Sunday, January 4, 2015

My Reaction to "My Wig Was Beautiful and Expensive, and Everybody Loved It—Except Me"

This woman writes about her journey and struggle with hair covering.  She begins with the sheitel that she didn't really want to wear in the first place, and presents it as The Symbol of Orthodox commitment.  It was something she didn't want, but came to love- then came to hate.  It was difficult, and she presents it as tremendously important to other people- her mother and her husband, not to her.

She ties covering almost exclusively to tzniut, modesty.   Then she objects on the logical reaction that there are women all around who have hair showing- so how sexually attractive can it possibly be?  After all, people are used to seeing women's hair in our society.  It's a familiar issue, and one taken up by several teshuvot, especially that of R. Mesas (which is not yet on this site, as it is long- someday).  She translates ervah as "Sexually erotic", which seems to be a bit of an oversell to me, although plausibly accurate- lots of things are ervah that are not so very erotic in our society- for example, thighs.   Yet no one presumes that it should be okay to show one's thighs, because other women in our society do so quite often  (albeit less than hair).  A nuanced reading of what ervah means might have changed her experience.

Although she does acknowledge that covering is also a visibly sign that she's married, she insists that her wedding ring does that just as well.  My sense is that a covered head (although less so with a wig, I admit) is more visible than a ring, to those who know.  To those who don't know, it doesn't communicate at all (otherwise, we might dispense with the wearing of wedding rings).   I must admit, my scarf was not enough to prevent a gentleman I met at work a couple of years ago from asking me out (a staff member from a different department)- I had to point out my rings in order to communicate that his offer was flattering but mistaken.

As her story progresses, she switches from the uncomfortable-although-sexy wig to "bandanas", but feels frumpy, and misses her own hair, which had been a source of pleasure in her own appearance, before she married.  And yet, once she starts to later show some of her own hair, that doesn't feel like enough- she ends up going bare-headed- yet she pays only glancing attention to this part of the story, giving me the impression that once the "hair barrier" has been breached, that's the end of the story.  (I still have something of a hard time adjusting to that notion, since I spent years with a small head covering before I got married, as longer term readers here know.  My ideal still involves the chumra of some sort of covering/kippah for Jews old enough to understand or begin to.)  She pairs the move from wig to scarf to headbands to nothing with a move from skirts to "leggings and jeans".  I'm not so sure that one has much to do with the other, outside of cultural commonalities.  But okay.

I'm rather amazed at the way that one mitzvah comes to represent one's entire stand on Judaism, to both the self and the outside world.  For me, covering entirely is most likely a chumra, at least given some of the teshuvot that I've seen.  At the very least, it is perhaps the best way of fulfilling a mitzvah, with other ways also acceptable.  And yet it communicates so much- often more than we might want it to.  Visual cues are so powerful, especially when we have little else to go on.  It's both a useful short cut and sometimes a blinder, preventing us from seeing the inner complexity, unless we consciously look for it.  I wonder if a little more nuance would have given this author her chance to experiment without throwing the whole practice overboard- or at least feeling less pressure to do so or not do so for the sake of what it communicated to other people.


  1. My father had a client who became more observant through Lubavitch, and his Jewish girlfriend was willing to do everything except cover her hair. They came to my father, who was able to bring numerous sources that hair covering is not necessarily required in the observant world.

    There are many communities where the women are Orthodox and do not cover their hair.

    It does become exhausting that something as . . . well, minor as hair covering becomes the focus of being observant. To obsess over that, or even to view it as the slippery slope—it's frustrating. That is not the focal point of Judaism. Especially, since, to my view, wigs are often much more attractive than actual hair.

    It's a conundrum, but shouldn't be the issue that calls observance into question. It should not be the main "symbol of discontent."

    1. I agree- I happen to find this mitzvah exciting, so it is a good place for me to be machmir. But there are plenty of justifications not to. Yet I too sometimes fall into the trap of seeing it as some sort of indicator- its very visibility makes it sort of seductive toward such judgmentalism, perhaps.

  2. I always find it ironic that I (who am not Orthodox) am perceived as very religious, perhaps dangerously fundamentalist, by others, while women who wear wigs are perceived as normal / secular by those who don't know how to see them. Before I wore scarves I used to wear a lot of skirts because I like skirts. But skirt and scarf just looks impossibly Orthodox to me. I feel that I'm pretending membership in a group to which I don't belong. So it has to be pants and scarf or beret and skirt. That balance looks ambiguous enough to match my ambiguous relationship with observance.

    And then, after all that work to match inner and outer, I still look confusing to most people. I actually like seeing the Lubavitcher girls with their long, sexy wigs. They know who they are and those who know, understand. I like seeing women in kippot, even though they always taken them off after shul. I like hijabis. I like seeing women who love their hair and who wear it freely. Confident women are beautiful. But it is weird that the way something feels and the way it looks to others can be so much at odds.

    1. I'm with you about the contradictions, an the difficulties of externalizing your own authenticity.