This has been reprinted from jewinthecity.com with edits.
Dear Jew in the City,
For the Orthodox ladies who wear a wig and claim part of the reason is for modesty, isn’t wearing a wig over hair kind of like wearing a t-shirt with a body printed on it? Wouldn’t it be better to cover the hair with a cloth? I know some Orthodox ladies do, and this seems to make more sense to me.
Your question is an excellent one, and I was asked a similar question by a friend who upon hearing that I wore a wig over my hair told me that it was like wearing a prosthetic nose over my nose! His question bothered me for a while. I do NOT like having philosophical quandaries floating around in my head that I don’t know how to answer, so after a bit of thought, I came up with something, and I think it applies to your question as well.
Let’s first define what Jewish modesty is about. Contrary to popular belief, tznius (or tzniut, depending on how you pronounce it) is not about looking ugly or unattractive. It’s about keeping certain parts of oneself private and off limits for public consumption. The parts that are considered “eyr-vah” (or require covering) in Jewish law have some innate sexuality or sensuality to them.
As far as I can tell, there are three different categories of body parts in regards to sexuality: the obviously sexual kind, the obviously not sexual kind, and the ones in the middle. A nose is about as asexual as it gets. Covering up a nose with a nose seems so preposterous since there’s no modesty involved with a body part that has nothing sexual (or sensual) about it. A woman’s chest is about as sexual as it gets. Covering up a woman’s chest with a picture of a chest, as per your example, doesn’t work because we consider a woman’s chest to be a very sexual, private area.
Now we come to hair. According to Jewish law, a woman leaves her hair uncovered before she’s married, so it must not be overtly sexual, since if it was it would never be shown. Although it’s not overtly sexual, I think most people would agree that a woman’s hair does have some innate sensuality to it. The expression “letting down your hair” implies a loosening up and relaxing that occurs once a person lets her hair flow freely. “Running fingers through someone’s hair” conveys a similar sentiment about this hard-to-define sensuality of hair.
In terms of covering hair with a wig, the hair in the wig is not explicitly sexual as we already said, but at the same time it does create a barrier so that the actual, free-flowing hair of the woman is not available for public consumption. It’s somewhat similar to wearing a t-shirt with flesh covered sleeves. As long as the material is opaque, wearing such a shirt is totally fine. According to Jewish law, the upper arms must be covered, but because upper arms are not overtly sexual, covering them up with a skin-like tone does not seem shocking or inappropriate.
But what if the wig is even more attractive than the woman’s natural hair? Well, what if a skirt makes a woman’s bottom half look more attractive than her bare legs would? What if her legs are full of cellulite and varicose veins? Would it suddenly be more modest to walk around skirtless? Obviously not, because the purpose of the skirt is not to look less attractive, but rather to create a barrier between the women’s naked body and the rest of the world. So too a wig, even if it’s more attractive than the woman’s hair, creates that same barrier and keeps the private parts of the woman private.
And if you still disagree with wearing a wig over hair after all that, you can simply join the many Orthodox Jews out there (men and women alike) who are also against wigs and believe that hats and scarves are the only appropriate hair covering out there! (Though, as you can see, I am not one of them!)
Allison Josephs is the founder and director of JewintheCity.com which breaks down stereotypes about Orthodox Jews and offers and humorous, meaningful look into Orthodox Judaism through the power of new media.