reply
    • 20. רציונלים wrote:

      What does judging others based off your preconceptions on their appearances tell you?

    • 21. JUDGING v.s. COMPASSIONATE OBSERVATION wrote:

      There are two slang expressions that describe someone’s mood:
      UP TIGHT (Unable to relax and just chill)
      HANG LOOSE (Stand by, and take it easy or relax.)
      It has always amazed me that when someone is dressed in tight clothing – their mood also seems to be Up Tight. And those in more generous clothing seem to be in the Hang Loose mood.

      Answer to RETZIONLIM:
      The comment is not necessarily a judgement. It is an observation.
      The article discusses the reaction of the audience to Cameron when she first appeared. The reaction is natural. If a person is dressed in a way that they do not blend in with the norm of the place they are in – they will be noticed. Even though people might not want to be distracted by another’s clothing, it is a normal reaction that when you notice something, your own perceptions will be triggered. Who else’s? How you respond to the natural reaction is in your control. An observation by itself is what we all do. Maybe Tzaddikim don’t.

  • 25. Beautiful wrote:

    Beautifully written and so relevant.
    I will show this to my students when school starts iy”h and I hope other high school teachers will too. It will make for a great discussion.

    Reply
  • 29. Modern Chabbad or New Chababbad wrote:

    When I see a pretty young woman in a beautiful gown that is very attractive , like a photo from 5th ave , Manhattan next to her husband wearing nice Chabbad sirtyk with a gurtel …..
    I’m saying to myself :” B”H that she is still keeping Shabbes , glat kosher , mitzvos and raising her kids in Lubavitch Community !!!”
    She is honest !!! Let her be here , don’t judge , dress yourself more beautiful , more pretty , with modesty this way you will educate her too !!!

    Reply
  • 30. Great! wrote:

    The first five paragraphs are not important to your excellent point. Beautiful. Please write more. We need to hear from positive women.

    Reply
  • 31. Sad mom wrote:

    I loved this article! It was written in an intellectual and clear manner by someone who is up to date and worldly yet understands the dilemmas if tsnius in our society today. We are on shlichus in a tropical country and being tsnius is a constant struggle. I try to teach my daughters that you can look great, feel good, all the while being an elegant tsnius young woman. My 17 yr old daughter who loves fashion, has really learnt how to dress well, trendy, cute and age appropriate in a tsniusdike manner. Recently she was in ‘My’ Crown Heights, the place I grew up, and she called me up. ‘Ma, what goes on here? Frum people wearing mini skirts, flip flops, short sleeves walking down the street in the Rebbes shchuna?? This 17 year old girl said words that made me want to cry. ‘Ma this is Yerida Hadorot’ May we be zoche for the coming if Moshiach speedily in our days!

    Reply
  • 32. Iron Dome wrote:

    Such an interesting point – connecting the wives of Yaakov.
    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts – which were so well written!

    Reply
    • 34. awacs wrote:

      You don’t *know* that.
      At least (as Yaakov Herman said in “All For the Boss”), after 120, she can tell the Beis Din shel Maalah that she tried doing *something*. What did *you* do?

  • 35. To 31 wrote:

    There are many people who realize that life is a mission to get better. Many who struggle with tznius really want to be tznius and extra chizuk helps them make the right decisions in weak moments. This article is for them!

    Of course for those who are self absorbed and selfish this may not do much….if you dont actively try to get better, unfortunately you can sink lower and lower- it happens autimatically when we dont strive higher.

    For those of us who do try to be tznius, and become better people chizuk is always helpful!

    Reply
  • 36. To 32 wrote:

    B”H
    You are right, this article has only accomplished a little, (not ‘nothing,’ but a little) because so many women think that because rabbis in our community say nothing about the blatant kind of dress that goes on, it’s ok. It’s not ok, ask your husband, your son, your brother if it bothers them. This complaint is finally giving voice to the ‘whisper’ in our community. The rabbis are afraid to offend these women who they believe may be ‘on the brink’ and if they say or publish something critical, it might ‘embarrass’ them and result in worse behavior and acting out. It’s about time such an article spoke in this voice, sensible, kind, yet strong. Let the whisper be heard.

    Reply
  • 37. Thank You wrote:

    I am turning off my computer for Shabbos. I would like to thank everyone for their kind and encouraging comments.
    The comment about the whisper is a beautiful message written beautifully.
    I am really pleased a teacher is considering taking this article to class for discussion.
    I welcome the Oy Vey comment and the one about the opening paragraphs – which spurred other readers to express their views in defense of the article.
    I always consider Tznius to not be my ‘field.’ But this time I became the conduit for this article to flow through. Such appreciate feedback has made it worth the effort and the risk.
    Thank you for reading and commenting. I pray all our efforts together will make a difference. A candle in the dark…. its almost time to light.
    Good Shabbos to everyone :)
    Aliza

    Reply
  • 38. thank you wrote:

    Thank you to all the women in our community who are dressing the way they should. I just want to mention however, that we all can improve. Maybe we have a shirt that’s too tight, maybe a sheitel that’s too long, a short with a attached out neckline, etc. everyone of us should improve.

    Reply
  • 39. chosid wrote:

    B”H

    In a way it’s very telling how some people seem to be very threatened by this open discussion on tznius and the reaction to it, an overwhelming popular voice objecting to immodest public dress.

    They say:
    - “Articles like this don’t help, it’ll just make it worse.”
    - “We just “tune out” to these articles.”
    - “Hanging signs about tznius is definitely fanatic.”
    - “It really bothers me how people think that by posting these long articles and everyone agreeing in the comments, that suddenly, the whole crown heights will be dressing the way you want. I’m sorry but that’s not going to happen.”

    Then there is ‘attack the messenger’: Instead of addressing the argument that has been made, attack the person making it instead. In other words, if a woman is offended enough to voice an opinion about the lack of modesty, she is accused of being unkempt, and lacks ‘style and flair’. They recommend that ‘tznius queens’ go “get your sheital washed, wear proper fitting clothes, not baggy shmattes, bathe yourself properly.” Talk about a ‘bait and switch.’

    There is more, but the undertone comes thru. These messages are saying: “Don’t bring it up this subject. Keep quiet. Keep it under the table. It is not polite to bring up tznius.” Because silence itself sows apathy and confusion and keeps this problem going.

    The bottom line is, this article DID hit a nerve in those who are liberal minded and demand a certain warped freedom to dress provocatively while everyone keeps silent. This article HAS finally struck a chord in many people who have kept quiet all along, too long. The silence feeds the illusions of the confused who take silence for approval. The mere discussion of immodesty on a public forum is a threat to pritzus. Anyone who considers themselves to be part of this community and was confused by the public silence on this issue is being set straight in this public discussion, the young and the old, men and women, married and single.

    Actually, those who are offended by a public discussion about tznius are in fact being moved for the better. It bothers them because, after all, they too have a conscience, and it’s waking up. It’s clearing up the confusion of a certain implied lenience.

    The best thing to do is to keep it up. Keep this discussion on the front burner. Contrary to the naysayers, discuss it with your kids. Put up the articles, keep posting, put up tasteful signs that Crown Heights is the Rebbe’s schuna and that dignified and modest dress is important and appreciated.

    And let’s remember that if you are pejoratively accused of being a so-called ‘tznius queen,’ that you too are no more a person who is a ‘work in progress’ and who is simply trying to be ‘respectful of people’ and of Hashem.

    We are not dealing with innocent strangers who are clueless about tznius in Crown Heights. It is not ‘intolerant’ to reach out to our own daughters, sisters, students, and friends. And husbands SHOULD speak to their wives, obviously in an intelligent, appropriate and tactful way, but let’s begin to speak. Let’s end the silent acceptance for the terrible harm and chilul Hashem that results from immodesty. Join the whisper. It IS helping!

    Reply
    • 40. Whipser This wrote:

      You can be 200% tznius but treat other people like garbage and what message does that give? Focus first on your behavior. Show you care. Model politeness and chesed. The rest will follow.

  • 41. Tznius - the real "Iron Dome." wrote:

    Yasher koach! So well said. It’s time we start being frank about Tznius. Please TRANSLATE THIS ARTICLE INTO HEBREW!!!!!! I want to share it with my friends and family in Israel.
    Thank you so much for having the mesiras nefesh to publish this article.
    Chana Rivka

    Reply
    • 42. google translate wrote:

      If you highlight, copy and paste the text into google translate and choose Hebrew – you will get a rough translation. Not perfect but good enough.

  • 43. Liora Rochel wrote:

    Excellent article, beautifully written. Garments for the soul. Modesty, incumbent on both men and women.

    Reply
  • 44. TE wrote:

    Aliza,
    By reframing the discussion on emotional and social grounds you open the door for rational discussion, even with those who are “mad at” Lubavitch or the community or life for one reason or another. It is so important to go beyond formulaic pronouncements (no matter how true) as you did by citing the TED talk. This is worth pursuing further.

    Tzivia

    Reply
    • 45. No Quick Fix wrote:

      Thanks for your feedback and opinions.
      Tznius is not usually something I like to get involved in. This article came through my usual topic – Shlaimos HaAretz. On Rosh Chodesh, I spoke in Pittsburgh about what was going on in Eretz Yisroel. I knew I had to include something about Tznius because I honestly believe it is connected to the security in Eretz Yisroel. Not that it is the cause – but that it could be part of the cure. So once I came up with the idea of the TED talk – it kind of developed by itself into an article.
      Since I wrote this article, I have been in lots of discussions about Tznius.
      If I were to pursue this further, it would be to reorient the Mikveh experience for women in the community. I think that could make a difference in how women feel about themselves. I don’t think I can be more specific than that on a Chabad website.
      I don’t think there is a quick fix for changing dressing patterns, but I think it is worth the effort for even a small change.
      Thanks again for your intelligent, encouraging comment,
      Aliza

  • 46. Shulchon Oruch wrote:

    When the Shulchon Oruch discusses ‘Tznius’ it not meant as a ‘mindset’, an ‘attitude’, ‘reaching the inner self’, ‘being a role model’, as ‘kindness’, ‘respect’, or any of these important ideas. The dimim of Tznius have a bottom line that have nothing to do with these ideals. It has to do with covering up, PERIOD. Stop mixing in all these unrelated ideas here. We have a problem that the WOMEN in this community have become way too liberal about their physical comportment and dress in the street. Don’t confuse the issue with character traits. “As a ring of zahav in the snout of a chazir, so is an isha yafah which is without ta’am (judgment, discretion).”

    Reply
  • 48. tznius with a shturm wrote:

    The one above should bentch you for writing this .Please keep on posting this will start a new trend that one will feel like an outcast being dressed improper.

    Reply

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