Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tzniut and Eating Disorders- What's The Connection

I used to teach a class on halachot and hashkafot that relate to women and girls. You may be shocked to hear that as a psychologist I was always excited to get up the topic of tzniut. Why? Because I felt that tzniut was not about skirt lengths and necklines, and I never focused on that aspect. I felt that it was up to each young lady's parents and rabbi to discuss with her what her guidelines should be. Rather, tzniut is truly about body image. 80% of women are unhappy with their bodies. 4 out of 5 10 year olds are afraid of being fat. And, of course, in the extreme, some of these dissatisfied girls grow to have true eating disorders which can even begin at the young lower school years.

I like to think that many of the halachot that regulate our lives have a beneficial impact on our mental health. I believe that tzniut is in that category. As women, I want our girls to understand that tzniut can truly help solidify their self-image and can strengthen them as self- sufficient women. If we focus on the restrictive nature of some of the details then of course they become resentful. When I demonstrate to the girls that the values that tzniut represent are at times envied by the general world at large, they begin to view the issues differently.

In 2010, Jessica Simpson (not necessarily a role model for our girls), launched a reality television series called “The Price of Beauty.” In the series' fifth episode, she visited Morraco and the episode highlighted the head-to-toe coverings of some of the women. Simpson noted how without showing much skin, these women were beautiful. "It really is about the heart of a woman that makes her beautiful," she noted. Hmm, but how do we get the world to focus on what's inside and not just what's on our outsides?

In 2008, I stumbled across an article called “Teen Fashion Today”by Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley. They begin, “Let’s go back in time. It’s 2002 and you’re taking your young daughter shopping. She’s ten or eleven years old, and wants to stop into Abercrombie & Fitch. You reluctantly agree, trudging towards that plaid abyss of booming music and semi-nude models. But once inside you are surprised. You find simple corduroy pants, tees, and sweats. Clean-cut young sales associates, too. Just when you’re beginning to get comfortable, you turn and see pink thongs emblazoned with the words 'eye candy' and 'wink wink' - in your daughter’s pre-pubescent size. You panic. So did consumer and parent groups. But A&F didn’t change a thing.” Can you relate? They continue, “Girls strive to look sexy because sexy is what they see - they think it will help them get further, gain confidence, and earn attention...For some reason, many parents are going along with it. We’ve talked with countless mothers who buy whatever their daughters want because everyone has it. Moms want their daughters to fit in and be happy.” Boys have the same pressure too. Our children believe they can get attention for their physical outsides, without flaunting their beautiful insides. But, we want them to know that strength of character is what “helps them get further, gain confidence and earn attention.”

We are trying to raise children who are not superficial and do not only care about looks. Gila Manolson, in her book “Outside Inside” highlights the lesson tzniut ingrains in our children- if relayed the right way, “Covering yourself is therefore the most fundamental way saying, 'I'm more than a body.' directing attention past the outside to the inside. It's the first step in asserting our personhood. And the more of our bodies we cover, the less they eclipse who we are. I read a story (recounted in my book Head to Heart) about a female college professor who was set up on a blind date. As she was a bookish intellectual, her date was warned that she might dress primly — but she showed up in a low-cut dress with a thigh-high slit. 'Wow!' he blurted out, taken aback. 'Your brains don't show at all!' ”

The message we want our children to get is “You are more than your body.” This message relieves the pressure they often feel to look perfect, be skinny and “dress to kill.” (For boys and girls this message is imperative. If affects how the boys view themselves and their expectations for the way the girls should look, significantly impacting on the girls!) Tzniut helps us reinforce that message. How envious Abigail Jones and Marisa Miley (who wrote the article above) must be of our ability as Jewish parents to send that message loud and clear through having a positive attitude about and glorifying tzniut.

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