Tzniut (or tznius) is a word that gets tossed around a lot. Tzniut is mostly used to refer the rules of modest dress, sometimes modest behaviour is included. Ideally, dressing and behaving modestly makes it possible to focus on the character of a person, without being distracted by the appearance or sexuality. I think most people would agree, that this is desirable. But, is this really the effect the current approach to tzniut has in the very religious communities?
It is easy to understand where the emphasis on tzniut comes from. The modern secular world is obsessed with women’s bodies. Everywhere we go we see advertisements with undressed women. Pretty much all lyrics of radio songs are about love or sex. To see naked or half-naked women in movies is no big deal. And many women dress in skirts that could also be sold as belts and tops that show everything. Is this healthy? Probably not.
As reaction, in the orthodox world, we have ever increasing requirements for women to cover parts of their body. Tzniut is said to be the most important mitzva for women, an immodest woman alledgedly causes all sorts of bad things for her family. But, does this focus on tzniut really have the desired effect? Apparently not, if you take modesty-related news articles as a measure. We have seen religious men spit at little "immodest" girls in Beit Shemesh, we have seen women’s pictures disappear in newspapers, fighting about women’s place in a bus and much more. Somehow, modesty is never modest enough.
My theory is, that if you cover more and more, you increase the sensitivity of the men. No secular Western man would find an exposed ellbow attractive in any way, but a yeshiva boy apparently will. So the focus on sexualility is still there, only shifted to other body parts. And all the talk about (im)modesty only puts apprearence and the gender differences in the front of the mind all the time. Not speaking about the psychological effects for teenagers of both genders if the topic is so prevalent and at the same time so taboo.
I think the goal of modesty is a worthy one. Sexuality is private, it should not be displayed for everyone. Every person should be valued for his or her character, not for the appearance. So how can we teach this to our children in a way that is healthy? I don’t know, but I would like to link a great post by Chana about this topic: Analyzing Myths of Female Beauty: An Alternative Approach To Teaching Tzniut. Read it whole and come back with suggestions.