Orthodox Women Under Cover

Orthodox Women Undercover - 614 eZine - Vol 6, Issue 4

Chanel Dubofsky finds out what it’s like to buy, wear, and maintain hair coverings.

by Chanel Dubofsky

In the spirit of transparency, I was excited to write about Jewish women and hair covering because I’m kind of obsessed with the concept, particularly with wigs. Unfortunately, I associate wigs with hair loss due to cancer, which is something I know about because of my mother’s illness—far before I had any cognizance of their role in religious practice. When I was spending a lot of time with modern Orthodox young women on college campuses (while working for Hillel), I found myself trying to figure out who among the married folk was covering her hair. I had all sorts of practical questions for these women, such as: How did they choose wigs vs. falls vs. scarves? Are keeping the wigs maintained a hassle? Do they cost a lot of money? How do you take care of them? I decided to reach out to Jewish women who wear head coverings of some kind, and find out.

First, the basics: Women cover their hair in a variety of ways and for various reasons. For some women, covering their hair is done because they want to make their marital status apparent in their communities. Other women cover their hair in synagogue only, others the tops of their heads and not all of their hair. In her piece on hair coverings for MyJewishLearning.com, Alieza Salzberg writes, "The decision to cover one’s hair rests at the crossroads between law and custom, personal choice and community identification." I did some initial searching on YouTube in regard to hair covering and sheitel (wig) maintenance, and after I filtered the results—which included a lot of male rabbis talking about tznius (modesty) and women’s bodies—I found a web series called "Ask Chavi." Chavi, whose face you never get to see, gives advice and demonstrations on how to blow dry a wig, put your hair up under it, and set it into a ponytail, as well as a review of various non-wig hair coverings. Because I never asked any of the women I know about their hair covering, I didn’t know if women actually even watched these videos, or where their knowledge about what to do with their hair had come from.

Next, I contacted Ruth, an observant, married acquaintance I met while working on campus, and inquired after her hair-covering habits. She told me she usually covers with scarves and hats, but that she also owns a fall, a hairpiece worn with your own hair, typically to augment volume, length, color, etc. It goes on the back half of your head, and you style your own hair in the front to blend with the fall. Ruth bought it for $1,000 and has worn it three times, all at weddings. The fall isn’t designed to blend into your scalp; you have to wear it with a headband (which means that all those times I thought women weren’t covering their hair, they might have been). When Ruth first bought the fall, it was washed and styled for her, but because there was so much mousse in it, she says it became frizzy and looked terrible. She washed it at home and styled it with anti-frizz creme. In its current incarnation, it looks like "normal curly hair." I asked Ruth if she feels differently when wearing the fall, and she responded: "Every time I wear it, I’m also wearing contact lenses, Spanx, and heels. Maybe I should try just wearing it randomly one day. I have heard from people that when you "get your hair back" (like sheitel vs. scarf), you notice that men react to you differently."

I then spoke to Shannon, who I connected with through a friend, and she told me:

I think hair covering for Orthodox women is exciting and scary. Hair covering in this community lets everyone know you are married, but I got really tired of hair scarves and hats because they made me feel frumpy. In some ways, those coverings also made me feel less tznius (modest) because it was very obvious to everyone I was covering for religious reasons. When I want to feel normal, I prefer the sheitel (wig). It’s actually very comfortable. I always thought it would seem strange wearing someone else’s hair, but a good, properly fitted sheitel will look like your own hair, just maybe a bit better.

Shannon has owned one sheitel (synthetic hair, costing her $1,800) for about a year, wearing it for Shabbos, holidays, and whenever she goes out. She keeps the wig on a Styrofoam head and combs it out before putting it on. "The wig store where I bought it gave me conditioner to spray in the hair and wave around when it feels a bit dry. It’s recommended to wash it after 30 wears. I just took it back to the shop to wash; that thing is just too expensive for me to mess with myself!"

I did casual research on wig prices and found that a synthetic wig runs anywhere from $30 to $500; a wig from human hair (described on SavvySheitels.com as "Rich Luscious Virgin European Hair") costs anywhere from $800 to $3,240. These real-hair wigs, according to BreastCancer.org, which has a robust section on wig maintenance and selection, require more care than your own hair does. Wigs need to be detangled, rinsed in cool water (water should be flowing in the same direction as the hair), shampooed, rinsed, conditioned, rinsed, and dried (pressed with a towel, then hung on a wig stand). Wigs.com recommends washing wigs every two to three weeks, or every few wearings, with sulfate-free products for chemically processed hair.

Sheena, who blogs at the Daily Cover, has owned six hairpieces in various types and states: full-length wigs, curly wigs, headband, hat and kippah falls, synthetic bangs and ponytails. Her in-laws purchased a headband fall for her as a wedding present (a fall seems to run between $200 and $2,100). She also covers with scarves and hats, but wears a wig often because of her desire to remain discreet in the workplace. From the Daily Cover:

I know for many of us who cover our hair for religious reasons, we want to be as discreet as possible and therefore wear the same wig length and color to the office everyday and wouldn’t dare wear a hat or scarf and risk being discriminated against. Every office has a dress code of sorts, even if that code is wear jeans all the time! Obviously, that code has to be respected, and the hair covering aspect is something I grappled with for a few years before I felt comfortable mixing it up … though even I haven’t gotten to the point where I’ll wear a scarf in front of clients, mainly out of respect for my boss and the professionalism of our company. My first boss did once say to me, of my scarf wearing, "You make it look good."

So now that I’ve learned some things about hair covering, I have to admit that my obsession is, well, less of one. Learning about the process has taken some of the mystique out of the situation, and made me a little ashamed of myself for so blatantly participating in exoticizing other women. The next time I’m on the street and see a woman with a head covering (I live in New York City, it will happen at least three times before 10:00 a.m.), I might feel like the secret codes of Jewish observant life, which I’ve been trying to crack for years, are a little easier to read and a lot more personal.

About the Author

Chanel DubofskyChanel Dubofsky
Chanel Dubofsky writes at Role/Reboot, The Forward and Gender Focus. She is the creator and editor of the Marriage Project, an interview series about marriage in imagination and reality. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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