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Op-Ed: From Oustside In

by Sarah G.

When somebody says the word tznius, the first thing that comes to mind is what we wear. Our apparel reflects our culture, our nature, our mood, and our social status. For us, clothing is the most external expression of ourselves. However, people don’t often think that how we dress can affect how we are from the outside, in.

I grew up in a non-religious home with a family that loved being Jewish, but didn’t necessarily know what it meant in practical application. The extent of our Jewish practice was (sometimes) going to shul on Yom-Kippur, spinning a dreidel on Chanukkah, and drinking Manashevitz. Being Jewish was a part of my identity, but it was never a part of my expression.

When I encountered Chabad on Campus in college, my flame was quickly ignited by the beauty and truth that I saw in this new side of Judaism that I had never been exposed to before. I became passionate about learning as much as I could, and heavily involved myself in the array of programs and services that this world of Chabad had to offer.

In my eager attempt to start keeping mitzvot, one of the first adventures that I embarked on was the mitzvah of tznius. One day I left for a program, and the next week I came back wearing the only three skirts that I owned. Yet since I knew that becoming frum wasn’t a game, I cooled by ball-teshuva jet engines and decided to take the approach towards modesty slowly. I had been warned by one too many Rebbetzins that while jumping into the deep end might be fun, it wasn’t the way to create what I knew would be a life-long commitment.

Living in a laid-back West Coast suburb, beach clothing, flip-flops, and 73 degree weather were an almost everyday occurrence. So at first, I started wearing skirts and ¾ sleeves, then my clothes became less form fitting, and eventually I warmed up to the idea of tights. As this slow progression in my wardrobe took place, I also noticed that my new approach towards modesty began manifesting itself in other ways.

I started noticing small changes in my life and the people around me. It seemed as though the conversations that I had with others were more genteel and authentic. The general approach that others took towards me appeared to be more careful and cordial. Coming from a college campus where anything goes, I noticed that less men were approaching me, and to my surprise, many of my acquaintances became surprisingly less verbal. People would come up and extend their hand for a handshake, instead of just going in for the common “hello hug”.

At first, I was confused and surprised by these subtle yet noticeable changes. I wasn’t any different; I was the same person, hanging out with the same people, in many of the same environments. So why were people all of the sudden treating me differently? I hadn’t changed— or so I thought.

Many people could say that these changes have nothing to do with the way that I dressed, and were a result of the fact that I was being enlightened and inspired by the values of yiddishkeit. However, this was not the case.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned chapters 3 and 4 of Tanya that speak about the garments of the soul. About how the only way a person can express themselves is through thought, speech, and action; and about how these, in turn become the ‘clothing’ of our soul.

It was only until I learned this that I realized what had happened. Without even being conscious about it, the way that I dressed had begun to change me from the inside.  My thoughts were different and I noticed that I held my head higher, I walked with a little more purposeful, and I had a bit more self-confidence. The way that I spoke to others shifted; I no longer felt appropriate dressing like a queen on Shabbos, and then sitting around and gossiping about people with my friends. Slowly, the people that I choose to surround myself with were of a higher moral stature than I had previously been accustomed to. People were treating me differently because without even knowing about it, I had changed from the inside, and they could see it.

One of the first things a baal teshuva does is put on a skirt and a long sleeve shirt because it’s the most obvious changes that one can make for their yiddishkeit. What they don’t realize, is that putting on that skirt will inevitable change them from the most internal of places; their mind, their speech, and their actions.

Surrounding the recent controversy, I thought it would be good to put things into perspective from the eyes of someone who is new to it all. Dressing modestly is about a reflection of the inside, how I view myself, and how I show that to others.

we can go to www.therebbesletter.com and read the moving words that the Rebbe wrote in a letter about modesty to all women. Even more so, we can give a beautiful gift to the Rebbe and to ourselves by taking a personal hachlata (commitment) in our own tznius journey, and entering it into the raffle to win a prize (just like I did)! We never know; taking this commitment might just change us from the outside, in — for the better — without even us knowing it.

13 Comments

  • 1. Incredible wrote:

    That was such an on the point article.
    I’m sick of all the bikinis and beach clothing in Crown Heights and it’s about time everyone stops dressing like goyishe models and starts dressing like the Rebbes chassidim.

    Reply
  • 3. Anonymous wrote:

    One of the most clear cut and meaningful articles about Tznius. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  • 5. proud mother wrote:

    BCM in crown heights did an amazing production last year with those exact words “outside in” based on a מאמר that how we dress and act on the outside, can change us internally!

    Reply
  • 9. Yes and no wrote:

    Beautiful post. Yasher koach. There are some things in the op-ed which do not necessarily go with tznius. There are plenty of women and girls who dress this who may not have healthy self-esteem or who might gossip. One has to remember when dressing tznius that over is doing it for Hashem, and act accordingly.

    Reply
  • 10. good sentiments wrote:

    you reminded me of how it was like when I chose to grow a beard (without trimming it)

    Reply
  • 11. Yes, very true wrote:

    But here’s the thing – you made that decision on your own. Y ou were not forcefed until you felt you were choking. You FIRST saw the beauty in Yiddishkeit and then, step by step, YOUR OWN steps, you changed your entire lifestyle. You started with the inside – your inner recognition of this life that you wanted. YOU, and only you, felt the desire to look different from before.
    This is exactly what the incredibly conroversial article was about – tnzius is something that you get from t he inside. Please realize, dear BT, that you did not experience the humility as a young child of being told that “Hashem doesn’t like when you wear that” or, as a teenager, the unbearable rigidity that girls experience in our schools and communities. You didn’t have your next door neighbour looking you up and down, with pursed lips. You didn’t have your mom’s first reaction to seeing you come home being “that skirt’s too short’ or ‘button your top button.”
    So, yes, let’s continue the conversation about tznius, but let’s not insist that every frum girl going to school in 90 temperature wearing tights is going to be moved by your experience coming to it as an adult.
    Let’s allow for our own children to discover for themselves the beauty. And, the dart throwers start throwing their poisoned darts, I don’t mean we should not have any guidance for the halochos of tznius! What I mean is that the overbearing, overwhelming, overly rigid focus on legs and feet is not the way to move girls to your experience.
    Let’s stop making them feel like their choking. You don’t sound like you ever felt you were suffocating, so let’s try to make your experience everyone’s experience.

    Reply
  • 12. anonymous wrote:

    on what previous person wrote please take responsibility for your actions. Blaming others only goes so far. growth comes from within. How long do we blame others and start taking accountability. after all its our life. you were choked why. work on that answer and move on. don’t use it as an excuse for bad behavior. There are actually people out there that are tzniusdig and trying to live as best they can as a good Jew who had been choked like so many others claim to be and made the choice to move on be healthy. Those who aren’t use religion or lack thereof as an excuse for bad behavior. You have one life to live. Live healthy. The Torah is the best blueprint. Good Luck

    Reply
  • 13. Is Immodesty an Expression of Cruelty? wrote:

    In response to the argument that the main thing is one’s midos and not what one wears, the Rebbe responded (12 Tamuz 5730):

    “Not only is dressing immodestly against the way of Torah, it is against the overall proper path, common morals, and simple logic.

    Conducting oneself immodestly, by revealing parts of the body that should be covered, is done to provoke the other’s yetzer hara, his undesirable side.

    It does not accomplish that the other person will use his mind more effectively, nor does it better his emotions. It will not improve his respect toward his parents, toward his siblings, or even toward his own wife. Nor will it motivate him to give more tzedakah.
    What does failing to dress modestly achieve? It achieves that if until now, the other’s undesirable passions were concealed or at least calm, they become aroused and begin to blaze.

    [As a result, they share the responsibility for the other’s evil, even though they gain nothing from it. After all, it is the other’s negative traits that are being aroused, inciting him to fulfill his desires, whether through sight or in another manner. Nonetheless, it is all worth it just to provoke the other person’s latent qualities – and not the positive ones, but the negative!]

    In this way, they become a source of harm, not only to their own G dly soul, but to a second person and to a third – to all those whom they encounter. This is an extremely warped path to follow; may G d protect us from it.

    Reply

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