February has been a big month for prosti-tots, tiny demi-celebrities who dress like the ladies who used to ply their trade on the West Side Highway. Three-year-old Suri Cruise was seen out and about in electric red lipstick and custom-made red patent-leather Roger Vivier ankle-strap shoes. Rio’s Carnival parade on Sunday featured a 7-year-old samba queen, despite the misgivings of the Brazilian child protection agency that felt she was too young to dance seductively for hours in the middle of the night atop a float. My own little girls came into my office as I was watching a video of little Julia Lira gyrating wildly in a red sequined bikini top and low-slung miniskirt. “She’s hot,” Josie, 8, observed. I was shocked. I didn’t even know she knew that use of the word. Maxie, 5, certainly didn’t. “She’s probably not hot,” Maxie said. “She’s wearing a bathing suit.”
And then there’s Noah Cyrus. Blogs were abuzz last week with news that Miley’s 9-year-old sister was designing a lingerie line for little girls. This didn’t seem shocking, since Noah was photographed on Halloween at a children’s AIDS fundraiser in a slinky black dominatrix outfit, sexy makeup, and knee-high, high-heeled, black, shiny PVC boots, then seen in the boots again the next day, along with a super-short ruffly polka-dot mini, black sheer stockings, and a black spaghetti-strapped top. A few weeks later she was filmed performing Akon’s “Smack That” (“Smack that/give me some more/Smack that/Till you get sore”) while smacking her own teeny butt. And then there was that time she played around on the stripper pole.
That she was not, in fact, designing a children’s lingerie line (the story was misreported by icky gossip cretin Perez Hilton, then picked up by the mainstream media) was not the point. The point was that it seemed completely credible, because hey, look at her. As Chris Rock once said of becoming the father to a baby girl, “My only job in life is to keep her off the pole!” Billy Ray Cyrus has already failed on that front. But look at us. We’re the ones who watched Noah squeal, “Smack that, all on the floor” 943,869 times on YouTube.
When I was Noah’s age, I attended a Jewish Day School run by Orthodox rabbis. The girls were drilled in tznius, or modesty. We prayed behind a mehizta, a divider. We were urged to be quiet and demure. And we were expected to cover up. The high school girls taught us little girls a song, to the tune of the march from The Bridge Over the River Kwai:
Tznius, it is our battle cry!
Tznius, cover your knee-us
Your collar, your elbow, your toe!
In my school, Noah Cyrus’s semi-clothed dance moves would have caused mass seizures. Today, I view these little girls through the distant lens of momdom, and I’m horrified. But as a liberal Jew who chafed at the confines of my rabbis’ definitions of women’s roles, I’m hesitant to issue fatwas about how other people should dress and behave. As Nessa Rapoport pointed out in the Fall 2009 issue of JOFA Journal, the magazine of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the social exhortations of tznius have always been disproportionately aimed at young women. “Rather than help young Jewish women view their bodies as exemplifications of the Creator’s work,” she wrote, “the edicts further objectify them, reifying their bodies solely into potential temptation for young Jewish men.” Exactly.
In that same issue of JOFA Journal, Naomi Marmon Grumet, who received her doctorate in sociology from Bar-Ilan University, wrote about her doctoral fieldwork; she interviewed American and Israeli Modern Orthodox women about their experiences of tznius. For many, the repercussions included “feeling ill at ease with one’s own body, being embarrassed that others should see it, feeling afraid to engage in bodily pleasures, and being unable to enjoy doing so.” For many years, in many cultures, girls’ bodies have been constrained and controlled under the guise of “this is ennobling; this helps you achieve the full flower of your womanhood. It’s not oppressive; it’s freeing!” I don’t buy it.
Yet I wonder if liberal Jews could have their own guidelines for tznius, a kind of modesty for our immodest age that isn’t, in practice, all about rules for women and girls.
Before we can begin to think about this new agenda for modesty—let’s call it tznius 2.0—we have to know what it is that we don’t want. We don’t want the kind of modesty conservative thinkers like Wendy Shalit have in mind: long sleeves, long skirts, covered hair for all the married ladies. Those are the same tired, shaming rules. We need to help girls feel at home in their bodies, but in a way that celebrates them instead of hectoring them. Because the damages caused by reducing them to how they look are serious.
According to a recent report by the American Psychological Association on the increasing sexualization of girls, the objectification of young women is linked to three of the most common mental health problems for girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression. Sexualization, says the APA, views a girl as “a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.” No one wants girls to internalize that message.
The problem, however, isn’t limited to women. In our secular culture, men and boys are increasing sexualized, too. They’re under more pressure than ever to be hip, thin, fashionably dressed. And it starts early. I once saw a onesie for baby boys that read, “Hung like a five-year-old.” Tznius for today should encourage boys not to view girls as objects, but not to buy into their own objectification either.
Maybe we can all agree that one kind of modesty worth embracing is one that preserves childhood—when children are unashamed of their bodies and think “hot” only refers to the temperature of the bath water—as long as possible. Tznius 2.0 would involve keeping newborns away from spike heels (Heelarious high heels for babies, I’m talking to you!) and toddlers away from Bratz dolls. It wouldn’t stuff little boys into outmoded gender roles by discouraging play with “girly” toys. And nobody would wear a Huggies Thong.
Still, you can be completely covered—or a boy—and be wearing an outfit that flaunts values that are plenty non-tzniusdik. A key element of tznius 2.0 would involve discouraging cynicism and snideness, in clothing and in life. “If you don’t like my attitude, quit talking to me,” says one little-kid t-shirt I saw recently. “Caution: Zero to Brat in 2.5 seconds,” says another. “Isn’t it cute that you think I’m listening,” says a third. When you’re a parent, smirking at your kid’s disrespectful or dismissive behavior isn’t cute or cool. And it should be considered immodest, not something to boast about in bubble letters on cotton.
My version of tznius would also encompass materialism. Designer labels aren’t modest. And princesses aren’t great role models. Sure, there are wonderful books about empowered, self-rescuing princesses out there, but we all know that to a 3-year-old, the Arbah Imahot, the four biblical matriarchs, are Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Belle from Beauty and the Beast. And
only Belle has a real spine or any sense of agency. I’m not humorlessly saying we have to deprive little girls of their dress-up gowns—my 3-year-old niece would hate me forever—but I am saying we should turn our tznius energies toward making sure our kids don’t think being pretty, having a castle, and being well-swathed in taffeta are the most important things in the universe. This means we do not get to take them to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the beauty salon in Walt Disney World, where a preschooler can choose from three hairstyles—Fairytale Princess, Disney Diva, or Pop Princess—and where for $189.95 your kid gets a hairstyle plus “shimmering makeup,” a manicure, five photos in a princess-themed holder, The costume of the child’s choice, and a dwarf retinue. OK, I lied about the dwarves.
Ultimately, I think, the pinnacle of this new modesty would involve teaching our kids to value themselves for who they are rather than what they wear, whether that’s a floor-length denim skirt or a micro-mini. Of course, we want our kids to know they’re more than their looks. I’m just not sure how we achieve that. It’s easy to be horrified at the little Noahs and Suris. But more nuanced struggles with self-expression aren’t easy for anybody.
Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.