Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Appearances: A Response to "Wearing Jeans"

Anon 99 wanted to post this comment on the "Wearing Jeans" post, but it was too long, so it did not let him post it. He makes a number of good points, so I am going to post his comments here with my response:

I do not wear jeans and have not since I was 10 years old. My wife does wear denim. The chiluk is that I try to always dress like I did when I was in Beis Medrash - hence I do not wear color shirts and wear dress pants generally (playing ball, exercising or on vacation is some remote place are exceptions as I am clearly not in Beis Medrash). For girls, although there may be a taboo in denim for some people, it is not a general held belief. Rather, there are people who say a girl should not wear denim and some who say who cares. No Yeshivish place allows their guys to wear jeans in Yeshiva and even outside yeshiva it is much more clear cut thing not to do.

Generally speaking, I find the statement it's not the clothes, the outside, rather it is the inside that counts, rather disingenuous. That statement is made to (1) lower the importance of outside appearance; and (2) make the people who value outside appearance feel like they are being superficial.

I actually take extreme exception to that statement. First of all, if using the statement in terms of actual looks/beauty, then I commend a person who actually adheres to the statement and quite frankly, in that case it is true. However, in terms of dress, the statement could not be more wrong. I truly believe that your inside impacts how your appear on the outside. They way you want people to look at you is the way you feel inside. Your mode of dress and the way you look tells the world what you are like on the inside. In other words, your inside is clearly important - the way you show your inside is your outside. So by looking a certain way - you are telling the world about your insides.

Let me begin by asking: If a girl (sorry female readers) is shomer negiah, keeps shabbos and kosher, davens every day, goes to shiurim and does a myriad of good things but does not keep tznius (and for lack of argument as to what is tznius, she walks around in shorts and talk top) - is that girl a "good" girl. The politically correct answer is yes. The real answer is although she does many good deeds, she simply cannot ignore the rules of tznius and be a good girl. She is breaking a clear important rule and she unfortunately gets lowered in status.

I wonder if anyone would argue in this case, "what about all her good deeds? Aren't her insides good? The only thing that she is doing wrong is an outside/appearance thing?" In this case, I think the more rational and unbiased thinkers would agree that this is a clear case where her actions, although many of them good, includes one inside deed that is reflected on the outside.

Moving this to another level, if a girl really cares about the halachos of tznius then she will be very careful in how she dresses, i.e. tightness, skirt lengths, necklines and elbows. The difference between the girls that really care about the details and the girls who are just trying to look good and keep within the minimum of the halachos could not be clear. I look no further than my own family where I there are clear differences in the manner of dress between certain relatives (ironically that are Stern girls) that dress with more care to looking "good" and less to ensuring that they keep the details vs. my more yeshivish relatives that somehow have no problems with their skirt lengths and tightness of clothing. The point here again is that their insides are manifested on their outsides. The relatives who really care about the details never have any tznius issues and the relatives who care more about looking good are walking around (and certainly sitting) with skirts just above their knees, clothing leaving nothing to the imagination and too much skin showing.

For guys: If a guy is in a Yeshiva where they only wear white shirts and he wears color - some people might say "what is the big deal, he is only expressing his individuality? Is that so bad - he is not breaking any halachos? Do we really need to be like that mindless drones from the famous apple commerical in 1984? Can't someone be a little different and not be looked down at?" My answer is these things are avoiding the point. Those questions are trying to accomplish the two things I wrote about above ((1) lower the importance of outside appearance; and (2) make the people who value outside appearance feel like they are being superficial) and avoid the actual issue. Why would a guy want to be singularly different than the rest of his Yeshiva? Being clearly different is making a statement. It is being porush yourself from your fellow colleagues. It is specifically saying I want to be different. Well then, if you want to be different and looked at through a different prism then you can't complain if people look down upon you for separating yourself, No one said you are a bad person - but you yourself are asking to be viewed differently. You are publicly stating that although your yeshiva brethren believe one thing - you want to express your different opinion and separate yourself. Well you did. Your insides are being manifested by the way you dress.

So coming back to the original point, there is nothing inherently wrong with wearing jeans. The issue is what statement are you making. If your society says that jeans are bad and you statement is thus I want to do what I feel is OK anyway - well that tells me about your insides.

There are two main points of clarification that I would like to make in repsonse to this comment, one about jeans and one about appearances in general.

Every society in the world has its own way of dressing. Style of clothing is different depending on culture, country, religion etc. Clothing defines what section of society you belong to. Dressing a certain way defines a person as “American” vs. “French” v.s “Israeli,” or “Young” vs. “Old.” Children dress differently than teenagers and than adults. The same holds true with in different sects of Judaism. Chassidish don’t dress the same way as non-chassidish, and so on and so forth. Whether we like or not, clothes define us. Though each person may have an individual style, we still dress to fit our general societal norms, because we will be labeled as weird if we do not.

Anon 99 is quite correct in his point that while dressing outside of a societal norm may not be wrong Halachically, it is still is a statement about where you feel that you fit in society. That is why dress is one of the first things to change when a person changes religiously- either becomes more religious or less religious. Some guys go to Israel and come back with black hats, while girls come back with opaque tights. Girls who become less religious drop their long sleeves and switch to short, and begin wearing pants. “This is who I associate myself with now,” is the statement.

The article about jeans, written by a Stern College student, is interesting because of the social demographic of Stern. There is a small percentage of Yeshivish students, who would never date a guy who wears pants, because that is how guys in their social world dress, and there is a small percentage of women who wear jean pants themselves, or even those who don’t wear pants, but wouldn’t think twice about a guy wearing jeans. In fact some of those might be skeptical of a guy who did not wear jeans for religious reasons. Then there is all of us in between, who are not really in one place or another.

I used to think I would never date a guy who wears jeans. Most guys I’ve dated are not the type to, though I never actually asked any of them. Since Stern, however, I have been surprised to discover that there are guys who are hashkafically on the same page of me, yet they wear jeans. I’ve only met a few, but that is enough to make me realize that for someone like me, who is in the middle, jeans are not a clear cut indicator of “this is where I fit in.” For others, jeans are an indicator.

The second point I would like to make is to connected to Anon 99’s first point about how appearances count, and it is not enough if a girl keeps all other mitzvot besides Tznius. The question I would like to ask is: Do appearances matter? The obvious answer is that yes, they do. But let me explain.

My high school spent a lot of time talking about tznius, and so I spend a lot of time thinking about it. Often the message conveyed was, “It’s not about what you wear, it’s about who you are inside. Tznius, by covering your body, places the emphasis on who you are inside.” It matters what you wear. Try showing up to a job interview in a t-shirt and jeans. Try showing up to a wedding in the outfit you wore to clean the bathroom. Try cleaning the bathroom in the outfit you wore to your friend’s wedding. This begs the question: If it's not about what you wear, then how can what you wear matter so much if it is really what is inside that matters? Why do our appearances matter so much?

My answer to this is simple: Your appearance represents who you are. No one can see who you are by glancing at you, so the only way to get a quick idea of who you are, people look at your appearance. How you look and how you dress is important because it represents who you are. But that is all, it represents who you are, it is not actually who you are. The real true important part is who you are. The bottom line is that as important as appearances are, who you are matters more. Would you rather marry an ugly nice person or a beautiful mean person? For anyone who hesitates- try spending a few days with someone who is mean to you, who puts you down, criticizes you, yells at you, and in general makes you feel like a piece of dirt. Trust me, you will then pick the nice person, no matter how ugly they are.

The issue with a guy who wears jeans is not about "it doesn't matter what he wears, it only matters who he is," the issue is that reversing that statement to say "it only matters what he wears and doesn't matter who he is" is equally wrong.



  1. The last paragraph is on the money. I personally dress the way I feel allows me to express myself.I wear things such as a top hat, leather vests, just letting my inner creativity shine forth. I feel the person I am is expressed in what I wear, however not everyone translates it properly. This concept was brought up on mysterywoman. Someone can be a completely frum even chassidish / yeshivish guy and dress 'different'. it doesnt show on his 'hashkafa', it shows on creativity.

  2. Chassidim don't all dress the same either. There are many sects and sub-sects (Lubavitch goes into another category) and even individuals there dress how they please.

    Frankly, I'm not sure how one can really dissect this topic. Some dress in a desperate attempt to fit in, repressing their personalities completely. Is that really admirable? But I think that's probably more common, ironically enough, in the NY area. Also, there are so many communities (there is no longer minhag hamakom nowadays) how can one say what the local expectations are?

    The thing is, while yes I judge and am judged in turn for how I dress, the fact is I should not be judging. Nor should they. Categorizing people for what they wear is a natural reaction, but one can't act on it. Then we get into sinas chinum.

    As for dating, I just like to meet everyone suggested as see for myself. Even if I know from how he dresses we won't be on the same page in terms of marriage, I won't question his devotion to Hashem or how he lives his life. Just because he's religious doesn't mean he's for me.

  3. BD- it's good to express yourself in what you wear- good for you!

    Bookworm- I agree that judging is not good because judging people based on dress can lead to sinat chinam. However this is only true if you are judging negatively. If someone dresses in a certain way that fits a category of people which is generally thought about negatively, then we should be cautious but give the person a chance.

  4. Great post.
    IDK if I'm just a weirdo, but the topics of jeans and kippot always stresses me out.

  5. But does that negativity have any basis?

    We know this already - some will view you as being fuchnyukt, others will view you as being modern bum. A select few will consider you a contemporary. Just because someone looks at your mode of dress negatively doesn't mean it is, or that there is any merit to it.

  6. Very Nice post
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