Sunday, February 16, 2014

Wearing the Pants

Today I made a Big Purchase.  It wasn't a residence or a car; I didn't book an expensive vacation; I did not become the owner of any glittering, new jewelry.

I bought a pair of pants.

This was a big deal because when I first started becoming religiously observant four years ago, the first thing I did was trade in my pants for skirts.  It was a relatively easy change to make, one I could implement immediately, unlike the complex lifestyle adjustments of keeping Shabbat and maintaining a kosher home.  I liked having a visible symbol of my Jewish identity, something I could wear every day that would remind me of this new piece of myself that I was discovering.  I enjoyed knowing that, just as I could recognize other observant Jewish people walking down the street, they would now look at me and know that I was also religious.  Most of all, I loved rules, and was excited to have a new one to follow:  Skirts Only--No Pants.

Even though other aspects of my religious life took long periods of time to develop, this wardrobe shift happened seemingly overnight and quickly became an all-or-nothing, non-negotiable practice.  Though I truly felt it was a positively motivated choice, wrapped up in my staunch adherence to the No Pants Policy were many layers of insecurity and perfectionism, along with a strong dose of all-or-nothing thinking.  I fell in love with religious Judaism at a time when my identity without my eating disorder was just beginning to take shape.  I needed a new place to belong, and Judaism was that place.  Insecure about my lack of background knowledge, I felt I should at least look the part so that others would accept me while I was learning.  One thing I felt sure of was that person who is trying to join a group cannot afford to break any rules.  Was I serious about becoming observant?  Was I committed to living a Jewish life in all ways?  If the answer to both of those questions was, "yes," then the answer to the question of clothing was clear:  No Pants.

As long as I insisted on approaching Judaism with the same sense of rigidity I had applied to my eating disorder, there was never going to be any room for flexibility.  Yet, this is what I honestly thought Judaism demanded, until I started meeting women who challenged that notion.  There was the time I paid a visit to one of my Modern Orthodox teachers at her home and she answered the door wearing pants.  Or the time I went bowling motzei Shabbat with a group of my religious friends, and a bunch of the girls showed up in jeans.  At first I thought these were just flukes, but then it kept happening:  over and over, I met women who I knew had strong religious identities, who cared about halacha, who were active members of their observant Jewish communities…and who sometimes wore pants.

Mind blown.

After encountering all this hard evidence, I started to feel ready to experiment.  The truth is, I enjoy wearing skirts.  But sometimes, pants are just easier, like when there's a foot of snow on the ground, or if I'm going hiking, or when it's Sunday and I just want to lounge around.  So I started testing out wearing pants…and…nothing happened.  I still observe Shabbat; I continue to keep kosher; I still daven every day and learn Torah as often as I can.  Wearing the occasional pair of pants doesn't change any of that, but it does make me feel like a more flexible, open-minded human being.  It's true that in some circles, observant Judaism IS very black-and-white, and if I wanted to belong there, then pants would always be a no-no.  But I've worked hard, in recovery, to learn that a secure identity does not have to be a rigid construction.  (I've also learned that the Torah doesn't actually prohibit women from wearing pants, and while some women might take that stringency upon themselves, I can choose to be among the many who don't.)  My eating disorder was all about rules, severity, and harsh discipline--and I've worked too hard to move away from that mindset, to go back to it now.  I want my Jewish observance to flourish in recovery, to be inspired and genuine and also able to withstand some healthy flexibility.

I once had a recovery mentor who taught me to say, "I don't have to______.  I get to _____."  Today, as I bought my new jeans, I heard my recovered self say, "I don't have to control my wardrobe with an iron fist.  I get to wear what's comfortable."  This afternoon, I davened mincha while wearing pants.  And it was good.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"What I Be"

I love a good photograph.  More than any other art form, photography has the power to move me deeply, to stop me in my tracks.  It just amazes me, what a truly skilled photographer can capture with one click of the shutter.

A few days ago, I learned about the "What I Be" photography project created by Steve Rosenfield; particularly, the series he created in partnership with students at Yeshiva University in NYC.  Each photograph features a head shot of an individual who has a bold message written on his or her arms, face, or chest.  Next to each image is the statement, "I am not my _______," with the blank filled in by the subject's greatest insecurity.  Through the "What I Be with the Jews of NYC" project, Rosenfield addresses head-on the stigmas and taboos that are often prevalent in observant Jewish communities.

Of course, this bold project has been met with plenty of controversy and opposing viewpoints among members of the YU community.  I won't use this forum to discuss the debate, but I will share my personal opinion of the project:

I. Love. This.  LOVE IT.

I can't quite imagine the courage it must have taken each one of the subjects to bear his or her greatest fear to family, community, and beyond, but I am so grateful to everyone who was willing to "put it out there."  Is the project provocative?  Absolutely.  It challenges us to face the reality of who is within our communities, and what struggles reside there.  And, while it might be perceived by some as a gratuitous airing of "dirty laundry," I would argue that "dirty laundry" is everywhere.  We all have it.   I have often felt too "flawed and complicated" to truly belong to any community.  And yet, as I viewed the images in this photography project, I came face to face with dozens of people whose insecurities and struggles mirrored my own.  Many times, I found myself thinking, "Wait, that happens here, too?"  The answer is, YES.  It happens here.  Mental illness; emotional instability; trauma; diversity in race, family structure, and sexual orientation--it all happens, everywhere.  While acknowledging it might be uncomfortable, discomfort leads to growth…and growth, hopefully, leads to inclusion and compassion and mutual support.  

Furthermore, how about that message:  "I am not my _________."  While it's important to be able to give voice to our challenges, it is also critical not to be defined by them.  When we're open about our vulnerabilities, we do risk being seen as, "The person with problem X."  How vital it is, then, for us to practice saying (and believing), "Yes, I have problem X, but I AM NOT problem X."  After all the time I spent in treatment, and all the years in which my eating disorder was front and center in my mind, it has been a huge relief to realize, "I am not my eating disorder."  I also am not my exercise routine, or my perfectionism, or my social anxiety.  The gift of recovery is realizing that those are just pieces of a much larger, richer puzzle that is ME.  And although I want to be able to be open about my struggles, I also want to be sure to project to the world a version of myself that is more comprehensive than just the "Struggle Edition."  We all deserve to be seen and accepted as our authentic selves.  But before we can expect others to be okay with who we are, we need to be okay with who we are.

So, the next time your insecurities start to feel like the core of who you are, practice saying to yourself, "I am not my ______.  It's part of me, but it isn't all of me."  And, the more you practice saying this, to yourself and out loud to the world, the more likely it is that you'll meet others who will say, "I've been there, too."