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Learn To Love Your Jewish Body

As teenage girls wrestle with their body image, new programs look for solutions in Jewish tradition

Rachel Heller
February 25, 2013
(Margarita Korol)
(Margarita Korol)

On a recent Sunday evening in Los Angeles, five eighth-grade girls lounged in armchairs or sat on the floor, talking with a rabbi about their bodies.

“When you’re looking in a mirror, what’s the number one thing that’s constantly running through your head?” asked Sara Brandes, the rabbi who facilitated the discussion.

“Fat,” one girl called out.

“Overweight,” said another.

Brandes handed out cards bearing body-image-related phrases and instructed the girls to choose one that they needed to hear, and one they would like to tell a friend. Michelle Greenberg, 13, chose this for herself: “Stop obsessing about your weight and appearance.” And for a friend: “Come to view your body as an instrument of your life, not as an ornament for others.”

The gathering was part of Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, a national network of informal groups that meet monthly to parse the trials of teen life and search for solutions in Jewish sources. Brandes is West Coast regional director of Moving Traditions, the Pennsylvania-based organization that runs this initiative, founded at Kolot: Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2002. Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! was one of the first Jewish programs created to combat poor body image and low self-esteem among middle-school and high-school girls.

This year, a spate of other Jewish efforts has sprung up to address similar concerns for Jewish teenagers in classrooms, youth groups, and summer camps. The problem is urgent, educators say: Teen and pre-teen girls are suffering. And Judaism, they believe, just might have some answers.


Helping girls feel comfortable in their own skin is becoming a priority for Jewish educators, said Shira D. Epstein, assistant professor in the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. “There has been a big push not to compartmentalize body image and related issues and to put them in more of a holistic framework,” said Epstein, co-developer of the 2007 guidebook Evaded Issues in Jewish Education: A Resource Guide for Jewish Educators, distributed through the women’s studies nonprofit Ma’yan. When educators acknowledge teenagers’ most pressing concerns, she said, it’s a chance to make Jewish lessons relatable to their lives.

Alisha Pedowitz launched Embracing Wholiness this winter and plans to meet with kids ages 13 to 18 in L.A. schools and summer camps to teach them to see themselves in a positive light. When Pedowitz asked girls during pilot workshops what “perfection” connotes, they told her what social cues have taught them: They should be “thin,” “pretty,” and get straight A’s. When she asked them to describe “wholeness,” however, they suggested adjectives like “healthy,” “strong,” and “complete.” Jaws dropped when she explained that perfection and completion—or wholeness—share the same word in Hebrew: shleimut. “It’s a real ‘a-ha’ moment,” said Pedowitz. “But how do we then flip on its head what perfection means to us, to reflect the idea of shleimut?” In other words, can girls learn to see that strength, health, and inner beauty are what make them perfect?

Redefining perfection can be tricky since societal expectations of women run deep, said Jill Zimmerman Rutledge, author of Dealing With the Stuff That Makes Life Tough: 10 Things That Stress Girls Out and How To Cope With Them. “Girls are more sensitized to the idea that beauty equals power,” she said, “and that she must be attractive above all else.”

Those messages are reaching girls younger and younger, mental-health professionals say. Eighty-one percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Over half of teenage girls skip meals, smoke cigarettes, vomit, or take laxatives to lose weight.

Where does this body insecurity come from? Low self-esteem, said Zimmerman Rutledge: “If a girl doesn’t feel confident or good about herself, her body could become the focus of that. She might have degrading thoughts about herself all the time: ‘I’m not attractive enough. I’m fat. If only I could lose ten pounds, boys will like me.’ ” Daily insults hurled at the mirror can quietly blossom into anorexia, bulimia, self-harm, or even suicidal thoughts.

Stress and angst were in ample supply among the eighth-graders at the L.A. session of Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! The girls talked about who hooked up with whom last week. Arguments with their parents. Acquaintances who have been hospitalized for cutting because of pressure at school. And college, college, college.

In some ways, being Jewish doesn’t ease the girls’ stress: “We are a highly driven people, and sometimes that comes with high pressure for achievement,” said Brandes. And when it comes to body image and food in particular, Jews are saddled with special baggage. “There are cultural norms in our community that make us particularly susceptible to eating disorders,” Brandes added. “We give great attention to food and how we eat it.” And beyond the drive for thinness, Jewish girls grapple with a slew of appearance-related complaints about everything from hard-to-tame curly hair to assertive noses.

The new programs draw from Jewish texts and ideas to tackle a range of woes that gnaw away at girls’ self-confidence. It’s OK to have that hair, to wear jeans larger than a size 2, and to exercise to stay healthy—not expressly to get thin. If girls learn to respect the bodies they’re born with, organizers say, they will seek that respect from others as they grow up.

At a summer pilot program for Embracing Wholiness a few years ago at Camp Alonim, housed at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin campus in Simi Valley, Calif., Pedowitz had a group of 13- and 14-year-olds look at Deuteronomy 6:5, a line that appears in the Shema and in mezuzot: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Pedowitz said, “If we have all these reminders that we should love God, and if we’re in the image of God, we should be reflecting that same love back at ourselves.”

Eden Village Camp, an independent, pluralistic Jewish camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y., instituted a “no body talk” rule in 2010 that discourages campers from mentioning physical appearances. That includes negative comments (“Ugh, my hands are so big”) and positive ones (“You’re having such a good hair day!”). “It makes a big difference when, instead of their appearances, people focus on the value of their interests and what they’re passionate about,” said Eden Village Co-Director Vivian Lehrer Stadlin.

The unusual guideline is based on the Jewish principle of shmirat halashon, or “guarding the tongue” from harmful energy. It represents a 180-degree turn from a pervasive, body-conscious culture among pre-teen and teenage girls who wax, tan, and de-frizz their hair for their yearly stay in the great outdoors. “ ‘No body talk’ opened me up to so many things that I’d never thought of,” said Emma Listokin, 12, who has attended Eden Village for the past three summers. “At school, everyone’s like, ‘I love that shirt,’ ‘I hate that shirt.’ At camp I’m only viewed for who I am and not what I look like. I used to be pretty insecure about my body, but I think this made me a much stronger person. Now I feel like I’m lucky to have the body I have.”

That’s how Holly Rabinovitz, assistant wellness director of the Leventhal-Sidman JCC in Newton, Mass., wants girls to feel when they sign up for TY! True You. Launching this spring in the Boston area, the program will bring small groups of seventh- and eighth-grade girls together with a nutritionist, a nurse practitioner, a social worker, and a fashion consultant for a comprehensive eight-week crash course in growing up healthy.

Kehillah Synagogue in Chapel Hill, N.C., is starting even younger. With a grant from the Hadassah Foundation, in 2012 the synagogue’s religious school founded Girl Power, a program that introduces the “Bishvili: For Me” curriculum to girls as young as fifth grade. “Bishvili: For Me,” a 2008 Jewish guide to Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health, and Leadership by clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, aims to teach girls to think critically about the messages they glean from pop culture. Recently, the girls watched a segment of America’s Next Top Model and talked about the models’ rail-thin physiques. Then they looked at photographs of members of their own congregation—“real women,” as they put it. “We asked them, ‘What kind of message is this sending about what we value in our body makeup, and is it realistic to even look like that?’ ” asked religious-school Director Anna Salomon. “Some of the girls said, ‘Of course I can look like that. I just have to diet and exercise. When I get to high school, I’ll just not eat lunch!’ ”

According to a 1999 survey, 69 percent of elementary-school girls who read magazines said that the pictures informed their ideal body shape; 47 percent said the pictures made them want to lose weight. Today, those images are even more pervasive.

“Because of technology, girls are consuming these messages all the time,” Zimmerman Rutledge said. “I know of girls who sleep with their iPhones so they don’t miss anything.”


For Orthodox girls, there’s an added layer of stress. In a tradition that prizes modesty, they often feel pressure to keep their concerns, literally, under wraps. If covering up is unequivocally “good,” young women can deduce a damaging lesson: “My body must be hidden because it’s bad,” said Atara Segal, a teacher at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy and Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

When community leaders attach too much value to covering up, girls begin to equate their self-worth with the way they look. “There are 613 mitzvot. To make a girl’s entire avodat hashem be about what she wears is very dangerous,” said Segal.

The Orthodox community has begun to face the plague of eating disorders among Orthodox girls; the documentary Hungry To Be Heard garnered praise when it was released in 2009. But there’s still a long way to go toward teaching girls to love their bodies, said personal trainer Karen Jashinsky, founder of the O2 Max fitness program in Santa Monica, Calif. Jashinsky, who grew up Orthodox in New Jersey, is developing a series of workshops for bat mitzvah-age girls called Confident and Lean @ 13, which she hopes to roll out this fall in schools, synagogues, and JCCs across the country. Its message that fitness—in healthy doses—can be a source of empowerment is meant for girls of all denominations, she said.

Little by little, these programs are making a difference. Among the 3,500 North American teens in Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! are plenty of success stories, said Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions. There’s fashion-forward Sophie, once self-conscious of her tight, kinky curls, who learned to embrace her tresses as “her own personal fashion,” Meyer said. There’s Maya, who hid her broad shoulders under baggy sweatshirts until her group-mates convinced her she was beautiful the way she was. Yet despite these individual victories, body dissatisfaction and eating disorders will continue to haunt girls until social attitudes toward women change, educators say; girls need role models who are respected for their wit, not their weight.

“We send messages inadvertently, as mothers. Our daughters pick up everything that we do,” said Peggy Gilbert Kubert, a licensed clinical social worker who contributed research to Beyond Miriam, a 2005 guide compiled for the Foundation for Jewish Camping that teaches camp staff to identify signs of eating disorders and cutting. “They’re listening to us go, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe what I look like in this outfit!’ ”

As the recent session of Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! came to a close, Brandes handed out pens and scraps of paper. The girls wrote down bad feelings they have about their bodies, then crumpled the notes and tossed them into a trash bag, symbolically purging the thoughts from their minds. They took turns sharing a sentiment they’d remember from the gathering: “Reassure yourself and be confident.” “Appreciate what you have.” Greenberg volunteered, “Stop being so hard on myself.”

They blew out the candle they’d lit to welcome the new month and wished one another an exuberant “Hodesh tov!” Then, as their mothers pulled up outside, they reached for their iPhones.


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Rachel Heller is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Los Angeles Times, and LA Weekly.

Rachel Heller is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Los Angeles Times, and LA Weekly.