Standing Up For Girls

Standing Up For Girls:
One researcher explains how to really protect our daughters during Bat Mitzvah

by Dr. Beth Cooper Benjamin, Ed.D.

Today, outside of Orthodoxy, girls and boys participate in identical B’nai Mitzvah rituals celebrated with equal enthusiasm by families and communities. Given that ritual Bar Mitzvah has existed since the Middle Ages while Bat Mitzvah was inaugurated less than 100 years ago, we have certainly come a long way. Where I work, though, we’re learning that things might still be different for young men and women during B’nai Mitzvah.

Recently, I spoke with my 12 year-old cousin, whose social calendar is in full-tilt B’nai Mitzvah mode. His reality is very different than that of his female classmates; when I asked what he wears I was told he “has two shirts.” I don’t know if he finds the prospect of wearing the same thing every weekend a snoozefest or a relief. What I do know is that this relaxed nonchalance is not what I encountered when I was studying girls’ experiences of contemporary Bat Mitzvah.

I work as the Research Director at Ma’yan, where I co-lead a feminist leadership training program for Jewish teen girls. Together with a co-facilitator and nine Jewish girls in NYC-area high schools, we conducted an online survey of pre- and post-Bat Mitzvah girls in the tri-state area. In the survey, we presented a series of “story stems” (written scenarios designed to elicit themes related to Bat Mitzvah) and asked participants to complete the stories they had been given and explain what the characters were thinking and feeling. Story stems, like other projective measures, allow respondents to articulate their experiences and associations indirectly, without having to claim them as their own.

In our research, we found that the meaning of Bat Mitzvah is bound up with the ways girls are negotiating femininity in the crucible of puberty and at the edge of adolescence. We learned that this milestone raises challenging issues for girls, and we have some suggestions for adults. In the complete report, I discuss various aspects of the Bat Mitzvah experience for girls, but here I look specifically at pressures girls face around attire, femininity, and sexuality.

Girls’ narratives often took the shape of a mythic quest for the “perfect dress,” suggesting that the question of what to wear is one of great consequence for Bat Mitzvah girls. This quest for perfection also reflects a mass culture that relentlessly targets girls with digitally enhanced images that create impossible beauty standards. What we noticed in these narratives is that respondents had internalized the belief that they will be judged based on how they present themselves. The extreme version of the anxiety is a belief that their value as people is tied up with their clothing choice.

Respondents also wrote rich descriptions of Bat Mitzvah dresses. Dresses were frequently described as either babyish or matronly, and sometimes both at once: “It looked like a Barbie fairy princess turned Grandma.” What’s missing from these developmental mash-ups of girlhood and old age is the state that girls’ bodies are often beginning to resemble at around Bat Mitzvah-age: sexually mature adulthood. Arguments around hemlines and tzniut (modesty) are sometimes proxies for a more difficult conversation about girls’ maturing bodies, sexualization and objectification, and their desire to assert and explore their sexuality.

Lots of adults are concerned about their daughters’ dignity or the solemnity of religious ritual. And many girls want to express their identities, relate to their friends, and not be coerced into looking “like a nun.” So what’s a parent or other caring adult to do?

Our research clearly shows that the Bat Mitzvah unfolds in conversation with all the other influences and experiences in girls’ lives. One of the best things adults can do is to create safe spaces where girls can talk – about their pressures and concerns as well as excitement and anticipation. Strive for open-ended dialogue rather than seeking out specific information or correcting misperceptions. Cultivating a curious (but not interrogative) attitude conveys respect to young people, who may view adults as using conversations to assess or inform or fix them.

Another important thing adults (both parents and Jewish communal professionals) can do is to resist the temptation to police girls’ bodies even under the guise of protecting them. It’s normal to feel protective of young people and/or community norms. But girls’ bodies and sexuality are often highly provocative for adults, and it’s crucial for us to ask ourselves: what’s coming up for me as I negotiate this issue? What do I feel when a woman wears a short skirt or a low-cut dress? What concerns me about my daughter’s clothing preferences? It can also be helpful to talk explicitly with teens about the cultural pressures and marketing messages that constrain girls’ choices and create narrow and impossible beauty standards.

Whether they’re on the Bimah, in school, or hanging out in their pajamas, tween and teen girls often feel scrutinized and denigrated based on their appearance and their actions. It’s so common that we might not even notice it, but criticizing a girl or woman for violating – or appearing to violate – cultural norms of sexual behavior and appearance (sometimes called “slut-shaming”) demeans all girls and robs more dignity and meaning from a spiritual milestone than any hemline or high heel possibly could. And it clearly discriminates. Look at the reaction to the MTV Awards performance by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke: both performances were overtly sexualized, but Miley got criticized while Thicke (whose song “Blurred Lines” suggests that women don’t mean it when they tell a man “no”) was barely mentioned. Calling out this kind of commentary is an act of courage and a powerful action for adults to model. You can start by naming it in the world around you (you will find plenty of examples in the media, but you can also find amazing examples of girls’ activism and resistance) and reminding young people that a person’s value has nothing to do with what he or she wears.

Coming of age can be difficult for girls, as they navigate a more complex social world and become more conscious of external pressures and expectations from parents, peers, community, and society. But we know it can also be a challenging time for adults, who have to temper their support with restraint that encourages girls to explore their identities and solve their own problems.

This piece contains just some of the many findings from a longer report about our research on Bat Mitzvah. The full report, “It’s Actually A Pretty Big Deal: Girls’ narratives of contemporary Bat Mitzvah”, is available here; to learn more about Ma’yan’s resources for parents and educators, visit our website.

Beth is the Director of Research at Ma’yan, where she serves as a vocal advocate for girls in the Jewish communal world. She received her doctorate in Human Development and Psychology from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and can be reached at beth@mayan.org