Two things this past week got me thinking about the close connection between caring for oneself and others. First, I listened to style guru Stacy London of TLC’s “What Not to Wear” tell a room full of women at the JCC of San Francisco that what they put on their bodies should express who they are and why they’re beautiful.
Then I read a disturbing piece in the Sunday New York Times about etiquette classes for b’nai mitzvah kids that try to teach them how to behave like human beings.
What do the two have in common? Respect — for oneself and for others. That goes way beyond fashion in the first case or politeness in the second, and gets to the heart of Jewish teachings on how to be in the world.
Let’s parse it out.
“What Not to Wear” is a fascinating reality show that has little in common with, say, “Project Runway” or shows that try to teach women how to look fabulous. That’s because Stacy and her co-host, Clinton Kelly (who is fabulous, by the way), aren’t interested in pushing a fashion trend or selling makeup. They take a real-life woman who dresses badly, talk to her about the emotional barriers she has that prevent her from showing her best self, and in a few days (45 minutes in TV time) they help her transform how she thinks about herself, which in turn transforms how she presents herself to the world.
These women are young, old, black, white, stout, thin, married and single. Their friends and family nominate them for the show, usually saying things like “she’s so smart and lovely, but she doesn’t seem to care about herself.” Each week, Stacy puts a woman in front of a 360-degree mirror and tells her to look at herself — not just physically, but deeply. Then Stacy talks to her, asking questions: Why do you hide behind those baggy pants? What’s preventing you from wearing a dress?
Finally, the clincher: Do you think you’re pretty? That’s when most of the women start to cry. And Stacy spends the rest of the show getting them to see that yes, they are pretty. Every woman has something beautiful about her. Every woman (and every man) deserves to be loved, and dressing and grooming yourself well comes naturally once you believe that you are worth it.
By the end of each week’s episode, the women are literally beaming. They stand up straighter, they walk with confidence, they exude joy. It’s fascinating to watch the transformation.
“It’s not only about the clothes,” Stacy told the JCCSF crowd. “If you think of yourself in a new way, you can believe in yourself a new way. It’s about accepting you, and then developing a strategy to be the best you.”
The Torah says something about this, something often misunderstood — the bit about how women and men shouldn’t wear clothes meant for the opposite sex. On the surface that can be read as a prohibition on cross-dressing and other sexual “deviancy.” But I read it as an exhortation to be who you are, rather than pretending to be something you are not.
In one of our stories this week, Rabbi Reuben Zellman of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley says it thus: “Judaism flourishes when Jews bring our authentic selves to the table.” And he knows what he’s talking about (see page 2).
Now let’s move to the Times article, “Teaching Respect to the Faithful.” It describes the mayhem typical of many b’nai mitzvah services, where teens lounge outside the shul, texting friends and shouting to each other, while the b-mitzvah kid is inside trying to get through the Haftorah. The celebratory parties are even worse, as young people careen wildly through banquet halls, shouting and bumping into guests.
In response, the piece continues, Jewish communities around the country are sending their kids to pre–b’nai mitzvah etiquette classes. One such 12-week class in Detroit includes lessons on “how to ask someone to dance and why you shouldn’t run off with the decorations.”
Now, I’m not suggesting we return to the bad old days of white gloves and women in the kitchen. Just like Stacy London is about self-respect, the solution to kids causing a ruckus in shul is about respect for others. It’s about seeing the person in front of you as a human being deserving of consideration.
Hillel said it best: If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at email@example.com.