Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Analyzing Myths of Female Beauty: An Alternative Approach To Teaching Tzniut

Those of you who have been reading my blog since its inception remember my upsetting experience at my Bais Yaakov school when it came to tznius. The main problem with the way tznius was taught in my high school had to do with the following fact: it worked based on two premises, only one of which proved true.

The first premise was that wearing certain clothing had the power to make you feel a certain way. The second premise was that wearing clothing that was deemed untznius made you feel dirty, exposed or otherwise unpleasant. This was illustrated by a session with our Mechanechet where she had us put on certain clothing (I believe on top of our uniforms) and then asked us to talk about how we felt in it.

In my case, it was true that wearing certain clothing had the power to make me feel a certain way. The problem was that wearing clothing that was deemed untznius didn't make me feel dirty, exposed or unpleasant. Rather, it made me feel attractive, sexy and powerful. I knew that the teachers felt that I should feel dirty or exposed in this clothing, and somewhere in the back of my mind there was even an urge to try to feel as I should. But the larger part of me- the part that didn't feel ugly, but felt confident- won out.

Tznius as it is currently taught has a lot to do with the word should. The phrase "Kol Kevudah Bat Melech Penimah" gets tossed around a lot. The meaning of the sentence is "The honor of a princess is within" - the implication being that it is within rather than without. We are told that we are daughters of God, princesses of Hashem. Just like a princess dresses herself in royal robes rather than rags, we too are called upon to dress in an attractive, presentable way, but not in a sexy, provocative manner. We are told that dressing in a sexy way is simply another way of being trashy. We are told that wearing such clothing should provoke uncomfortable feelings within us.

I think an alternative approach to teaching tznius would be to look at women and women's clothing through a media-critical lens. Many of my students are bombarded with media and its images throughout their day, whether on the Internet, their cell phones, billboards, magazines they read, books they devour or TV shows they watch. They toss off the easy comment, "Oh, the media doesn't influence me- I'm too smart for that" but are then shocked when presented with information regarding what the life of a model is really like, or the process a model's face undergoes before it reaches a billboard.

In the book The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It, author M. Gigi Durham presents five myths that are present in today's society. The myths are based around the following ideas:

1. If You've Got It, Flaunt It
2. Anatomy of a Sex Goddess
3. Pretty Babies
4. Violence is Sexy
5. What Boys Like

Durham explains that she is a feminist, and the premise of her book is based on the idea that children are inherently sexual. She believes that "sex and sexuality are normal, natural, and at best, wonderful aspects of being alive, and that the diverse range of expressions of sexual feelings can be both inspiring and valid" (11). However, the mainstream media mishandles and distorts girls' sexuality in "ways that actually limit and hamper girls' healthy sexual development" (12).

Durham is a pro-sex feminist, which means that she believes sex needn't be "taboo or hush-hush" but rather a "normal and healthy part of life, even of children's lives" (22). She's noticed, however that:
The turn of the new millennium has spawned an intriguing phenomenon: the sexy little girl. She's an all-too-familiar figure in today's media landscape: the baby-faced temptress with the preternaturally voluptuous curves, the one whose scantily clad body gyrates in music videos, poses provocatively on teen magazine covers, and populates cinema and television screens around the globe. She's become a fixture in Western pop culture: we all know her various incarnations, from Britney Spears to the sex-kittenish cartoon girls of anime, from Brooke Shields's child prostitute in Pretty Baby to JonBenet Ramsey's beauty queen persona and the Australian preteen sex symbol Maddison Gabriel. She's been celebrated and censured, and she serves as a symbolic flashpoint for raging debates about gender, sexuality, the definition of childhood, and the criteria for social standards of acceptance. (24)
Perhaps one reason for the fascination with the sexy little girl "is her tricky double role in contemporary society- she is simultaneously a symbol of female empowerment and the embodiment of a chauvinistic 'beauty myth.' She invokes the specter of pedophilia while kindling the prospect of potent female sexuality (24)," Durham suggests.

Durham notes that most contemporary conversations about sex in the media come down to a good/bad dichotomy where you are seen as either for sex or against sex (32). She argues against this, saying there needs to be a middle ground between supporting "fundamentalist Christian Joyce Meyers and pop singer Shakira as sexual guideposts in the media arena" (33).

Then she makes her brilliant point, one that is certainly not understood by many people in America, let alone the students I teach:
What has become clear- yet is not widely understood- is that media images of sexuality are quite specific, and are driven by a variety of factors, the most important of which is the for-profit structure in which they operate. As a consequence, the version of sexuality that proliferates in the mainstream media is not aligned with progressive politics, though the rhetoric around it offers the illusion that it is. (33)
Throughout the course of her book, she offers many examples of this claim, but perhaps the easiest one for all of us to relate to is that "Cosmopolitan magazine, a publication famous for instructing young women to please men sexually, describes its audience as 'fun, fearless females'" (33). Because of the rhetoric used, the "very conservative vision of sex celebrated in these arenas is strongly linked with sexual emancipation and even feminism" (33).

So now let's take a brief look at the myths.

1. If You've Got It, Flaunt It

The New York Times profiled "a group of accomplished teenage girls: they were varsity athletes, academic achievers, classical musicians and volunteer workers, all at once" (63). But they readily admitted that it was much more important to them to be 'hot' than 'smart.' The question is- what does hot mean? 
[H]otness or sexiness is relentlessly linked to particular images in Western popular culture. For example, in a recent issue of Seventeen, the top-circulating teen magazine (which is read by girls as young as ten), a photo fashion spread titled 'Sexy and Seventeen' featured a series of slender Caucasian models in clothes that revealed their underwear- sweaters unbuttoned to expose brassieres, models wearing only a top and panties or a camisole with tap pants. The "sexy" headline linked the body displays with desirability. 'Dare to bare' urges a headline in Teen Vogue that features teen girls in minuscule mini-skirts, their body-baring bodaciousness contrasted with a little girl wearing a frumpy mid-calf-length plaid skirt. The message there is that exhibitionism is daring, while conservative clothing is childish and boring. "Viva glam!" crows an ad for M.A.C. cosmetics, in which a buxom model poses in tiny strips of cloth that barely cover her curves, again celebrating semi-nudity as the path to glamour.  
Music videos- by both male and female artists- almost inevitably feature semi-clad women and fully clad men, and the lyrics establish these women ad desirable and sexual. This pattern has been documented in a number of research studies, and at the time of this writing, the top three videos on MTV- 50 Cent's "Ayo Technology," T.I.'s "You Know What It Is," and Maroon 5's "Wake UP Call" - all contain images of female strippers performing for fully dressed male viewers; all of the representations of women in these videos conform to the porno version of sexuality that involves skimpy clothing or stripping and sexual servitude to men, while the lyrics establish the men's voracious desire for these women.  
In these representations, sex is purely physical and based on female exhibitionism; this physicality can trigger high emotion, which is often violent (a subject discussed later in this book); but the women's sexuality never translates as anything other than a stimulus. It has nothing to do with intimacy, mutual respect, or love, ideas that have become virtually unthinkable in the arena of contemporary sexuality. The construction of the myth of female sexuality in music videos connects sex directly with female body displays and male desire, and disconnects it from "softer" emotions like tenderness or affection.  
-Pages 74-75
As Durham puts it, "The core message is not hard to recognize: if you're female, your desirability is contingent on blatant body display."

2. Anatomy of a Sex Goddess

Try this on your own- what does a 'perfect girl' look like? Close your eyes for a moment and think about it. Most likely, you came to the answer that I get when I ask this question, and that the author of the book always gets: "She would look like Barbie."
Barbie has been recast as a feminist these days; in the progressive New Moon magazine, twelve-year-old Abby Jones writes, "One of Barbie's slogans is 'Be who you wanna be'. You can buy Teacher Barbie, California Girl Surfer Barbie, Pet Doctor Barbie, and many others. In the Barbie movies, Barbie is smart, strong and courageous." Like Abby, I'm all in favor of Barbie's dizzying array of career trajectories, fo the ways she has overcome her mathophobia, and of her recent forays into tattoos and piercings. But it's also clear that Barbie's body stays the same throughout all of her incarnations: translated to human scale, in a now-infamous formulation, she would be a 5-foot 9-inch woman with an 18-inch waist, 36-inch breasts, and 33-inch hips, and she would weigh 110 pounds. That's too skinny to menstruate, according to one medical analysis of the doll. She may even be too skinny to stand upright. And it's still the ideal girl's body, the exemplar for all races, classes, and nations. Recent studies have shown that preteen girls still longingly described Barbie's body as 'perfect.'  
But being thin is not enough: thinness must be coupled with lush curves in the "right" places- the breasts- in order for the ideal to be achieved. And these body characteristics don't normally tend to coincide: when weight loss occurs, breast size tends to decrease. Most fashion models stand 5 feet 10 or taller and weigh less- often much less- than 140 pounds. They are expected to fit into a dress size between 2 and 4. Men argue that stick-thin fashion models are not sexy or attractive, but Playboy centerfolds are similarly atypical in their physical characteristics- with vital statistics of 34-23-34 and weights significantly less than those of other women in their age group.  
In addition, almost all photographs in fashion and beauty publications and, increasingly, almost all video images of models are technical wonders of the digital age. The models themselves are pale shadows of their media images, which are airbrushed, edited, and altered so as to create flawless facsimiles of femininity. They are a far cry from the real world: according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average American woman is about 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 163 pounds. The model- the adored ideal- is both a genetic anomaly and a fabrication of technology, constructing a physical type that is unattainable for almost all girls and women. 
~Pages 96-100
So who benefits from this? Certainly not women- who are comparing themselves to constructions of media and technology, not to real people. Not men- who either look longingly at these unattainable models and wish one of them was their girlfriend, or who end up with wives who have body-image issues. But there are multiple industries that do benefit.
[T]he ongoing pursuit of the ideal body is an expensive proposition. Diet pills and products, gym memberships, stylish clothes to flatter the figure (and become instantly outmoded), high heels to make legs look longer, plastic surgery to inflate the bust and suction the fat, anticellulite creams and potions- the products required to attain the Barbie body are myriad and costly. Multiple industries depend on girls' yearning for the Barbie body: the fashion, diet, exercise, cosmetic and plastic surgery industries all generate multibillion-dollar annual profits. These are the very industries that advertise in the media that promote this ideal body.  
And advertising is the lifeblood of the media, its major source of revenues. It is advertising, not subscriptions, that generate profits for the media. Seventeen magazine earned $101.9 million in advertising in 2006, while the Web site Teen People had advertising revenues of almost $77 million. The Coty cosmetics corporation spent $19 million in 2005 to advertise products targeted to fifteen-to-twenty one-year-olds. To post a single ad for four weeks on MySpace costs between $80,000 to $300,000-and the site's annual advertising revenues are estimated at $250 million, primarily because of the high proportion of young users. Health and beauty products contributed $1.63 billion to prime-time TV in 2006. 
Corporations from food manufacturers to lingerie retailers spend literally billions of dollars every year advertising to the youth market. This extensive network of interrelated corporations would collapse if girls and women stopped their pursuit of the "curvaceously thin" body. The media must promote the Barbie body in order to attract advertisers; advertisers must promote the Barbie body in order to sell the products needed for its attainment. The media and the fashion and beauty industries work hand in glove, driven by a common profit motive. The relationship is symbiotic; if one of these components were to fail, it would have a negative impact on all the others. So the relentless glorification of the Barbie body persists.  
-Page 101
3. Pretty Babies
The American media ideal of female sexuality has been getting progressively younger over the years. In the middle part of the last century, our icons of female sexuality were downright elderly by today's standards: Marilyn Monroe was twenty-seven when she immortalized the seductress Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; Elizabeth Taylor was twenty-four when she sizzled onscreen in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Sophia Loren was twenty-three as the sensuous Abbie Cabot in Desire Under the Elms. These film sirens were legally and physically adults; their much-admired bodies were women's bodies- voluptous and fully developed. Their bodies would not meet today's standards of sculpted masculinity and narrow-hipped leanness. They looked too much like mature women to have present-day appeal in an era of the Lolita Effect.  
This emphasis on youthfulness as the mark of beauty and desirability has led to the increasing use of very young girls as models in fashion and advertising, often in very sexually suggestive contexts. Most catwalk models today are between fourteen and nineteen years of age, and some are as young as twelve- like Maddison Gabriel and Gerren Taylor, who was not yet in her teens when she began modeling for such haute couture houses as Betsey Johnson and Tommy Hilfiger. Victoria's Secret model Adriana Lima began modeling at twelve, and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Laetitia Casta started at fifteen.  
A series of Louis Vuitton print ads featuring seductive topless photographs of preteen girls appeared in major mainstream magazines a couple of years ago: they went wholly unremarked. A recent Newsweek article described Halloween costumes in little girls' sizes that include fishnet stockings, corsets and "Chamber Maid" outfits marketed as "sexy" and "hot." And an Australian billboard for Lee jeans featured a teenage model wearing hotpants, exposing a breast, and sucking on a lollipop. 
Actually, in this last example, the model was eighteen, but posed and made up to look at least five years younger. This is a different twist on the same idea: that ideal female sexuality is youthful, or even childlike.  
~Pages 117-118 
Why does this matter? In the words of the author, because "these depictions, and their ultimate conclusion, do nothing to foster a healthy, balanced understanding of sex as a normal part of human life that is best experienced in adulthood" (119). The author says this, not out of any religious or moralizing point of view, but because it has been proven that young children cannot understand the consequences of sexual activity and properly protect themselves (physically, emotionally and otherwise).

4. Violence is Sexy
Images of violence against women are pervasive: on billboards, in magazines, on television. A magazine ad for the upscale Dolce and Gabbana clothing line features a man having sex with a woman, while other men stand around watching. The scene implies a gang rape. The models in the ad are beautiful, and they look intense and turned on. The woman does not appear to be afraid. The gang rape is implicitly justified.  
An ad for Cesare Paciotti shoes shows a man stepping on a beautiful, red-lipsticked woman's face. 
An ad for Radeon gaming software depicts a topless young woman with the product's name branded on her back: the brand is red and raw. 
When I show these images in my classes, the students say they are "sexy." I ask them to imagine a puppy, or a little boy, in these situations: they are shocked. The images of violence are arousing only when the violence is aimed at girls.  
~Page 148
Durham cautions us that debates about sex and violence in the media always hinge on the issue of causality- the media does not cause people to go out and commit violent acts. Durham agrees that this is true and argues that the media does something much more insidious- it creates myths. They are our cultural mythmakers, and the myths supply us with "ideas and scripts that seep into our consciousness over time, especially when the myths are constantly recirculated in various forms" (148). These myths are "sugarcoated; they are aesthetically appealing, emotionally addictive, and framed as cutting-edge and subversive. But violence against women is neither edgy nor subversive: the violent abuse of women has been around for a long time" (149).

5. What Boys Like
In the pages of teen fashion and beauty magazines like Seventeen and CosmoGirl, tips on getting boys to notice and "crush" on girls are skillfully intermixed with the product placement that characterizes girls' magazines, so that the advice on buying jeans, accessories, and cosmetics is seamlessly linked to the relationship guidance that purports to help girls negotiate the complexities of love and sex. "Girls are empowered to be informed consumers of boys," as one analysis of these magazines concluded. The pleasures of self-adornment and consumerism are yoked to the central goal of achieving happy heterosexual couplehood. These magazines are oddly anachronistic: they offer a prefeminist vision of a girl's life, where girls require male admiration and attention and can gain it by learning to fulfill male pleasure in very traditional ways: by paying breathless attention to boys' needs and then offering services that provide for them. These services are often highly traditional ones: primping, cooking, and supplying limitless emotional support without expecting any in return. These kinds of activities seem hopelessly retrogressive when you stop to think about them, yet, as the sociologist Dawn Currie observes, girls insist "that the sexualized representations and expressions of femininity in contemporary magazines embody a new wave of women's emancipation."  
It's difficult to see where the emancipation comes in. The concept of a mutually pleasing relationship, in which both partners work to understand the needs of the other, is conspicuously absent from these media. And there are no corresponding magazines or other media for men or boys that exhort them, month after month, to learn how to please girls and women. Love and attraction are one-way streets, in the scenarios offered by these popular magazines.  
~Page 160
This last myth should be troubling to girls who want a mutually loving/ giving/ respectful relationship with boys, to homosexuals who don't see themselves or their sexuality represented by this type of media, and really to any human being.

I would argue that the best way to teach Tznius is to teach your students to do myth analysis. Don't present them with this information firsthand and let them read it; rather, pose questions to them. What does sexy mean? Who is the arbiter of sexy? Where do we get our ideas about what sexy connotes or implies? Look at print magazines. Who is pictured on the cover? Who isn't pictured? What words is this person put next to? What would you think about this picture if those words weren't displayed right next to them? Once you've begun to talk about the myths, the question becomes: what is the motivation behind the myths? The answer, of course, is profit. Then the question becomes:  how are we being coaxed into spending our money on the advertised products? The answer is that "the strategy is to create ideals that are impossible to attain and then suggest to audiences that they are attainable if the right products are purchased" (191). As Durham puts it, "there's no hint that sexuality is an inherent human trait, that both people and animals are de facto sexual, and that sexuality expresses itself in multiple and many-dimensional ways. No: sexiness must be bought" (191).

Once you've identified the myths, you can ask your students about their values when it comes to sexuality, intimacy and their bodies. You can also, if you wish, introduce Jewish values into the discussion. What you want to do is show your students that "the highly corporate, profit-motivated, mass-circulated images are the conformist positions. True rebellion lies in challenging, dissecting, and thinking through them- and then living your life according to your own values and ideas, not those of corporate media" (191).

It may be that your students' points of view will not align with your own, or with those of traditional Jewish values. But at least this way you have provided students with the tools to critically examine and question the media that informs their lives, to question whose definition of sexuality and beauty they choose to live by, and to question what it means to them to be female in today's world. Is the most important thing about them, as females, their physicality? Adele is famous for saying that she makes music "for your ears, not your eyes." In fact, her 2013 Oscar gown was elegant, fashionable, bared no skin and completely tzniut! Maybe your students' definitions of beauty will be more similar to hers than to the interpretations offered by most of our world today.


Dana said...

Go Chana go!!! Another great post :)
Harking back to what you wrote early on in this blog post- re: not feeling dirty when wearing sexy clothing- this is why in all-female productions, I think it's a healthy outlet when a character is a tznuah girl/woman in "real" life but onstage can dress in whatever costume the character calls for. You can feel sexy, slutty, empowered, etc, and know the difference between stage and real life. A bit of a tangent there, sorry, but end all: never feel dirty for what you wear! Just know when and where to wear it!

Anonymous said...

While I agree with and love this post, I think that giving kids tools to think critically is not enough in an age where fitting in matters more than values, rebellion, and thinking critically about information. Children simply want to be like everyone else, and whatever's in fashion (as designed my males in Paris and then widely portrayed in mass-media) is what they want to wear. So it's about being beautiful or desirable, but conformity plays a part as well.

Mr. Cohen said...

What solution do you suggest to solve these problems?

Malka said...

Very thought-provoking approach to sexuality in today's world.

However, sexuality is definitely a part of tzinah, but it is not the whole. One of the reasons that it is so hard to teach tznius is thate tzinah encompasses things like dignity, boundaries, and privacy. It also hinges on something that for lack of a better term, I think of as "self-centeredness": feeling centered within the self, having an emotional center-of-mass within the self, being able to turn inward to find balance and peace, rather than having to flail desperately outward in every moment of uncertainty. Anyone know the real word for this? There has to be a beautiful word!

In my understanding of tzinah, the myths of sexuality have almost nothing to do with the core of "tznius". They're terrible and upsetting, and ultimately at odds with tzinah, but countering them alone doesn't teach tzinah. At all. It teaches healthy sexuality--yay--and perhaps opens a door to something good that is almost tzinah, but it seems silly to start at the edge of such a great thing and creep to its core. Oddly enough, I think that that tzinah, which has so much to do with privacy and boundaries, is best taught by blasting straight to its center. Forget the clothes and the hair and how loud to talk: stop trying to tell people to act b'tzniut, teach them how to be tzinah, how to live b'tzniut!

Just don't ask me how to teach something as deep as that.

frum single female said...

great post

frum single female said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jackie said...

Malka reminds me of the most powerful tznius speech I received as a seventh-grader, which I really internalized and which still speaks to me to this day.

Our teacher (a male rebbe, in fact, who was a fabulous and very sensitive teacher) emphasized that tznius is about projecting that you are a soul. Bodies are awesome because they hold souls. You can use your body to express your soul and that's wonderful. But you're projecting something much shallower than your real self if people meet you and are overpowered by their impressions of the body over the impressions of the soul.

The discussions we heard in other years about the degrading values of sexuality in the media also spoke to me, but I don't think they reached everyone as powerfully as the seventh grade presentation.

Bas~Melech said...

That was an awesome post. Thank you for collecting and sharing the excerpts. "anonymous" at 11:17 also raises an excellent point that many unthinkingly go for fitting in, but it's highly plausible that for many, a lesson like this might help even those youths want to question whom they are trying to fit in with and why, which is useful to think about even if it won't cause an automatic shift in fitting-in behavior.

My question is how can we bring these points home to youngsters in more sheltered settings, without directly exposing them to foreign images? As an adult, I am exposed to much more than I was as a Bais Yaakov girl, and still many of the points you mentioned in this post were startling and disturbing to me (e.g. I never chanced upon the gang rape D&G ad. And I'm thankful for that.) I would not want to actually show these things to girls in certain settings, but I think it's important for them to have some awareness of where the trends they buy into are really coming from. Yet I distinctly recall teachers of my past trying to get these points across perhaps too vaguely as they seemed to me one long "blah blah blah" that wasn't very powerful...

FrumGeek said...

I love how people assume if something isn't spelled out in the Torah its not halacha. Ever hear of Torah Sh'Baal Peh?

Venetta said...

This is cool!

smoo said...

While my post, The Great Cover-Up, (below) doesn't specifically address the immediate concerns of your post, I think you may like some insights into tzniut.