I heard an anthropologist talking about shaitels (wigs). He said how ironic it is that observant Jewish women wear wigs. In biblical Judaism, the rule was that married women should cover their hair in order to be modest and unattractive. In more recent times, women wear wigs, which are sometimes more attractive than natural hair. So wearing a wig actually defeats the whole purpose of covering the hair! He was giving this as an example of how cultures forget the reasons behind their ancient traditions, and customs can evolve in a way that contradicts their original intent. Do you have any comments?
That anthropologist has not only mistaken a wig for real hair, but has also confused true modesty for his own version. He equates modesty with unattractiveness, but that is his definition, not Judaism's. From the Jewish perspective, modesty has nothing to do with being unattractive. Rather, modesty is a means to create privacy. And that is what a wig achieves.
Modesty has nothing to do with being unattractive
The hair-covering was never intended to make a married woman look ugly. Beauty is a divine gift, and Jewish tradition encourages both men and women to care for their appearance and always look presentable. Jewish tradition also encourages modesty; not in order to detract from our beauty, but rather to channel our beauty and attractiveness so it be saved for where it belongs -- within marriage.
By covering her hair, the married woman makes a statement: "I am not available. You can see me but I am not open to the public. Even my hair, the most obvious and visible part of me, is not for your eyes."
The hair-covering has a profound effect on the wearer. It creates a psychological barrier, a cognitive distance between her and strangers. Her beauty becomes visible but inconspicuous; she is attractive but unavailable.
The wig achieves the desired effect exactly, because a wig allows a woman to cover all her hair, while maintaining her attractive appearance. She can be proud of the way she looks without compromising her privacy. And even if her wig looks so real as to be mistaken for natural hair, she knows that no one is looking at the real her. She has created a private space, and only she decides who to let into that space.
Perhaps in other religions modesty and beauty don't mix. This is not the Jewish view. True beauty, inner beauty, needs modesty to protect it and allow it to thrive.