Content warning: sexual assault
I started covering my hair soon after I married my husband in October 2020. I’d wrap my hair in a scarf, known as a tichel or mitpachat, and wear long, loose, flowy silhouettes when I went out for my daily pandemic walk around the block or weekly grocery run. I didn’t realize at the time that I was on the precipice of not just a new way of dress, but a new lifestyle rooted in modesty.
On these daily outings, I soon discovered that dressing modestly and covering my hair, for me, meant not only that I felt physically wrapped in my faith, but that I could actually control who perceived me, and how. Whenever my cheek would be tickled by my tichel tassels or I’d catch a reflection of myself in a shop window, I’d immediately feel grounded. Even though I was in a small conservative Michigan town, I felt safer than I had ever felt in my life.
I grew into my curves when I was about 11, and the men around me made sure I knew. From hissing and kissing sounds to straight-up groping, I’ve been treated as a sexual object about as long as I’ve been aware of my own existence. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable in my body, mostly because I was never taught that it was all mine to control.
In recent years, my deepening spiritual journey has coincided with a renewed desire to reclaim my body, and heal my soul from 16 years of sexual trauma. As I began to tread the path of Judaism with more tenacity — in an effort to reconnect with my ancestry, having been raised in a non-religious home — I found myself particularly intrigued by the spiritual traditions around modesty.
I first read “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk, in 2018. In the book, Brother Lawrence describes a series of techniques for the continual remembrance of God in our daily lives, some of which focused around mundane activities like dress. At the time, I was struck by the way his language was nearly identical to Idries Shah’s description of the Sufi Muslim practice of dhikr, a form of meditation developed to encourage remembrance of God, in his book “The Sufis.” I started to connect the dots. I’d caught some kind of trans-traditional wave, and I felt compelled to ride it wherever it took me.
When I first encountered the rich tradition in Judaism of zakar, the remembrance of Hashem (one of the Hebrew names I use for God, meaning “The Name”), I wondered if my newfound love of hair covering and the path of tzanua, or modesty in dress and behavior, could be used as a technique to maintain divine awareness.
But I still was not sure how to make the practice my own. Having no strong connection to a Jewish community growing up, my experiences of modest Jewish clothing was limited to the pictures of frum (pious) Orthodox women I’d seen in documentaries. In my head, modesty for Jewish women meant long black skirts and baggy layers of knits. Though I was moved by the spiritual traditions of modest dress, such images didn’t vibe with my penchant for vintage styles and high fashion. But I feared I wouldn’t be seen as a serious seeker by whatever force was calling me if I focused on material pleasures like fashion.
It seemed I’d have to choose — my spirituality, or my joy.
During this time, as I searched for inspiration, I patched together what outfits I could from consignment and thrift stores in the little Christian Michigan town where I was living, feeling the lack of thin long-sleeved layers and full coverage dresses in my closet. I even bought my first burkini (full coverage swimsuit) and felt beautiful and confidentat the beach, though a little out of place.
It wasn’t until I started following Muslim content creators on Instagram that modest fashion began to feel accessible to me. Soon I filled my feed with the likes of @fitsbyfatima, @houdanyousuf, @marwaatik, @ayabarqawi, @itsbasra, @aminabham_ and @sallyomo.
These women carried themselves with poise as they flaunted unique and inspired styles. They also, most strikingly, often discussed their faith in their posts. The world of fashion and design felt, finally, possible within the values by which I sought to live my life. It was inspiring.
The modest fashion industry is now valued at over $295B and is expected to reach $313B by 2025, according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy 2022 Report. In predominantly Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey and Malaysia, modest designers take center stage at fashion week. Some of the most popular social media accounts have millions of followers, and there are hundreds of accounts with many thousands of followers.
As I got deeper into this world, I thought, “Muslims have such a tremendous market of modest fashion available to them. Modesty is considered a value in Judaism, so we must have our own trove of influencers with similar aesthetics and goals, right?”
So I searched.
Nearly all of the Jewish modest fashion creators I found on Instagram were small business owners sharing their long beautifully patterned skirts and gorgeous pre-tied tichels. And I was grateful to have found them. But a quick social media search for #tzniut, the Hebrew word for modesty, brought up only a handful of accounts, and even fewer which posted regularly or featured the sort of content developed by the Muslim creators I followed.
One day, out of the desire to log some of the modest outfits I put together to remember them for later, I made a TikTok account. I soon had hundreds of followers.
Once the algorithm knew what I was about, I began to have several Jewish style accounts recommended, including creators like @toibycontinued, @eli7jaap, @tzniusfeminist and @tzofiah. The account @zojacobi, which I had followed for a long time and is best known for popularizing the term “Jewitches,” popped up repeatedly with tichel tutorials and #fitcheck’s.
Through the networks of these accounts, I found a community. I felt so lost when I first started covering, pursuing a path I knew felt right but with little guidance or support from other Jews. The community I’ve found online has made me feel more confident in both my physical presence and my spirituality. I wish I had found them sooner.
As I had more conversations with people in the community, I heard repeatedly that modesty in Judaism had been co-opted by purity culture, a colonial, misogynistic, often Christian and distinctly Western approach to modesty. Girls who had been taught their whole lives that their bodies were just vehicles for men to sin had turned away from the concept of modesty, deeming it an experience filled with so much pain that, understandably, they’d never return. It made me angry, sad and frustrated that we didn’t have more people sharing their positive stories and making it easier for other Jews to feel connected to this practice.
For me, modesty is about how the way I dress keeps me internally connected to God, but it is also about how I interact with the world. People see me on the street now and tell me they guessed I practiced some kind of faith (though I’m often mistaken as being Muslim), and they are curious about it. Amazing connections and conversations have happened because of this little cloth on my head, and I don’t take it for granted that I’m representing Judaism to people who may have no other experience with it than whatever Netflix or their newsfeed choses to highlight. I’ve come to realize what a tremendous responsibility, and gift, this practice of modesty is.
I began posting more on social media in the last year, sharing head scarf-wrapping tutorials and tips for thrifting modest clothes and styling them. My community has expanded to include people who were new to covering their hair and veterans looking for new styles and ranges in age, nationality, gender, and religion, from Jews to Muslims to Christians to Pagans and beyond. I’m delighted to be reaching such a diverse group of people and sharing my love of funky style and modesty.
What started as an effort to reconnect with my Jewish ancestral traditions has now become my main practice of spiritual practice and discipline, and a node in the constellation of a beautiful and diverse community where we discuss our spiritual experiences, share heartbreak, and encourage each other to grow. I recognize that modesty isn’t for everyone. Maybe not ever, maybe not for right now. But it is right for some people, and it is a Jewish tradition we could do more to support, explore and nourish as one way to approach and deepen our Jewish practice.