I am pre-adolescent, chubby in a way that can only be excused as “baby fat” for so much longer. Not quite verging on womanly yet, but just past the cute baby-faced days, I am not quite a child anymore.
At age ten, I get my first Teen Spirit Stick deodorant and walk around, “casually” applying it in the presence of our dinner company, until my mom explains to me that that’s more of a “private thing.” I guess part of me wants to prove myself, my belonging in this community of adults, of womanhood, women who always smell rosy, but never reveal their secrets. I want someone – anyone, no one in particular – to see how I am finally reaching this stage of maturity and body odor, glamourless in itself, but indicative of my transformation into a real woman, with a real woman’s body, a fabulous and frightening new shape to wear through my world.
My mom has begun telling me that some of my hand-me-down dresses “aren’t becoming” anymore, and I wonder what they were supposed to be becoming, what I am supposed to become that these dresses, waistbands bursting, are restricting me from.
When I complain self-consciously from the backseat to my mom up front, about my stomach fat rolling over the waistband of my jeans – unlike the smooth midriffs of the Olsen twins, peeking out of baby tees in the weekend department store circulars – she responds, exasperated, “welcome to being a woman,” as if membership to this club requires a begrudging, bitter sort of tolerance of our bodies’ wayward and rebellious antics, and an unrelenting effort to at least feign resistance, to at least express dissatisfaction. To look with disgust at one’s belly fat flapping over that top button, at the pink marks left on one’s hips from the denim’s tight embrace; somehow just glancing head-on without judgment, only compassionate inquiry, would be treasonous.
The “skinny-minnie” who “looks so good” (read: thin) as she resists the tempting fudge brownie at the shul kiddush is a model of willpower, conviction and character. Of course, some “skinny-minnies” were the “crazy” kinds – we had to make a note of those and wrinkle our noses with judgment we named “concern,” to distinguish ourselves and justify our “curvy” waistlines; we were not skinny, but only because “real women have curves,” a mantra of resignation and consolation (not to mention exclusion), rather than genuine pride. We all had our ways of contending with that cursed, or at least only bitterly welcomed, creature of womanhood, despite our most valiant efforts to resent ourselves into smallness.
To be a woman was, I learned, to condemn, or most likely, ignore, that squishy, layered core of self, that contains and sustains; a “good woman” tucked in that layer of fat, acknowledging it only in self-deprecation, ideally in the context of berating one’s “indulgence” in that last k’nish, “sure to go straight to my hips.” To be a woman meant to take for granted the ingrained disdain I felt for my own midsection, to light a candle at dinner when I got my first period, in acknowledgment of the wonder of something I didn’t really understand (“vaginal area” was the most explicit term we ever used, not even “vulva”), to be a mystery to oneself.
As I learned to live in distant criticism of my body, other women’s bodies became a not-infrequent source of discussion. We made up clever inside jokes about the “Hot Chani” women who dressed in technical accordance with traditional modesty standards but bejeweled themselves in flowy sheitels (wigs) and sequined, skin-tight, below-the-knee runway couture. We remarked amongst ourselves, like concerned citizens, about how “some people just don’t look in the mirror before leaving the fitting room,” and how “they should know that not everyone can wear ______” – a bikini, a tight skirt, a low-cut top, etc. After all, the implication was, we knew better, didn’t we? We, stretch-marked, “womanly” (sigh) women knew our places. There were somehow these presumed rules, unbreakable, that we knew and internalized, and how sad that these shameful bodies did not know better – or worse, did not care.
And these days, as I work to unlearn these myths, to re-train my eyes and mind, I think, so what? Why can only certain people wear bikinis? I don’t have to wear them, or stare at anyone who is. But, for real, who cares? I stare at myself in the mirror, #nofilter. I see a body, my body, a woman’s body. Becoming.
“What’s the point of all this?” you may ask. The idea is that by inviting the sacred feminine back into our lives, we free ourselves to make peace with our inner dichotomies, thus allowing for an expanded sense of freedom and happiness.” -Eliana Gilad, “Miriam and the Feminine Divine”
Frankly, I have lost the energy required to nit-pick and compete and complain and fixate on things I cannot really change. I have not reached some epiphany of body acceptance and unconditional self-compassion; I just don’t have the wherewithal for the obsession anymore. When it’s already Shabbat and I notice a patch of hair on my ankle that I missed while hurrying the already-challenging process of shaving in a two-by-two foot (generous estimate) shower stall with an unpredictable hot water supply, I roll my eyes in indulgent frustration that lasts a whole two minutes. Okay, ayn mah la’asot, nothing to be done. And it’s over. It’s like that.
So there’s a “roll” where some fat peaks out over my waistband, or when my control-top tights poke into my middle; look at it, name it Stomach, let it go. Maybe even change my tights? This is the new routine, a blend of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques, and a stoicism cultivated from both Zen influences and angsty 90’s role models. I don’t have time for bringing repeated claims of disloyalty against the body that carries me, is a vehicle for my senses to absorb and connect with the world, that just feels so many things, so much pleasure.
What’s remarkable is how sinful this feels at times, to eat when I am hungry, stop when I am satiated, try to be mindful as hell, then usually break my own “rules” (what Geneen Roth calls “If Love Could Speak” guidelines), then notice that and say “okay,” and move on with my life. It feels like a betrayal of some sacred code to somehow separate the value judgments of “guilty” or “indulgent” or “shameful,” or “strong,” or “ladylike,” or “motivated” from physical bodies and the foods that do or don’t go into them. When chaos is the lingua franca, there is something provocative in being sincerely and wholly “okay” overall.
[A caveat: I am in no way meaning to belittle many women’s, and people’s in general, experiences with negative body image, or suggesting that a mere change of mindset is all it takes. We live in a society that literally profits from people – especially non-male people – hating their bodies, and these struggles often occur in combination with other mental health conditions, which can feel inescapable. I am in no way claiming to have reached a point of “perfect” self-acceptance, whatever that would mean. I also need to own up to my privileges, understanding that while I have my own challenges, I am at the site of many advantages on a systemic level.]
When I consider some of the earliest messages I received, implicitly mainly, about womanhood, I arrive first at the body – mine, other women’s, bodies in general, how we stare and ignore and dismiss and prod and fight, all the while never being given the option to surrender from this battle we never signed up for in the first place. Our bodies are more than symbolic figures, but they are expressive of a problematic ethos wider and more stubborn than any set of birthing hips.
The point of normative messaging is that, when it is successful, it is nearly impossible to attribute the seemingly-natural “norms” to a single source. It just is that way, after all.
I grew up around strong women. I was raised by one particularly strong Jewish woman, with the help and guidance of many other strong Jewish women. As a young child, with frilly “Shabbos socks” and patent-leather Mary Janes, my “shul protocol” involved a strict routine of entering in [attempted] gentle tiptoe, and heading first to my Bubbie’s row, giving her a hug and kiss and wishing her “Good Shabbos,” and then repeating this as I scooched through the row of all the other “old ladies,” leaving me smeared with assorted fuschia lipsticks and spitty cheek-smooches.
I wrote one of my college application essays, the prompt demanding my reflections on my experiences of “community,” about one of those women, though one of the relatively younger ones, which is to say, one who is still around these days. I wrote about this particular woman’s generosity and diligence, demonstrated by her initiative-taking in any task, applauded or unrecognized, noble or tedious. Her seemingly automatic sense of duty to her congregation still inspires me, the way those “old ladies” also stir my reverence. I finally realize that I grew up surrounded by super-strong Jewish women, many of them survivors of historic tragedies, who built up families and communities with their own selfless hands, burnt on oven racks while preparing crimped sugar-kichel. They coordinated shul dinners and education committees, lived through traumas and moved forward seamlessly because no one gave them a choice, and no one would ever see them sweat.
I am in awe. I take pride, real pride, and not just the second-place consolation lollipop kind, in the Talmudic statement that “in the merit of righteous women, the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11b). Because I have no doubts that we have always been the ones making $*&t happen, the ones finding radiant opportunity in moonlight where none could be seen in the sun’s rays, the ones propelling us forward. And yet.
“The feminine, by definition, at least by the [groundbreaking Kabbalist] Ari’s definition, is always changing, growing, evolving. There is no escaping that fact and, according to the Ari, this is a good thing. It is how things are supposed to be. So while in some things (perhaps even most things) it might be possible to understand what it means to be a good Jewish woman by looking at the previous generations, in other respects that simply doesn’t work. They lived in one stage of the feminine life cycle while this generation embodies another.” -Sarah Yehudit Schneider, “The Evolving Feminine, an Enlightened View From Kabbala”
It is too easy and too hard. It is too predictably fraught to take solace in ideas as these, because it’s about half a step away from the apologetics I cannot stand. It is too close to the “bumbling dad” sitcom trope, which, on the surface, empowers women as the ones who really “get it,” while men meanwhile continue to take up too much space and take too much credit for what little they contribute to the landscape. It is a script that gives women the conciliatory pleasure of knowing we really run the show, which then leaves us constantly stuck keeping the show running, while we stand back and allow men to take the forefront, lest we be “immodest” or “showy.” It’s an outgrowth of the attempted consolations embedded in “women are just on a higher spiritual level” messages, and “Challah is a special ‘women’s Mitzvah!” tactics. [Note: anyone who bakes the proscribed quantity of bread from the five specific grains codified in halakha must separate a Challah portion, so this is both problematic and misleading.]
It’s a distraction tactic, designed to keep women doing the heavy lifting (and cooking, and sweeping, etc), the work of redemption, while men revel in the illusions of their own accomplishments, their mediocrity. Even when they mean well.
When we talk about Jewish feminism and women’s inclusion and leadership, we forget that it’s not a question of whether Jewish women should be allowed to lead and teach and model strength for our communities – they always have. Can we give these women credit already? They have raised us, written heartfelt prayers that sanctified the mundane, worried about us, built everything without complaining. (And when we glorify their work – domestic, emotional, corporate, independent, academic, etc etc etc. – let it not be in comparison with other women and their choices. Because it’s not the point.)
I believe in the uprising of the sacred feminine; I long for it and work toward it, and I revel in the process we are dancing in at this moment. We are revolution and evolution, moonlight. Waxing and waning, we are merely shifting, never shrinking. The law of conservation of woman. We will not be diminished.
I want to cry out, “In the merits of righteous women!” I want to scream the wonders of the clitoris and cervix and walls and muscles, the contours and openings and closings of n’keivah (female). N’keivah, punctured, perforated. Whole, holy. I am not missing anything.
“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying — trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself…
I get angry when women disavow feminism and shun the feminist label but say they support all the advances born of feminism because I see a disconnect that does not need to be there. I get angry but I understand and hope someday we will live in a culture where we don’t need to distance ourselves from the feminist label, where the label doesn’t make us afraid of being alone, of being too different, of wanting too much.” -Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I join a group of women on a nighttime trip to the beach, with the goal of a “BeachTashlichMikvahParty,” to metaphorically throw away our sins and literally immerse ourselves in these natural waters, as part of the process of repentance and renewal. I had agreed to this enthusiastically [read: after a lively Shabbat meal that had lasted hours past Shabbat] and set out to join the adventure with an open mind, leaving any traces of cynicism aside.
One of the all-star women leading the field trip enters the van with a vaguely Bob Marley-appropriative headscarf, carrying a shofar, and hands each woman an uncannily-real-looking fake-wedding-ring, “so you can prepare to be in yichud (intimate union) with the Holy One!” I find myself wondering if this is what it feels like to go through sorority rushing, if I have to swear to secrecy.
Aiming for a fully immersive (I can’t help myself) experience, I put my phone away instead of sending a play-by-play of the “wacky” or “fluffy” rituals of the night. It would be too easy, like, stupid-easy, for me to roll my eyes – at the marriage-focused party favor, at the talk of women’s special intuition and powers of renewal, at the talk of rachamim, compassion, as connected to rechem, womb, at the way we’re all calling each other “sister” all of a sudden…? Except, it’s more fun to be there fully, qualifiers be damned. This is nuance too. I am a complex woman, damnit.
There are parts of me that gag at the idea of a fake wedding ring in the context of spiritual striving, and parts of me that can hang with that imagery, soak up its worth and power, without it limiting me from other images of inspiration and aspiration. I have little interest in debating the merits of a dollar-store fake-diamond in itself. It’s not the point.
The thing is, just because something positive is utilized sometimes for manipulative, problematic, or restrictive aims, that need not detract from the thing’s independent positive value. And I suppose the inverse would apply too, that just because something seriously negative can be spun to extract some superficial positive value does not erase its foundational destructiveness.
The question arises, then: what may I find beautiful? From what may I be uplifted? I want so badly to reclaim the images of woman as giver of life, of the womb as evolution, of the movement from linear to circular. I want to embrace the divine emanation of binah, the embodied presence of shechinah, in all its sacred feminine majestic compassion and light. And not as a substitute for anything else, not as an afterthought, not as something proscriptive. I am done with apologetics, and part of that is reclaiming these symbols, detaching them from their uses as rhetorical devices to keep women in the margins. We have so much power. We’ve always had it in us.
More than worth it, it is an absolute necessity whose time is long past due and we can’t keep this winged being in her chrysalis any longer. It’s not up to us to decide how powerful universal energies arrive, at any rate. It is our job to welcome her. –Rachel Kann, “The Uprising Of The Sacred Feminine In Real Time, (Too)”