Chassidic Women Aren't Using Sharpie As Eyeliner, But We Are Under a Lot of Pressure to Look Hot

The reporter did get one thing right: There is pressure to look hot. Hot but modest.
Publish date:
May 28, 2013
religion, makeup, modesty

According to the Daily Mail, religious Jewish ladies have some wacky DIY tricks for making make-up stick to our faces for the whole 24 hours of Shabbos.

The Daily Mail article would lead one to believe that it is a legitimate challenge -- nay, a problem! -- for religious Jewish women when their make-up wears off before the sun goes down on Saturday. See, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, Jewish law doesn't allow women (or anyone) to apply make-up.

Wearing make-up on the Shabbath is just fine for Jewish women, but we've got to put it on before sundown on Friday and we can't touch it up until after dark on Saturday. The laws of Sabbath that modern-day Jews keep are based on the labors that the Israelites did in the Tabernacle. There were 39 labors of the Tabernacle, which are known now as parent labors. Certain activities are considered to be descendants of those parent labors. For instance, applying color to one's lips on the Sabbath is a descendant labor of smoothing and dyeing, which were two of the labors of the Tabernacle.

Some rabbis hold that dry powder make-up may be applied to the face on Shabbat, but it's not universally agreed upon. According to the Daily Mail, that's why we use Sharpie marker as eyeliner, and hairspray as setting powder! That's why we sue cosmetics companies when their 24-hour foundation doesn't actually last 24 hours! Because, guys, that's how important looking hot is to us!

As a religious Jewish woman, the Daily Mail article blew up my bull-crap radar. It blew it up like a pissed off girl redialing her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend's cell phone when he's out with that Hot Chani next door.

(Are you familiar with the term "Hot Chani"? Well now you are. It refers to the phenomenon of religious women wearing tight clothes and heavy make-up.)

Anyway, the whole Daily Mail article would lead one to believe that Hot Chanis are a setting the norm for the beauty standard in religious Jewish communities. But really, the article is based on a funny beauty stunt that my friend Mimi Hecht did once. (Mimi is not a Hot Chani.) When I saw Mimi's name, I emailed her right away. Mimi is a smart woman, and I would call her "with it." She's a blogger and she co-owns a skirt company. I thought that her statement about the Sharpie marker was probably a joke, and had been taken out of context.

Was I right? Yes. While it is true that she once tried using Sharpie as eyeliner, she sees beauty standards in Chassidic communities as much deeper issue than one-time, weird DIY beauty experiments.

Mimi said to me, "I tried telling the reporter, who was very respectful and appreciative throughout, all about how on the Sabbath we focus on the inner, spiritual realm and none of us feel like we're losing out at all, etc. And it simply wasn't the story she was looking for."

Apparently, though, the reporter liked her Sharpie statement so much that she made it the lead to the article. Because a deep story about Shabbos is just not going to generate as many pageviews as exposing The Secrets of The Jewish.

The reporter did get one thing right: There is pressure to look hot (and it is bullshit that bothers me day in and day out). Hot but modest. It's a look that I call "barely tsnius." (Tsnenua = modest as an adjective; tsnius = modesty as a noun, but religious Ashkenazi Jews in America use it as an adjective. "It's not tsnius" is a phrase you'll hear if you ever go with a religious Jewish friend to buy clothes.) It is also a look that I have never seen on any women outside of religious Jewish communities, except for drag queens and "The Real Housewives of New Jersey."

In discussing the Daily Mail article with me, Mimi said, "Although I consider myself a more modern Chassidic woman, I am very deeply drawn to a more conservative, even Biblical, way of dress. I wish I could live in long, loose dresses, so I wouldn't have to worry about how much my form is revealed and if my undergarment lines are showing. But, alas, I am a woman of this world and the pressure is real.

There seems to be this whole surge of attention right now on how Chassidic women are blending tradition and ideals with modern, fashionable dress. As a co-owner of my own 'modest fashion' skirt company, I deal with this often. But, if I were to be honest, I would say that if you look at the way we're really supposed to dress, many of our stylings are much more focused on the sexy-factor than anything else. It's like 'How sexy can I be while keeping to the basic modesty guidelines?' We're definitely more focused on molding ourselves towards society, and what's considered beautiful. That's a lot of pressure."

I mean, I feel the pressure, too. I wrote an article about how I am starting to feel nerdy in my curmudgeonly clothing. (I took your advice and I bought some striped long-sleeved T-shirts and a pair of Supergas, which have replaced my ugly black clog shoes as my everyday shoe. Thank you, xoJane readers!) I find the whole high drag look ridiculous, but that doesn't mean that other visions of mainstream hotness don't linger in the back of my head, scorning me. Like the skinny hipster girl who works in the office upstairs, and who has matching stars tattooed on the tops of her feet.

I live in Brooklyn now; I lived in Jerusalem for a few years before I moved here. I've been around all kinds of religious Jewish communities, and I can honestly tell you that the old virgin/whore dichotomy is alive and well, and playing emotional ping-pong in front of a lot of our mirrors.

Ya gotta look hot, but too hot and you cross the line. Tube skirt and shirt that shows all folds, ripples, and bra lines? Sure. But pants? Oh no. That would be too much.

Pressure to look hot is not just among the more "in the world" Chassidim in Crown Heights, or the Litvish Ladies of Long Island. I was in Borough Park the other day and noticed a proliferation of sexy boots. I thought, "Girl, where's your loafers at? Your mother let you go out in those?"

Oh, and for those people who think that the women in Williamsburg are still under the thumb of tradition: They wear their black suits, but they still come to Crown Heights to get their waxing and nails done. One time, men from Williamsburg came to protest the salon in Crown Heights. So. Much. Drama.

I don't know exactly where the pressure is coming from, but it is tangible. I had six unmarried young women over for Shabbos lunch this week, and I polled them about pressure to look hot.

"When I'm out of New York, I don't care what I look like," said one. "But when I'm around people I know, I feel pressure to look a certain way."

One girl told me that matchmakers have told her to lose weight. (My response: "They are idiots.") Another told me that New York is the fashion capital of the world, so of course that would filter into religious communities. No conclusion was drawn about the source of the pressure.

FYI, my friends get their make up to stay on over Shabbos in normal ways: Setting spray (not hairspray, duh), waterproof gel eyeliner, and long-wear lipstick are what they use. I personally wear my normal make up on Friday nights, take it off before bed, and go bare faced on Saturdays. To each her own.

Chaya Kurtz is probably retweeting Daily Mail articles on Twitter: @chayakurtz.