By Chaya Houpt
Originally posted on Chaya’s blog – All Victories
Last week, I dropped off three little Queen Esthers at gan. The holiday of Purim fell on Friday in Jerusalem this year, but this was the day the kids wore their costumes to school. Y.B. and A.N. and their friend Y entered their classroom and skipped off into a sea of princess-queens. The little boys were dressed as kings, and also alligators and policeman and all other kinds of disguises expressing a range of pint-size machismo. And my daughters and almost all the other girls were dressed as queens or princesses. There might have been a bride or two.
I thought about this post that I wrote last year about the contrast between pretty-pretty-princess culture and the Jewish concept of a princess. While the American cult of the princess ties her self-worth to her appearance, the Jewish model of female royalty is inner dignity and substance. I hoped that my attempts to reframe princesses in those terms would inoculate them against messages of the broader society. I wondered what would happen when they started preschool.
And here we are.
* * *
In past years, my girls have dressed up for Purim as a ladybug and a butterfly. And then a butterfly and a ladybug. And then two bees. This year, there was no discussion. They came home from gan with their plans fully formed: they would both dress as Queen Esther, just like Y and all their other friends.
We headed to the costume aisle of the local discount store. A.N. picked out a fabulous Disney-esque moon-and-star gown like this one. Y.B. spotted a costume labeled “Jasmine,” that I might have described more like “harem dancer.”
“Ooh, that one looks super-Persian, just like Queen Esther,” I observed. It really was pretty awesome-looking, all scarves and brocade and purple velvet.
Y.B. eyed the picture on the front of the package. A child model gazed out at us with all the provocative allure that an eight-year-old can muster. Y.B. noted the midriff-baring top. “That’s not tzanua,” she commented. Not modest. She’s only four, but she knows that.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “We’ll put a shirt underneath and make it tzanua.” She agreed and we tried it on and we picked out tiaras and a lion costume for B.A. (This doesn’t get said often, but toddlers are kind of easy. Especially boys). We were on our way.
* * *
Costume day arrived. The kids dressed with great excitement. Y.B. admired herself in the mirror. I felt swept along in the dress-up glee.
But something seemed off. Y.B.’s skirt was more like bunch of panels of tulle over transparent tulle pants. She was definitely looking more harem dancer than Persian queen. Not so appropriate for a preschooler.
“Y.B., I think you should wear this skirt under your costume. Look, it’s the same purple velvet as the shirt”
“No,” she said. “I like it the way it is.”
I tried again.
“Listen, I can see your legs. And it’s sort of hard to say whether that’s okay. For a little girl, it’s fine. And for a woman or a big girl, it’s not. And you are four-and-a-half, so you’re sort of a little girl and sort of a big girl. I’m telling you what I think. I think you should wear an extra skirt underneath. But I’m letting you decide.”
She chose not to add another layer. I appealed to my husband for help.
“You’re the one who told her it’s her decision,” he said. Rrrmmph.
I told Y.B. about when I was seven and I went as Sleeping Beauty for Halloween. It was an unseasonably cold October for Arizona, and my dad totally ruined my princess costume by making me wear long underwear.
“And you know, I was really mad at Poppy. But I was also warm,” I told Y.B. “Because Poppy loves me and he was taking care of me.”
Y.B. listened with interest. She did not put on the extra skirt.
* * *
I thought, how important is this? Yes, she was a little skimpily clad for a kid. But was I worried about her dignity being compromised? This is a person who still throws tantrums in public and thinks nothing of it. She’s four.
And you know, with parenting, I’m playing the long game. I want my daughters and my son to grow into people who intrinsically understand modesty and want to embody it. That’s not going to happen by me pulling rank and making Y.B. change her clothes. It’s only going to happen, with God’s help, if my husband and I continually model tzniut, modesty, and encourage it in our children.
It’s not like my dad and the long underwear—he just needed to keep his kid warm during a chilly night of trick-or-treating. He didn’t need to worry that I would rebel and become warm-clothing averse for the rest of my life. He was meeting a short-term parenting goal that evening.
It doesn’t really matter what little Y.B. wears on any given day. What counts is how she feels about herself and her own worth, and how she learns gradually to manifest self-respect in the way she dresses.
This is tricky for me because I came to the Torah’s approach to modesty as an adult. Well, I thought I was an adult. Let’s say an older teenager. Which is to say, I recognized my options. I was old enough by then to understand what it meant to be a woman in the world and the implications of how I presented myself physically.
My children, however, have heard about tzniut since before they could talk. They are learning the laws and social norms of dress before they know anything about their context, before they can appreciate the alternative.
And so I tread lightly, careful not to misrepresent the Torah as shaming or oppressive. I try to give my children background and rationales that they can appreciate on their level, so that they don’t think modesty is just one more thing parents say. You know, like “chew with your mouth closed” or “put your clothes in the hamper. Those directives are important, certainly, but not on the same level as the eternal will of God, right?
* * *
Returning to the clothing struggle. I gave up. By which I mean that I looked pleadingly at my husband.
He sat down on the couch with Y.B. and told her about Queen Esther. Told her how all the other girls called to the palace asked for extra adornments to enhance their appeal, but Esther relied on her own inner strength to carry her through. Esther was tzanua. Esther was a gibora, a heroine.
Y.B. went into the bedroom and put on the extra skirt. She looked beautiful.
We made a big deal about Y.B.’s strength and bravery. But that’s not really what counts.