Friday, March 4, 2011

Star of Davida Interviews Gila Manolson

Many Jewish feminists have grappled with the concept of tzniut, the set of laws regarding modesty in dress stating that women must cover their collarbones, elbows, and knees at all times. Star of Davida had the honor of interviewing Gila Manolson. Ms. Manolson is an international author and speaker regarding Judaism and relationships, in addition to tzniut.While I do not agree with everything she has to say, I think many of her points are excellent, and she busts several tzniut myths. (Look forward to a post about tzniut sometime soon.)

Talia bat Pessi: You say tzniut is not a dress code, but a consciousness that manifests itself in dress and speech, etc. What exactly do you mean by that?
Gila Manolson: A dress code implies that you have to wear something because your principal or boss tells you that you have to - the clothing doesn’t represent who you are, you’re just complying with the rules. As a result, any dress code can be a farce. Even if you wear the tzniut “dress code” and cover your collarbone and your elbows and your knees, you can easily be undoing what tzniut is all about. Accordingly, tzniut is a consciousness. By dressing with tzniut you are defining yourself internally, peeling off the superficiality and identifying by your core. You want your dress and behavior to reflect that consciousness of self-awareness, awareness of who you are.

Talk to me about the reasons for tzniut.
Ever since the hait (sin) in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), we’ve lost the ability to see people for who they are. Adam and Eve saw the body and the soul as one unit, so it wasn’t possible for them to objectify one another. Once they lost vision of the whole person, superficiality entered the picture and shunted the soul into background, making the body so glaring that we can’t get past it. That’s the way we see one another now. Tzniut tries to fix the imbalance by highlighting the soul and downplaying the body so there’s a fighting chance we can see the soul. We won’t return to Gan Eden until the redemption comes, but in meantime, we at least can give people a fighting chance to see each other for who they are.

I have always heard that women have to keep tzniut so that men aren’t turned on by them - i.e., women have to help protect men from sin. Is this true?
Yes and no. When a man sees an immodestly-dressed woman, the first look is a knee-jerk reaction and he can’t control it. You can hold the woman responsible for that first look, but after that, the man is responsible. Anyone who has the power to influence someone for good or bad has to use that power appropriately: women are very sexual, therefore we have to be careful how we use our sexuality. However, men are responsible for whether or not they continue to look. I go to an all-women’s gym, and they have televisions there playing all kinds of schmutz. It’s a challenge not to watch them, since they’re there. After experiencing this constant feeling of not being able to look, I realized that men have to avert their eyes from so many things on the street every day, not just when they go to the gym and have to avoid the TVs.

There is a group of women in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, that wear burqas in order to keep tzniut effectively. Do you support this in any way?
Most of Orthodoxy is against them since it’s a chillul Hashem (desecration of God), nobody believes in this except for their small community. We completely disassociate with that group because the burqa is the condition of a different religion. By covering a woman’s face you deny her personhood, while in Judaism a woman is meant to have a dignified internal presence, not to be invisible.

Tzniut is often defined as blending in, not standing out. Is this a misconception?
I have a problem with that concept. People think that tzniut means not standing out because usually when someone stands out, she’s standing out for something external, not internal, but if she can stand out for inner dignity and inner beauty, I don’t think that’s a contradiction to tzniut. I know rebbetzins (rabbis’ wives) who exude beauty because of who they are inside, and so they definitely do stand out in a quiet, dignified way, not in a loud, attention-getting way, which is a far more compelling kind of beauty. I don’t believe tzniut is about blending into wallpaper, no. You have to radiate internality.

Why do you think so much responsibility regarding tzniut has been given to women?
On the one hand, men in my community dress as modestly as the women do, but if a man is jogging, for example, he will dress less modestly, which would be considered inappropriate for a woman, so it is emphasized more for women than men. I think it’s because men and women are different. I feel like feminism doesn’t deal with reality in that men’s brains are more hardwired to visual stimulation than women’s. As a result, women are more susceptible to get attention from men, so they degrade and superficialize themselves to get male validation, which destroys a woman’s self-worth and makes her an object. It’s incumbent for women to protect themselves because it’s reality.

Protection against what?
Protection against self-diminishment, me seeing myself as less than who I am. There is an element of helping men in tzniut too, because in Judaism there is the concept of kol Yisrael araivim zeh lazeh, every person in the Jewish community is responsible for each other. If your friend is trying to stop smoking, you wouldn’t dangle a pack of cigarettes in front of her, so you shouldn’t dangle your body in front of a man. Tzniut isn’t really to protect men, though, since tzniut is also applicable among a group of only women. You have to keep tzniut in the privacy of your own home too. Tzniut is designed to help us foster a deeper self-image. While it benefits men, I believe its essence is for women.

You place a lot of stress on the fact that if a girl wants others to view her as a person, she needs to dress modestly/according to tzniut, so that people don’t view her as a body. Why do you emphasize this point so much?
We live in such a sexualized society that women’s self-esteem is going to pot. Boundaries have completely crumbled, women’s magazines are so sexualized and encourage girls to have sex just to please the men in their lives, there’s no self-respect or concept that a woman’s body belongs to her exclusively. All of the problems in male-female relationships are related to the destruction of tzniut in society, because once we bring down boundaries in dress and the body is exposed, everything goes up in smoke. Boundaries are what foster the sense of personhood by defining where I leave off and you begin, and by defining what belongs to who. Once boundaries are gone, personhood can be up for grabs.

We had a class discussion about tzniut a while ago, and one of my friends said that she dresses according to tzniut because “clothes are my identity.” Do you agree with this stance?
I don’t think clothes should be your identity - it’s typical of teenage girls to think that, but most grow out of it. Some don’t. Clothes are an expression of identity, however, and we wear things that tell the world what we are. Clothing is a self-statement - it sends a message. The thing is that the world picks up on that message and feeds it back to us, which cycles it into our own self-image. If your clothing is attention-getting, even if it’s just out there rather than immodest, and everyone relates to you negatively as a weirdo or positively as a free spirit, that can then have such an impression on you and you’ll begin to see yourself as you believe others see you. This is called symbolic interactionism, the concept of “I come to see myself as I believe others see me.” If you want to build up a solid identity, you have to be aware of the fact that you’re sending a statement by your dress and that will cycle back into your own self-image. Your dress strengthens your identity for the good or the bad. On the good side, if a woman dresses in a dignified way and people relate to her as a person, not as an object, she’ll come to see herself more as a person.

Why do you feel tzniut is important to keep?
I think the emphasis on tzniut nowadays is a little overboard. Even a rebbetzin I know has said that people act like it’s the only mitzvah (commandment) for women, and it's not. It’s a little silly that people blame all of the Jewish community’s ills on a lack of tzniut - it can also be because of a lack of ahavat Yisrael (love of your fellow Jew), ahdut (togetherness), etc. On the other hand, society has become so body-obsessed that we have to counter that, so we need to talk more about the sexualization of women’s bodies because it’s just much more of a presence nowadays. I don’t think the correct approach is to measure girls’ skirts, however, because what’s happening ironically is that we’re externalizing tzniut, which is a mitzvah meant to develop internality. Inches may be important in halakha (Jewish law), but focusing on it alone is missing the essence of tzniut. That’s why girls wear skintight and provocative things - because they never got the deeper message behind tzniut.

Why are you so involved in tzniut rather than another aspect of Judaism?
It really hit me when I became observant. I started looking at Judaism and saw the different approach the community has to relationships and self. We’re not the only ones who recognize this - non-Jewish and non-religious authors say the same things as I do, even though they’ve never heard of tzniut before. Gloria Steinem has said that a woman’s light should shine from within, not without, and feminists have boycotted Miss America contests and other things that objectify women. Tzniut is not a uniquely Jewish message, it’s key to the health of society. The presence or lack or tzniut will determine the quality of a relationship. If you have a deep self-image, you’ll expect to be related to on that level, and will look for depth in another, so it’s very fundamental. That’s why I was so drawn to it, also especially because of the contrast of the non-religious world that I came from and the deeply spiritual world I am in now. I always saw it as very strong feminist statement that I want to be taken seriously as a person and be respected for who I am, not ogled for what I have. I never felt more liberated than when I snorkeled fully-clothed and accidentally emerged at a nudist beach - I felt that I was repossessing my own body. I don’t feel that I have to display my body, or that I have to worry if my tan is good or not compared to someone else’s.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post about how an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn has a 1 in 19 occurrence of eating disorders, when the American average is 1 in 50. Why do you think the numbers are so much worse in that community?
Estimates of eating disorders vary, I’ve heard estimates between 8% and 15% for the general population. In general, the occurrences of eating disorders among observant Jews are usually lower, however the neighborhood they investigated was higher. I believe it’s because in addition to living in New York, which has a particular emphasis on the body, that specific ethnic group happens to place an undue emphasis on appearance. I don’t want to say which community it is, but that culture really condones young women acting as bodies that marry wealthy older men. That’s part of the culture, not the Jewish culture, but the culture that they lived within for many centuries and they assimilated ideas from. It’s a very sad reality, but this comes from a combination of the ethnic background and New York’s influence. My friend actually moved from New York to Ohio and her first reaction was that everyone who lives there is plump, but then she realized that the girls in Ohio were normal - it was the girls in New York that were too thin.

Do you think that tzniut usually affords a positive body image?
I have a problem with the term body image, because the focus is off. You have to have a positive soul image and see your body as part of who you are, and then you’ll be able to appreciate your body because it’s a part of you. It’s really a person image, not a body image. Once you separate the body from the soul then it can be scrutinized and compared to others’, because it’s just a shell, but if it’s attached to who you are as a person, then it can’t be compared as easily. Crows’ feet are considered unattractive, but if you see crows’ feet on someone who always smiles then you view them as attractive because they’re part of a warm, smiley woman. A woman who’s comfortable with her self and personhood won’t be bothered if she gains a couple extra pounds.

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