How the Purim story teaches us about gendered appearance expectations
Compare and Contrast:
1. "When each girl's turn came to go to King Ahasuerus at the end of the twelve months (!!) treatment prescribed for women (for that was the period spent on beautifying them: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with women's cosmetics)...." (Esther 2:12)
2. "Quick, then!" said the king to Haman,"Get the (royal) garb...So Haman took the garb...and arrayed Mordecai..." (Esther 6:10-11)
By Rabbi Richard Hirsh
Despite the hyperbole that is characteristic of the Scroll of Esther, this gender-specific discrepancy in how much time must be allowed to prepare oneself for public presentation remains a conundrum in contemporary teen-age culture, inside the synagogue as well as outside. There remain significant discrepancies between Bar Mitzvah boys and Bat Mitzvah girls when it comes to "how to dress." The amount of anxiety, expense and energy that many girls must expend on the appropriate outfit for their service, and in some cases, a separate outfit for the reception that follows, remains disproportionate to the time it takes for most boys to pick out the basic "Bar Mitzvah suit, shirt and tie." And despite the best intentions of socially progressive and gender-sensitive parents, as the father of both a Bat and Bar Mitzvah, I know from our family experiences that we are pushing uphill against socially-constructed but nonetheless demanding expectations, norms and socialization strategies when it comes to "how to dress" for synagogue.
There are certainly a multitude of cultural messages online and in print that suggest what "the ideal" appearance for teenagers ought to be. And not all such representations are negative, exploitative, or designed to foster competitiveness. But there remain enough subtle and not-so-subtle messages aimed at teenage girls about how they ought to look as to perpetuate the "twelve months (girls)/Quick, then! (boys)" dichotomy in the story of Esther. One important step in confronting these issues is to invite boys into the discussion. A valuable synagogue program for teenagers could be one where boys are asked to comment on a series of images of girls, and then listen to the girls as they respond to the comments. This is not to suggest that all boys and all girls will see things the same way. But in a society where gender roles remain imbalanced, it can be a growthful Jewish moment for teens to listen to each other react to expectations about attire as they approach Bat or Bar Mitzvah.
At this turning point of the teenage years, we strive to convince young Jewish students that Judaism has something more to say about how we live our lives than just Shabbat, holidays and food. But when it comes to appearance, most of the Jewish guidance we can offer centers of the traditions of tzniut ("modesty"), which consists almost exclusively of rules written by men for women. While modesty may remain a virtue, who should be determining how "modesty" gets defined? In recent years, the gender-imbalance and patriarchal power that guided the creation of these regulations has been challenged -- an important step in empowering Jewish girls and women to revisit, review and revise standards of dress from their own perspective. (I suspect that left to their own resources, the women preparing for meeting King Ahasuerus might well have resisted the twelve-month regimen to which they were subjected.)
In some ways, teenage Jewish girls and boys are up against the same issues: well-funded and ubiquitous media that supports a well-funded fashion industry that supports a series of socially-constructed expectations about "how to look." And both boys and girls are under much social and peer pressure to align with these expectations, and to submit to the cultural messages about what makes for popularity and acceptance. But it remains sadly true that girls are under much more pressure than are boys when it comes to how to dress. We still have a long way to go.
I acknowledge that the binary framing of this reflection leaves out the complex and important discussion of appearance/attire for teens who identify as, are uncertain about, or may be struggling with gender-fluid and trans identity and appearance. Perhaps the disruption of norms that non-binary identification often implies might well turn out to be a resource in disrupting the discrepancies of expectations of appearance for boys and girls. As the Scroll of Esther teaches, sometimes help indeed comes mimakom acher - "from a different place."
Rabbi Richard Hirsh, Congregation M'kor Shalom, Cherry Hill, NJ. Rabbi Hirsh is a member of JWI’s Clergy Task Force.