Posts Categorized: feminism

Guest Post: Reclaiming the Ancient Girls’ Club

Today’s post comes to us from one of my best friends in the whole world. I met Tehilah Eisenstadt in a college poetry class. After two classes together, I stopped her on her way out and told her that I liked her poetry and that we should be friends. That was 18 years ago. She lives in Brooklyn and I live in Minneapolis, but we talk every week. (Or at least try to.) She is one of the smartest, kindest, most resilient and amazing people I have the honor to know and I am certain we’ll be friends until we’re absolutely ancient old ladies. And beyond.

Tehilah and I have talked a LOT about the mikva over the years, and because she has had a variety of experiences with the ritual herself and countless conversations with others in the Jewish community about its significance, I’ve asked her to write about this fascinating practice here. Although it has nothing to do with style, it has plenty to do with body image, womanhood, community, healing, strength, and so many other issues central to the mission of this blog. I’m sure you’ll find her experiences and reflections as fascinating and inspiring as I did.

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Reclaiming the Ancient Girls’ Club

By Tehilah Eisenstadt

I imagine in ancient times, there existed a world of clear, rigid, gendered roles in which a Jewish girl became a woman, wife, and mother within a 2-year span. She led a domestic life: mothering, wife-ing, cooking, and teaching. Creating, and creating order out of chaos; A godly role. Then, once a month when she was not full of life or nursing a child, she bled and went to a ritual bath, the “mikva.” The mikva is the culmination of a Jewish religious cycle of separation that usually occurs when a woman begins her period, and ends a certain number of days after bleeding ends. Immersion in a mikva pool marks a change in spiritual status, including a transition back into her sexual relationship with her partner, which has been on hold since the onset of bleeding. At the mikva, she marks time, maybe notes a few stretch marks or crows feet, and nurtures her friendships with those on her cycle who also revel in the rare in-between moment. Released from being a life-, food-, and love-giver, she joins her fellow-cycled women for a leisurely catch-up. I imagine them wrapping each other in storytelling, recipes for healing, theories on small-joy-taking, while they wait for their turn and the touch of the mikva waters.

That’s how it might have been. And though I readily see the drawbacks of life in ancient times, I like the image of what might have transpired at the mikva and how it could have been a place of healing and remedy. In modern times, the way I have most commonly experienced this women-and-body ritual can best be encapsulated by the night before my friend’s wedding. We went to a secret building. (Really, the city cab driver was convinced the address didn’t exist.) There, we passed silent, ancient men staring down their noses from picture frames above us, and my best friend prepared her body in a tiny bathroom for one hour. Next at the ritual pool/mikva, a woman looked her over, urged her towards the pool, and watched my friend immerse. She received bridal blessings and candied almonds afterwards.

Except for my friend, myself, and the ritual attendant (“the mikva lady”), the women who shared this ritual space with us did not speak to or look at each other. This silent isolation reflects the modern-day Eastern European tradition, encouraged by religious societal norms. Since mikva rituals mark when a religious couple can return to one another sexually, this private celebration is considered inappropriate to share with anyone other than your partner and the “mikva lady.”

What feels inappropriate about this ritual for me is that – as a city girl, used to small living quarters – trips to the mikva are among the only times I find myself in front of a mirror allowing a 360-degree view. As a mom to a young son, I seldom have the bathroom all to myself with no one calling my name or banging on the door. What do I end up doing with this time? Scrutinizing myself for flaws, every extra pound, and (potential) wrinkle. I find grey hairs I swear don’t exist anywhere except for when I am within the mikva’s walls. I pluck my eyebrows, I shave, and I say to my reflection “Is this really what you look like?” Then – though I perfected the art of changing underneath a towel in day camp at age eight – I have to stand before a woman I barely know so she can ritually scan me to make sure that there is nothing between me and the water and to make sure I am fully immersed. An experience that could offer a rejuvenating way to connect with other women – or, at the very least, an opportunity to relax and meditate alone – becomes an exercise in self-scrutiny and criticism with a bit of meditation (often focused on the self-scrutiny).

The first time I stepped into this ritual for myself was quite different. Two incredible friends (disclosure: one of them created this incredible blog space) accompanied me to the mikva a little less than 24 hours before my wedding day. They took my phone (genius) gave me loving smiles, and sparked conversations that led to joy and laughter. We celebrated together and then they sent me off to soak and meditate. Afterwards, we shared some chocolate from my family. This was my first reclaiming of mikva, and one of the only times I prepared for “inspection” with care and love instead of major-to-minor self-loathing.

Because I wanted more women to experience the mikva the way I had that night before my wedding – as a communal and enjoyable sacred ritual – I joined ImmerseNYC’s “mikva guides” dedicated to helping each other (and strangers) mark important transitions by joining bodies with water. We help women acknowledge divorce, childbirth, abortions, marriage, menopause, a new job, a round of chemo, and more. The list of transitions varies, but vulnerability is the common thread. Most importantly, we help shift the mikva experience away from the alienating rooms, staring at body flaws, being inspected by a stranger doing her job (sometimes kindly, sometimes by rote), all amidst other silent women cloistered off unto themselves.

Mikva experiences with best friends or ImmerseNYC guides turn the ritual bathhouses into female spaces for laughing, crying, asking, and sharing intensely intimate transitions. Women from different generations, neighborhoods, socio-economic strata, and religious streams meet without barriers. For me, this practice reclaims the ritual from Rabbinic ownership and places that ownership firmly in the hands of the women who undertake the ritual. It also transforms those moments of staring forlornly at a mirror image that can’t compare to Photoshopped advertisement facades into moments of gazing at the warmer image of myself as a friend, partner, mother, leader, and teacher.

Before I bring a woman to the mikva with ImmerseNYC I have two ritual blessings/meditations I’ve created in preparation:

  • May I be able to facilitate an experience that is meaningful for each woman.
  • May I recognize every body as holy and thus beautiful.

Interestingly enough, while I’ve been changing into and out of bathing suits behind a towel since my day camp days, I have also been careful to avoid looking directly at other female bodies, assuming we all shared levels of bashfulness or modesty. As a mikva guide I am sometimes asked to witness a woman’s immersion. I’ve had fears of how I might react to seeing strangers’ or friends’ bodies because it is so uncommon for me. But on the few occasions a woman has asked me to witness her immersion, I have been struck by how sacred the moment becomes. It’s not about her body being “right” or “wrong.” There’s no notion of judgment, just the beauty of sacred water met with great intention. As I head into my first experience with an ImmerseNYC guiding me as I dip into the mikva, I hope that this realization can transform my self-judgment. Bodies are sacred, including my own, and judgment – at least in the mikva – is misplaced.

Even if mikva is not a part of your spiritual life vocabulary, I urge you to find a friend with whom you can celebrate your physical self. Together, consider any and all of your significant transformations on a monthly or a yearly basis. Mark changes in community, not in solitude – where, with only one perspective, scrutiny can flourish. I believe a lot of female body self-hatred comes from solitude. It is far too unusual for close female friends to share all the intimacies of the hard, physical reality of being a woman. It is rare and precious for us to come together to usher each other into something new. I would love to see a world in which we hold hands, share stories, sobs, questions, or maybe just a towel.

Tehilah Eisenstadt is a Jewish educator, consultant, community builder and storyteller. She has worked in various leadership roles with prominent Jewish educational agencies and non-profits: Covenant Foundation, Huntington Jewish Center, Pardes Institute and Storahtelling. Recent projects include helping to open Kings Bay Y’s new community center in North Williamsburg, creating programs that serve multi-faith families and developing a unique 5-day a week Jewish cultural after-school program for children of all backgrounds in Sheepshead Bay, and working as an ImmerseNYC volunteer guide. She has been hosting poetry workshops since she met Sally in Binghamton, and has been hosting mikva conversations on and off since 2005. If you have questions or are interested in ImmersionNYC, please drop her a note.

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Before I open things up for comments, several points must be made:

  • This post discusses a religious practice. Even if you are not a member of this religion or disagree with this specific practice, bear in mind that what has been described is sacred to some people.  Express your views respectfully and civilly or they will not be published.
  • Be courteous and kind to each other when responding to remarks from other readers.

Huge thanks to my dearest Tehilah for being willing to share her experiences with and views on the mikva with us all.

Image courtesy Rose770

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The New Normal

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This is an image from the Debenhams High Summer Lookbook. And so are these:

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I love these images because they attempt to show diversity in different and boundary-pushing ways. Many retailers will throw in one standard size woman of color and call their ads a celebration of all womanhood. But the women in the ads shown above are tall and short and fat and thin and brown and black and differently abled. And, of course, it would be nice to see an older woman, someone with tattoos, anyone not dressed in extremely femme-reading garments, and many, many other overlooked groups. But it’s progress.

What I don’t like is this statement from the Debenhams blog:

Here at Debenhams we believe that anyone can look fabulous in our range—which is why we’ve decided to break with convention … By becoming the first high street retailer in the UK to promote its latest fashion collections by using models in a diverse variety of ages, sizes and looks—the imagery in our “High Summer Look Book” turns its back on the industry norm of young thin models. Featuring an amputee, three models over 40 (including one nearing 70), a Paralympian athlete and not forgetting our swimwear shot with a size 18 model to celebrate curvelicious women.

Aside from the fact that curvelicious isn’t a word, this text absolutely reeks of self-congratulation. Showing non-normative bodies and saying LOOK AT THIS, LOOK HOW FANTASTIC WE ARE FOR INCLUDING THEM … well, it’s a start. Especially since the alternative is showing nothing but tall, thin, hourglass-y white women who’ve been Photoshopped within an inch of their lives. But it sure does make a move that could have been a real step in the right direction look like a self-serving PR stunt. Instead of being a company that acknowledges the diversity of the world and naturally wants to include it in advertising efforts, Debenhams sounds like they created these photos mainly because they knew they’d grab loads of media attention.

I believe that one of the most powerful ways to support diversity is to show it and NOT comment. To create a visual world that includes a truly varied picture of humanity, and make that snapshot the new normal by acting like it’s totally boring, utterly expected, and exactly what we see everywhere. Because it is what we see everywhere. Except on our TVs, in our movie theaters, and on the pages of our magazines.

I assume some of you watched Sesame Street with me back in the 70s. There was definitely a “one of each” situation going on there, but the actual human beings on that show were African-American and Latino and Caucasian in equal part and no one acted like that was a big deal. The Muppets themselves had blue and green and orange skin and differently shaped bodies and faces as a subtle way of showing kids that people come in a huge variety of shapes and colors, and all of them are trustworthy and interesting and unique on the inside no matter what their outsides look like. That was groundbreaking, back in the 70s: Creating a televised world of diversity and not making a huge deal out of it. And it certainly influenced my own worldview. Along with several other influences and factors, exposure to that televised world helped me learn to expect the people around me to be the same as me and different from me in recognizable ways and in ways I could never anticipate.

So when I saw the Debenhams lookbook and observed the festival of gushing that ensued, I felt a little weary. I wonder why, after all these years, a company still gets to be lauded as groundbreaking when it includes members of its actual consumer base in its advertising materials. Why is it extraordinary to picture ordinary women in your ads just because they are not all exactly alike? And when will doing so become so normal that we no longer have to throw a big party whenever it happens?

Although I wish they hadn’t been so keen to pat themselves on the back about it, I do applaud Debenhams for making this campaign a reality. And I hope to live to see the day when ads like these are utterly, unremarkably, fantastically normal.

Images via Adweek

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What Could You Accomplish?

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I know I’ve told this story before, but it has shaped my worldview so I’m gonna lay it on ya again:

A while back, a dear friend of mine told me something that stopped me cold. She said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Sally, do you know why I don’t run for political office myself? It’s because I could never handle the scrutiny and criticism I’d take for how I look. Women in politics and power are constantly under the microscope for their bodies, grooming, and style, and I just couldn’t take it.”

My friend – from what I can tell – is afraid of very little. She has told me that she truly enjoys conflict resolution and adores speaking in front of large crowds. I can quite easily imagine her fending off rabid wolves to protect her young daughter. She has also worked in politics for years and is incredibly informed about public policy and remarkably passionate about her beliefs. So I was shocked to hear her say that the prospect of dealing with press and public critiques of her looks has prevented her from campaigning.

We talked a bit more about it, and she pointed out that helping women feel confident in their looks removes barriers. We live in a world that frequently evaluates women based on our looks and, if those looks are found to be somehow lacking, dismisses us. We know this. And many of us hesitate to step up to positions of leadership, or speak out against actions we question, or put ourselves in the public eye for fear of censure and dismissal.

Another friend – a gifted musician – recently expressed similar hesitations. She has dabbled a bit in performance and stepped into the spotlight a few times, but she mainly keeps her music on the backburner. Because for every Adele there are 500 Katy Perrys, and if she were really to put her all into her dreams she, too, would risk a life under the microscope. Her style, her figure, her hair, her makeup would all be subject to examination and ridicule. And as talented as she is, the prospect of being constantly held up to prevailing beauty standard holds virtually no appeal.

And this is valid. Only a select few of us have the drive, ambition, and talent PLUS the thick skin necessary to deal with the deluge of comparison and judgment that comes part and parcel with positions of power and prominence. No one is required to pursue elected office, an executive position, a career in the arts, or any other avenue if the accompanying scrutiny would be too much to bear. No one should sign up for a life that means constant stress and misery. Really. No one at all.

But knowing that many of us have the drive, ambition, and talent but lack that essential thick skin is why I write about style as a tool for empowerment, self-awareness, and confidence. I don’t actually care one whit what any of us looks like. I just want to help women have one less thing to worry about as they chase their dreams, rise to power, or express their creativity. I want to help women see dressing as a creative, helpful, important means of showing self-respect. Because when you’re confident in how you look, some of the appearance-focused flak that comes at you from the media, from petty rivals, from jealous strangers can bounce right off. Your self-assuredness becomes your armor. You can move through the world with a little less weight on your shoulders. You can get on with the work of your life.

If it weren’t for the very real fear of judgment, many of us would spend more time at the beach, wear bright colors, indulge in trends. Many of us would start more conversations with people we find attractive, go to more parties, pose for more photos. And many of us would run for office, demand promotions, pursue careers in the arts, put ourselves in positions of prominence and rock the world. This isn’t a stumbling block for all, but it trips up more women than you might expect. And until the world sees bodily diversity as the gift that it truly is, I’ll do my best to provide knowledge, tools, and armor to everyone who comes here.

If we lived in a world that was body-blind, what could you accomplish?

Image by Nathan Rupert

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