Learning to live in the moment is no easy feat for Jews. While much of Jewish ritual and liturgy is supposed to help us stay put in the moment, keeping us focused—prayers for arising, blessings over different foods at mealtime, activities to be performed at specified times—we Jews are also specialists at anticipation. At Purim time we’re smelling Pesach in the air. In August shofar blasts sound in synagogue a full month in advance of Rosh Hashanah. Appreciating the present and not living for some defeated gratification in the future is hard to do. While Jewish practice is rooted in quotidian reality, steeped in time, most of us are on the path to some goal far off from today. The women we all know are asking. When do I graduate? How long will it take me to finish my PhD thesis? When will I have grandchildren?
I’m grappling with these ideas about appreciation of the moment (before it’s too late) for reasons both political and personal. The personal (let’s get this out of the way first) is a household move that has tried to teach me to appreciate where I am while I’m there (if you know what I mean), instead of grumbling about the imperfections of the present. And then there are all the conversations I’ve had recently with girls and young women of all ages.
As you know when you scan the masthead, LILITH has wonderful interns each season who come to us either during their college years or just after graduation. The worlds of these bright, energetic, accomplished women are extraordinarily future-oriented. Got into college? You’re already worrying about what kinds of programs you need to apply to for the summer after your first year Just graduated and in your first job? Now comes the decision-making about whether you’ll apply to graduate school this season or next.
The struggle for perfection—both of the life and of the art—engages even young girls. For them, including even precocious Jewish girls of nine or 10, the battle ground is the body. “I’m so fat, you’re so thin; you’re so thin, I’m so fat.” You know the litany. One survey of young girls, which echoes the findings of research on adults, shows that girls are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, or losing their parents. By the time they reach high school, many young women entertain suicidal thoughts because they are unhappy with their bodies as they are.
Although I have written about this subject here before—and LILITH has published some remarkable articles on Jewish women and body image—I’m taking it up again now because it seems clear that body image is possibly the most crucial element of self-esteem—and even identity—for girls and young women. High-achieving women (among whose ranks Jewish women are heavily represented) are especially at risk for investing themselves in thinness and the perfectibility of their body shapes. Physical contours may in reality be genetically determined, but how women feel about their bodies has a great deal to do with ethnicity, social class, race, parental attitudes, gender roles and more.
Because we know that so much of what goes on in family life revolves around the expectations of parents, youth groups such as NFTY, B’nai Brith Girls, USY, Habonim and all the rest have a terrific opportunity—as do women’s Rosh Hodesh groups—to talk about body image and self-esteem in a safe (and Jewish) context. Jewish groups can provide a reliable counterweight (no pun intended) to the thinness preoccupations of society in general and to the perfectionistic impulses so many Jewish parents have toward their offspring, their daughters in particular.
Eating disorders sap the energies of so many capable Jewish women that we need to look creatively at our tradition, to try to figure out how a religion and a culture rooted both in everyday attentiveness and committed to the future orientation of tikkun olam—repair of the world—can help pull girls out of the fight for a skinny future and into an understanding of how lovely they are today.