Where’s The Line Between Tznius (Modest) and Sexy?

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Dear Jew in the City,

I recently watched a video about “tznius sexy” and was wondering your thoughts. I was wondering what the connection is between looking good (beautiful) and dressing modestly? Can you dress beautifully, modernly, and womanly (not hiding the fact you are a women) and be modest at the same time? Where is the line between dressing like a woman and being sexy or is it as long as you follow the laws of halacha in regards to dress, you are not being sexy? If sexy means dressing womanly; does that mean there is no problem with being sexy? As, if you are looking womanly and beautiful, isn’t that sexually arousing even if covering the correct parts of the body? Thanks for your advice, just confused about where the line is and where it isn’t.

Kindest regards,

Kara

Dear Kara,

Thanks for your question. In terms of where should you draw the line between tznius and sexy – I’d say your bedroom door! I know exactly what video you’re referring to – I was actually interviewed for the article that accompanied the video on The Forward (which you can see on the Press page). As I explained there, we’re not supposed to dress (or act) in a sexual way in a public setting. That’s just not what Jewish modesty is about.

If you want to say that there is a mystique about modesty which has a certain sexiness to it, perhaps we can say that. But honestly, the term “tznius sexy” kind of bugs me. The word “sexy” itself is not a tznius word. Not that it’s a bad word – it’s just something that’s meant to be kept between a husband and wife. Unfortunately, nowadays, “sexy” seems to be attached to everyone and everything, but when everything is sexy, nothing is sexy.

How about trying to enhance one’s appearance through makeup, stylish clothing, and jewelry, though? Is that allowed if you’re an Orthodox Jewish woman? While you can find some strains within Orthodoxy where the women seem to do less to enhance their physical appearance, there are many groups that believe that it’s fine, even commendable to look attractive and put together. If we look to the Torah itself, we see that although the Torah never wastes a single word, it mentions that three out of the four imahos (foremothers) are “tovas mar-eh” beautiful to look at.  Sarah was even known as “Iskah,” which according to the Biblical commentator Rashi comes from the word “sokhah” (gaze), which is what people did when they saw her great beauty.

Other beautiful women are mentioned throughout Tanach (the Jewish Bible), the most famous of which is Queen Esther, whose looks were so remarkable, she beat out women from 127 countries in a beauty pageant! These heroines all had inner beauty as well, but we shouldn’t believe that they only had inner beauty since their physiques attracted the likes of Pharaoh and Achashveirosh.

So according to Tanach, looking beautiful, even incredibly beautiful is OK and need not be overtly sexy. But practically speaking, where is the line between tznius and sexy? The rabbis gave us some guidelines in the Talmud in terms of what parts must be covered, but that’s where they stopped. And that’s probably because there’s no good way to describe how tight is too tight, how clingy is too clingy, and even how thick a fabric must be to be thick enough. The same clothing fits differently on different women and even differently on the same woman depending on her weight or if she’s pregnant or nursing.

A woman must take an honest look at herself, and be God-fearing (aware that God knows her true intentions), and maybe enlist the help of a trusted friend to determine if she’s gone from attractive and womanly to overtly sexual. Edith Head, a famous Jewish American costume designer once said, “Your dresses should be fitted enough to show you’re a woman and loose enough to show you’re a lady.” I don’t know if Edith Head came from an observant family but this idea is inline with Torah thinking – look beautiful but refined.

But what if a man finds a woman’s refined beauty arousing? Well, just as the Talmud instructs a woman in terms of what to cover, it instructs a man about what not to gaze at and explains that a man could become aroused by a pinky! What this means is that a man is capable of finding virtually any part of a woman arousing and that some of the onus falls on him. Just as a woman must do her part to keep things classy, a man has to do his part to keep his eyes and thoughts in the right place.

As a person who considers herself centrist Orthodox, I am constantly trying to strike a balance in every area of life which requires constant scrutiny, intellectual honesty, having friends with similar values to runs things by, and a close relationship with a rabbi and or mentor who to regularly go to for questions and advice. So in effect, the “line” you ask about is not anything that is able to be defined, but can achieved through continued effort and guidance.

 

All the best,

Allison (aka Jew in the City)

 

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Allison About Allison

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.

Comments

  1. Fashion-isha says:

    Right on Allison!! Love this and will share! And one more point: I know for me I feel a huge difference in the way I feel and interact with other when I take care of myself and look good. The motivation why you dress well is a huge factor in whether you are lookin’ good for the right reasons.

    Have a beautiful Shabbos!
    xo
    Sharon

  2. batsheva says:

    Great response. It’s a challenging question, and you handled it beautifully! And on the subject of tsniut in show biz, maybe things are starting to change in Hollywood. I was absolutely stunned when I saw Drew Barrymore’s wedding dress. Did you see it? Perfectly tsniut! I know your site does not allow links, but you can do a Google image search, and there are plenty of pix.

  3. I like that you always seem to answer questions simply and truly, very right to the point, giving your opinion by being very non judgmental at the same time. There is a good consistency in the way your approach many different topics and I really like it. I am not orthodox but I like to wear long skirts the best because I do not always want other men to see my legs. I am very open minded and yet I find myself covering myself more easily when my fiancé is not with me. For some reasons I do not like other men to see too much of me now that I am engaged.

  4. Sarah Zeldman says:

    A friend once told me that a good rule-of-thumb to go by, to determine if your outfit is too sexy, is to ask yourself, would you go and ask your Rabbi a shayla (question about jewish law) in this outfit. If you would go home and change first, then you shouldn’t be wearing that outfit in the first place…

  5. basheera says:

    i really enjoyed reading this. i am an american muslim woman who values modesty and this is all too relevant to my own experience! thank you.

  6. Good answer, as usual.

    I happen to like the way Lori Palatnik explains it: It’s OK to dress attractive; it’s not OK to dress attracting.

  7. Dorothy Tiano Melvin says:

    A co-worker asked me once why I look nice all the time but one often sees orthodox women who are very "dowdy." My response to that always is that women who don't bother to look nicer wouldn't bother even if they weren't Jewish. Some women like to dress it up, some don't. Personal taste, not a religious statement.

  8. When a woman embellishes herself excessively to appear in a public setting, she is calculating on obtaining attention as the final response or outcome of her efforts. This attention-getting may become distraction to married men or religious men focused on higher learning or to men who would be happier finding a more modest female upon which to focus their attention.

    When this distraction happens, the goal of a positive outcome for a religious atmosphere is diminished. Alot of things are attached to this diminution of focus and as the woman in question, causing the distraction, she is culpable of lack of modesty and all its consequences. This can be considered a sin, or at the least, untzuit, immodest character assessed by others. If you are in this group, you may not be comfortable with their reaction for a long time to come and may even have to wait to find a suitor, if at all.

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