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Banishing Barbie

May 9, 2009 | by Chaya Rivkah Jessel

Although often at ideological loggerheads, both feminism and traditional Judaism share a common goal -- upholding and ensuring the dignity of women.

The other day two events took place that revealed the intrinsic connection between my past and present life.

The first occurred in the morning while I was sorting out my desk. I came across some old photographs that transported me across time, across continents, and ultimately into another life. In this other life, I was a non-religious university student, fiercely committed to women’s rights. The snapshots showed me and several of my friends attending an International Women’s Day Rally. The memories of that day came flooding back --banners, speeches, color everywhere, music, drama, camaraderie, sisterhood, ideals worth fighting for, beliefs worth defending, support for women, struggle for women, rights for women, dignity for women…

Later on in the afternoon, a friend brought over a bag of used clothing for me to deliver to one of the neighborhood second-hand stores. Included were four Barbie dolls in excellent condition. Their hair was still shiny, long, and luxuriant. Smiles permanently in place, two sported earrings, another had a pink yo-yo affixed to her hand. The fashions were the typical Barbie fare.

I was just about to take the dolls out of the bag, (they would make a nice present for my nine-year old daughter), when something stopped me. The photographs. The memories. The ideals. I slowly placed the dolls back into the bag.

My halcyon student days, where I lived and breathed feminist theory, always seemed so strident, loud, and aggressive compared to my more sedentary existence as a stay-at-home Orthodox mother.

I have been observant for many years, and a mother for nine of those years, but only after my encounter with the Barbie dolls had I consciously acknowledged just how similar my two lives really were.

My halcyon student days, where I lived and breathed feminist theory, always seemed so strident, loud, and aggressive compared to my more sedentary existence as a stay-at-home Orthodox mother. Yet, the image of those photographs reminded me of a long-forgotten truth: both feminism and traditional Judaism share a common goal -- upholding and ensuring the dignity of women.

How the two ideologies go about expressing and achieving that goal sometimes sets them at loggerheads. But the goal itself is indisputable. Just as I would never have countenanced a Barbie doll in my home when my lifestyle was more overtly feminist, so too -- and for exactly the same reasons -- I understood that these sort of dolls are not suitable in a religious home.

As a left-wing student, Barbie dolls represented to me the most materialistic aspect of American society. I rebelled against the conspicuous consumption they encouraged. More importantly, I fervently disagreed with the stereotyped image of womanhood they depicted. Their standard of beauty was one few women could attain, and those that tried often did so at the risk of becoming anorexic. They looked nothing like any of the real, imperfect yet integrated women I admired.

Their beauty was skin-deep, and white-toned at that. My black sister students felt totally alienated by the Barbie ideal -- her life of leisure and shopping was insipid and empty compared to the very real issues they and most women of color struggled with.

When the manufacturers tried to introduce a talking Barbie, feminists all over the world reacted wrathfully as the immaculately dressed icon bleated out mindlessly, "Math sure is hard!" Is this what we wanted our daughters to emulate? An image of a woman utterly dependent on material products for her happiness, without any social conscience or personal ambition at all? No way would I ever have allowed any of my children, girls or boys, to play with such an ideologically tainted toy.

It wasn’t only my feminist consciousness that was switched off that day when I almost gave the dolls to my daughter. My Torah awareness was also not up to standard. How could I play host in my observant home to a doll that looks more like a Playboy pin-up than a child’s playmate?

Barbie is representative of a culture that objectifies women.

In my current environment, Barbie symbolizes everything that I, as a newly observant woman, rejected about Western culture. She is all body. There is nothing about her that even remotely suggests spirituality and internality. She is representative of a culture that objectifies women.

In this sense, Barbie actually brings together the twin evils of secular culture: the advertising and fashion industries. Neither of these realms are concerned with the betterment of women. Profit rules the day. Women’s bodies are everywhere, adorning cars, computers, dishwashers… anything, so long as it sells.

Barbie has always been at the forefront of fashion. Many top designers have succumbed to the lure of designing an outfit for her perfect body. Ostentation, titillation and objectification are the name of the game. Very few of Barbie’s outfits are designed with the comfort of the wearer in mind.

And that’s one of the things that attracted me to traditional Judaism -- the inherent dress reform. I had already been through the "uglification process" necessary to be considered a "serious" feminist -- baggy workers’ overalls, cut off at the elbows and knees, no make-up or jewelry allowed. Any form of adornment was seen as degrading to women in that its sole purpose was to attract men. I had achieved my goal of being taken seriously as a person, and not viewed solely on the basis of my physical features.

But, something was missing. My rigid, feminist dress code allowed for no individuality, no color, no creativity. I rebelled every now and again with dangly earrings, but I felt increasingly that I had lost a certain vitality in my dress.

As destiny would have it, it was just at this juncture in my life where I was feeling stifled by having to toe the party line, that I met a woman who was to shake up my ideas about religion, women, and feminism.

Chava answered my questions and attacks with a quiet certainty that unnerved me. She was able to show the Torah foundation underlying most of my feminist issues because we shared the same feminist language. For example, I once asked her how she could dress in such a stifling way. It was the height of summer, and she was wearing a skirt that reached below her knees, sleeves that covered her elbows, and a high-buttoned shirt. It was obvious to me that her adherence to such a stringent dress code was proof of her subordination to "the rabbis." They were the ones, I thought, who had formulated the restrictions. Since, at that time, I believed that Jewish law was "written by men for men," it seemed clear to me that the laws of tzniut were not in women’s best interests.

Her answer shook me to the core. "I will not allow myself to be objectified. I choose to reveal to whom I wish to reveal, when I wish to reveal." Her use of feminist logic shocked me into acknowledging that perhaps the Torah was not so oppressive after all.

She explained that human beings are bidden to emulate their Creator. Just as God "hides" behind the mask of the physical world, so too should we take care not to reveal our deepest selves to all and sundry -- only at the right time, in the right place, with the right person.

By projecting ourselves in a less external way, we become aware of our own depth and internality.

By embracing the laws of tzniut, we acknowledge that spirituality is, in its very essence, private and internal. Tzniut refines our self-definition. By projecting ourselves in a less external way, we become aware of our own depth and internality, and are more likely to relate to those around us in a deeper, less superficial manner. Since my feminism was founded upon becoming a more authentic, spiritually aware person, her explanation resonated very deeply with me.

What was even more shocking to me was that Chava found no need to de-emphasize her femininity. She dressed well, with a flair for color, and I yearned to have her sense of security. She knew she was more than just a body, but she also appreciated and enhanced her natural attributes. By way of personal example, she taught me that one may be attractive, but not attracting. Pretty, not provocative.

Chava went to great pains to teach me that tzniut is much more than a dress code for women. Firstly, I learned that the laws of tzniut are not only for women. Both sexes are required to dress and behave in a dignified way. However, the laws of women’s dress are more detailed because women’s bodies affect women and men in many more ways.

More significantly, tzniut is a way of life -- how one dresses is simply its most visible application. It encompasses our behavior, our speech, and even our thoughts. Whereas in its colloquial sense, "modesty" implies docility, low self-esteem, and a basic lack of "oomph," in Jewish terms, tzniut is a source of power and self-worth, and a prerequisite for spiritual growth. Tzniut means an awareness of being in God’s presence at all times. This is the reason that tzniut applies when we are alone as much as it does when we are with others. Always conscious of our Creator, every aspect of our lives assumes a transcendental value far beyond its superficial manifestation.

One of the key words in my feminist vocabulary was "self-esteem." This, I felt, was vital to a woman’s sense of achievement and accomplishment. When first learning about tzniut, I mistakenly associated it with a sense of self-deprecation. As I learned more, it became apparent that, on the contrary, tzniut is the most significant contributor to a strong sense of self and self-worth.

I was taught this fundamental lesson when reading through the Biblical account of the Garden of Eden. After eating from the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve made garments for themselves. Prior to their fall, they had been unaware of their primordial nakedness, and had only viewed their bodies as a means of serving God. The traditional commentaries point out that, having internalized the knowledge of Good and Evil, the couple lost their spiritual clarity. Falsehood was no longer an external entity but an intrinsic part of themselves. From that moment on, they were unable to see the spiritual within the physical. For this reason, they had to dim the power of the physical by covering it with garments.

Paradoxically, then, the act of covering up enables the spiritual to be revealed. Clothing reminds us that the body is merely the vehicle for the soul and that physical drives and pleasures should not be viewed as ends in themselves. In a sense, then, our clothes protect us from the animalistic nature of our bodies.

Observing the laws of tzniut makes a statement to ourselves and to the world at large that our self-worth is not reliant upon the approval of others, but rather upon doing what is right in God’s eyes. Tzniut frees people from superficiality, and in this way, engenders a stronger sense of self. I am more than my body, and I am no longer ensnarled by the current fads of fashion. Tzniut frees me to soar to ever-greater heights.

By not giving my daughter the Barbies, I was giving her a gift far greater in value. I was giving her the ability to be appreciated for her inner being, and not for her outer trappings. I was giving her a sense of self-esteem and independence. I was giving her dignity and self-control. I was giving her the gift of tzniut.

Chaya Rivkah Jessel left this world on 12 Teves, 5764 (January 6, 2004). Please visit the web page that has been created in her memory, at

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