In recent years, I’ve flirted with tzniut—Jewish modesty laws—not because I believe women need to be covered up, but because I value comfort above most other clothing considerations. And to me, too much skin showing is the exact opposite of comfortable.
For example, I hate the feel and fit of most bathing suits, so I’ve opted for a combination of women’s bathing suit tops and men’s bathing suit bottoms. The result is that I’m more covered-up than most people at the beach (modesty alert!), but also that I’m wearing men’s clothes, something prohibited by traditional Jewish notions of tzniut.
As summer approaches, my 6-year-old daughter is grappling with her own contradictions between being comfortable and being covered up. As she and I have both long known, the shorts marketed to girls are minuscule. They are made of literally half the amount of fabric as her brother’s shorts, which are two sizes smaller. The girls’ clothing departments seem to be daring me to defy them, and it’s a dare I’m more than willing to accept.
So once again this summer, like last year and the year before, my daughter will be wearing shorts from the boys’ section. Yesterday, in a crowded public restroom, she said, “Are these boys’ clothes?” “Well,” I said, “the store was selling them for boys, but anyone can wear them.” “You lied to me,” she said. “No,” I said, “I told you I got these from the athletic section, and that’s right. I got you the clothes that are best for you so you can run and jump and climb as much as you want without worrying about your shorts. Sometimes the athletic shorts are in the boys’ section, but anyone can wear them.”
“Yes, she agreed, ” I need clothes to run and jump and climb.”
And then, after all this body-positive, gender-inclusive talk, I did something I’m not proud of. I pointed to a girl, a few years older than my daughter, and I said, “See her shorts? They’re probably from the girls’ section. You wouldn’t be happy wearing those.” ”
“You’re right,” she said. ” I couldn’t run in those.” Realizing how close I had just verged to body-shaming, I was quick to add, “If she’s comfortable in them, that’s great for her, just like we want you to be comfortable in your clothes.”
As I figure out how to dress both my daughter and myself for the hot summer months, I want us both to be equipped to feel confident about how we look and know that we’re wearing what’s best for us. For me, that means finding clothes, however unconventional, that make me feel the right combination of covered up and feminine, while also actively avoiding the aspects of tznuit that don’t speak to me. For my daughter, that means buying her clothes that fit her activity level but also that also make her feel like she fits in with other kids.
Though the strangers in the bathroom yesterday didn’t say anything, I know people might, so I asked her how she could answer when someone asks if she’s wearing boys’ clothes. We considered the preachy, “Yes, because girls’ shorts too short for my activity level,” the self-satisfied, “Yes, because I like these better,” and the evasive, “They’re not for boys, they’re for athletes.”
We settled on a simple, “Yes.”
She smiled and ran away.