This past weekend, I went to visit some old friends from high school. I met up with these two women, both of whom are married and pregnant, for dinner. The discussion turned to schools. Where, one wondered, was the other planning on sending her as of yet unborn child to school? A new school had recently opened up in their community, and they discussed whether or not that school would be appropriate for their children.
“I don’t know”, one said. “On one hand, the philosophy of the school sounds like our own philosophy. But the group of people that started the school are just, well, different, from us”.
“Different how?” I asked.
“Well, you know, they wear those shaitals [wigs] that show a significant part of their hair!”
“Yeah”, the other said. “They shouldn’t even be called shaitals, they should be called ‘extensions'”.
Ironically, I was sitting there wearing a hat that left a significant portion of my hair uncovered.
Apparently, it wasn’t the amount of hair showing that was a problem for them, rather, it was how they chose to cover their hair.
They basically explained to me that these shaitals went along with a lifestyle where women made sure to dress up every time they leave their houses, even just to go around the corner to the market. They would never walk outside without makeup, and more often than not sport high heels and fitted clothing. They only wear skirts, but their skirts are rather tight and don’t even attempt to reach their knees. Their husbands wear black hats, but mostly just to blend in. And of course, the women always wear these insane shaitals. For my friends, the problem with the shaitals was that they were representative of a lifestyle which valued beauty over brains.
I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being scorned, right in front of my nose. Perhaps it is due to the feeling that many people have, including by not limited to, Orthodox Jewish Women. This feeling is: “I’ve made a decision that’s right for me, so while I may say that I’m liberal and support anybody doing whatever they want, I inwardly feel a little bit like those people that made a decision different from my decision made the wrong decision. Afterall, since this decision is right for me, it should be right for most people.”
My own practice regarding hair covering came after much thought and deliberation.
I only cover my hair in situations in which it is socially expected. Essentially, this comes down to shul and visits to ultra-orthodox communities. I’ve learned the halachot–I know that hair covering is, essentially, dependent on minhag hamakom [the customs of the place]. The rabbis lament how, over the years, Jewish women have forsaken the mitzvah of covering their hair, but now that uncovered hair is a commonplace occurrence, it is no longer halachikcally required. The discussion is more nuanced than that and there are certainly a plethora of rabbis that would disagree with what I’ve just said, but suffice it to say that not only has my reasoning has been developed by studying the sources, it’s also rabbinically sanctioned.
My decision to not cover my hair in most situations started with my decision not to cover my hair at work. I really don’t think that scarves and hats are suitable for a professional environment. Sure, there is a Muslim woman that works in my office who covers her hair and neck with fancy scarves and nobody bats an eyelash. There are a couple of men who wear kippahs. I’m pretty sure that there is a woman who wears a shaital, but I’m not a hundred percent sure it isn’t natural hair. Still, I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me. I not a permanent employee there yet, and I certainly don’t want to be viewed as a religious fanatic when the time comes for them to evaluate my employment applications.
I also really hate wearing wigs. Not only are they heavy and uncomfortable, they make your natural hair look worse. The wig makes your hair flat and messy, plus, years of prolonged hair covering mean that your hair doesn’t get much, if any, exposure to the sun, resulting in thin, dull hair for women still in their mid-twenties. Since it’s not halachikally required, and I had all these reasons why I didn’t want to, I chose not to cover my hair at work.
Once I made that decision, the following decision to only cover my hair at shul and places I’m expected to made a lot of sense for me. Why wear a head covering to the grocery store on Sunday if I didn’t wear one to the grocery store on Wednesday afternoon during my lunch break?
Sometimes I end up wearing head coverings in situations that I didn’t expect to. I often cover my hair on shabbat even I don’t go to shul, because that feels more like a shabbat outfit. I wore one at the funeral I attended a few months ago. I wore one at the sheva brachot meal I attended two weeks ago, but not the one I attended a month ago. I debate constantly with myself whether a particular situation is hair covering appropriate. And that is what’s right for me.
Still, I hope that when I talk to friends that fully cover their hair, or friends that never ever cover their hair, they don’t get the impression that I think they made the wrong decisions. I don’t. I fully support them. I made the decision that was right for me, but that is all. I know my friends mentioned above don’t really think less of me because of how I cover my hair, but sometimes it feels like they do, even when they’re “just” talking about other people. I dislike it, and I hope that I don’t give off the same impressions.