Torah Musings: Modesty, Part Two


Modesty, Part Two

Sarah Pachter

I recently conducted a survey with female participants from across the nation. Their ages varied from nine to 65, and I made sure to include women from a variety of religious backgrounds and observance levels. I asked only one question, and despite the wide demographic range, 75 percent gave exactly the same answer.

Here was the question: Given the following choices, what is the word you associate most strongly with the noun “modesty?”

  1. Character
  2. Clothing
  3. Unattractive
  4. Hair
  5. Difficult

You guessed it, the majority said, clothing. Of the few that responded with character, there was a caveat for many:

“I know character is the right answer, but I often think of clothing, so it’s a toss up.”

Bottom line: Most people associate tzniut—modesty—with clothing when in fact, clothing is just one small aspect of modesty.

After gathering various Torah sources and literature describing and defining modesty, I compiled the following definition: Tzniut is a character trait that is equally obligatory for men and women which helps us reflect our G-dliness, our inner soul.

If the main point of modesty has to do with character, why is there so much emphasis on clothing?

Think about the following scenario: a policeman is standing at an intersection, barking out orders and moving his arms to assist in the flow of traffic. Next, imagine that same policeman is making identical gestures, but he is wearing a pirate costume. As onlookers, we will relate very differently to that man based solely on the clothing he wears.

Whether we like it or not, clothing makes a statement, and research has proven that society makes judgements based solely on how people dress. Additionally, recent research indicates that clothing doesn’t just communicate a message to others, it also communicates a message to ourselves.

The clothing you wear doesn’t just change the way others see you, it changes the way you view yourself, even affecting your behavior. This concept is called “enclothed cognition.” In essence, not only do we judge the policeman and pirate differently based on their clothing options, but the policeman (or pirate-costume-wearing man) will feel differently about himself based on his clothing choice.

In a recent experiment conducted at Northwestern University, two groups of people were asked to participate in a deceptively simple activity. They read cards that said the names of colors, while the words themselves were written in a different color. For example, the word YELLOW was written with red ink. The participant was asked to read yellow rather than say red.

Half of the readers were wearing a white medical lab coat, while the others were wearing their normal, everyday clothing. The “coated” students tested twice as well as the ones dressed casually. The study deduced that if you wear something that makes you think you’re smart, then you tend to act a little smarter.

Further studies with high school students showed that teenagers who dressed up for the SATs had a better chance of scoring higher than the students wearing everyday clothing.

One of my students said to me, “I feel better when I get dressed up, like getting my hair blown out and wearing heels.” Taking care of ourselves and putting effort into our exterior brings a positive feeling on the inside. I’ve also noticed that I act friendlier towards others when I look my best.

Think about when we look like “garbage” in the carpool line or the grocery store and we bump into people we know. We end that conversation real quick because we don’t feel like we look good—we don’t want to be seen.

How we dress affects our behavior. If I don’t feel good then I’m not going to be as friendly. But here’s the catch.

A subsequent study was then done at Northwestern in which both groups of readers wore lab coats. One group wore the coats believing they were medical lab coats, while the other group wore the coats believing they were artist’s smocks. Participants wearing the “Doctor Coats” tested much higher than the students wearing “smocks,” even though there was no physical difference between the coats. Our external clothing matters, but only when we have an internal feeling about what we are wearing. In other words, there are two ways that clothing affects us:

  1. The clothes affect our external appearance to others and ourselves.
  2. The clothing is symbolic to us and holds an inward meaning.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller describes these concepts as “from the outside in” or “from the inside out.” We can merely change our garb and hope it affects us, or we can work on our character and hope that it alters the external parts of us as well. She further explains that one can put on a skirt and dress more conservatively, but it won’t do much unless that person is doing the  internal work simultaneously. Rebbetzin Heller actually advises women to work internally first in order for her inner worth to spread to other areas of her life.

I went to a Clinique store recently, and the woman working behind the counter was in her late sixties. She looked amazing for her age, and she was certainly flattered by my complimenting her beauty. Her face was au natural, having had no age-altering surgeries. I asked her what her secrets were. She candidly replied, “Look, I could tell you it’s this product or that cream, and maybe they help, but if you want to know what keeps your skin really looking youthful…”

I was waiting on pins and needles.

“It’s none of these products. You can put all the creams you want on your skin to hydrate it, but truth be told, you have to hydrate from the inside out. Water. Lots of it. Plain and simple.”

Working from the inside out has other applications, including redecorating one’s home.

When you replace a simple item in a room, albeit a small change, you might notice suddenly that the rug now clashes. You change the rug and realize the curtains don’t go now, either. Before you know it, you’ve redecorated an entire room because you changed one small item.

When you develop one middah, your whole essence changes.

As you work on yourself from the inside out and truly change your character, then suddenly your external appearance might begin to clash with your positive development. This would create a positive domino effect that truly lasts. Clothing can be changed easily, but if one’s internal character has not been maintained and strengthened, it will just as easily be shed.