In continuing to highlight the points from the magazine article I wrote, I wanted to elaborate on the second idea raised, rethinking our priorities. In our community we teach our children from a young age that it is important to focus on middos, our positive traits or what is on the inside, as what matters and is fundamental to our relationship with Hashem. Sadly, however, often our behavior says precisely the opposite, as we model and reinforce the value of externality and physicality as things to aspire to, that being physically beautiful and thin are things of real value and worth. There is a great deal of time spent with young girls on their outward appearance.
Tznius is one such example. A tremendous amount of time both in school and at home is devoted to the topic of tznius and it is something adolescent girls hear about often. And while the concept of tznius is modesty in all areas of our behavior, speech, and dress, the primary message received is that it tznius is all really about how we look and present ourselves. This constant focus often results in the girls feeling that their physical appearance and what they look like on the outside is what people truly care about. There is this subtle underlying message that in order to be good, they have to look good.
Then they’ll question, “how will wearing this longer skirt connect me to Hashem?” or “how come my teachers are so focused on my elbows and neckline when they keep telling me that it is on the inside that matters?” This is perplexing and difficult for young girls to internalize. They become confused as they are taught that it is what is on the inside that makes them valuable and special, yet everyone is so focused on their outward appearance, especially as they enter the age of shidduchim where their physical presentation becomes the primary focus. Unfortunately, when we model these messages to our children and students, it doesn’t matter what it is we say to them. This must change.
Further, there is such a punitive focus associated with transgressing the expectation of tznius dress. Girls have been told that if you violate this expectation, terrible things will happen to them, their family, as well as the entire community. I personally know of a story where a teacher told her class that if they do not dress tznius, they will get breast cancer. Period. This is completely unacceptable and is a dangerous message for young girls to internalize. It creates tremendous feelings of shame and guilt and can lead to body-image issues and self-esteem struggles, both conduits to disordered eating and eating disorders.
This is not to say that physical looks have no value, but it is critical for women to know that that they are not the only valuable piece to each of us. It is imperative that we shift our focus back to what is important and really precious to Hashem.