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The Yoga Pants Controversy: Who Is Responsible for Whom?

I recently read an interesting article in the local Chicago papers about the controversial ban on leggings, yoga pants and other forms of “snugnitude” (don’t you love that word?) in certain public schools (you can read about it here).   Not surprisingly, the ban has been met with full-blown outrage by parents and students alike, most of whom protest the all-too-common tendency to place the blame for boy’s bad behavior squarely on the girls (“It’s not my daughter’s problem that the boys are so shallow and depraved!”), insisting that it’s not the girl’s responsibility to present herself in a way that ensures that the boys maintain a moderate amount of level-headedness and ability to concentrate in school. The boys should be civilized enough to behave themselves regardless of how girls dress.   That makes sense, at least partially.

Are Girls Responsible For The Attention They Attract?Banning Yoga Pants

Anyone who has any sensitivity to the world of domestic violence or any form of abuse against women knows that it is unacceptable to ever blame women for the destructive or inappropriate behavior of males.   But does that mean girls should be free to wear whatever they want? That they should take no responsibility? And where does male responsibility lie?   In other words, in the world of gender politics, who is responsible for whom?   Enter the Jewish approach, one which I consider to be a breath of dignity and a call to personal leadership in a world of blame, finger-pointing and utter refusal to look inward and take responsibility.

It’s about obligations, not rights

Modern society values freedom, and constitutionally has enshrined personal freedom and rights as its largest concern. Read the Bill of Rights and you will essentially see a detailed list of the rights of the individual in society.   Judaism stands in striking contrast. The Torah never mentions rights, only obligations. For example, the Torah doesn’t speak about our right to property, only our obligation not to steal. There is no right to life or liberty, only the profound imperative not to kill or obstruct the liberty of others. There is no right to happiness or sustenance, only the duty to provide others with dignity and physical and well-being.   Of course rights are acknowledged and dealt with at length in the Talmud, but the focus is clear; when each person is careful to live up to his or her obligations, rights simply take care of themselves.

Men and women are created differently…

Let’s be clear. Judaism states unequivocally that men and women are created differently across the spectrum of self; physically, psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually. In the Jewish view, difference never implies a hierarchy of value; both sexes and their unique contributions are vitally needed to make the world whole and thriving. The more we reinforce a unisex world through an insistence on essential sameness, the farther away we move from God’s intention in the creating our world. In other words, difference (both in nature and in personal responsibility) is necessary and it’s good.

So what does all this have to do with yoga pants?

Maybe you’ve heard of the Hebrew term tzniut (no, I didn’t sneeze). Tzniut is often poorly translated as modesty, but is better expressed as internality. In essence it means presenting our outsides in a way that reflects our internal selves, a decision to transform our outer layers into an expression of who we really are at our core (a soul with absolute dignity and worth). For those who choose to dress with internality in mind, you can choose any style you like, as long as you radiate first and foremost the message that you are not a body, but a person connected deeply to self-respect.   Let’s be honest, our culture sends us the opposite message. You are your outsides! Let your physical body and the most visible parts of you be you. It’s not about reflecting an internal self-image, if you’ve got it flaunt it! The better you look, the better the response will be. In fact, the response we get creates a reinforcing feedback loop where the response reinforces the self-image: the more we are valued for our externals, the more we are propelled toward an emptier self-definition.

The feminine connection:

Both men and women are charged with presenting themselves in a way that radiates dignity and self-respect, but the mitzvah of dressing with tzniut is more emphasized for women.   Practically speaking, it is obvious that the female body has a stronger sexual and more arousing dimension and that men attach far greater importance to a woman’s looks (which is why women often subconsciously play to a man’s tendency to focus on her physicality). This can be very dangerous indeed: many girls and women internalize a shallow and destructive self-image (“I’m only as good as I look”) to the point where they lose the vision of their deeper worth entirely.   It’s clear that a woman’s ability to attract can destroy her spirituality or express it, depending on the way she channels it, and therefore presenting herself with dignity and self-respect is emphasized as her sphere of responsibility.

The male connection:

Both men and women also have a mitzvah of shemirat aynaim, which essentially charges us with the responsibility of being careful what we look at (the Hebrew term is literally translated as “guarding your eyes”). In other words, we can’t look at everything that we want, and we can’t browse the Internet or social media with no discipline or limitation. This is true for both men and women, but the mitzvah is emphasized for men.   Practically speaking, it is obvious that men are more biologically driven. It’s just a fact of life, and a hard one for women to accept because they just can’t wrap their minds around the vulnerability of men to visual and erotic stimulation. Provocative images can and do sear themselves into the psyches of men to the point where their focus is compromised and their relationships suffer.   It’s clear that a man’s tendency to be affected by physicality can destroy his spirituality or express it, depending on the way he channels it, and therefore being very careful what he gazes at, where he browses and what he allows himself to watch is emphasized as his sphere of responsibility.

The Answer To Banning Yoga Pants:

I’m not here to discuss the pros and cons of bans, my personal experience has led me to believe that banning something creates more obsession and longing for it. In no way am I an expert on the matter of banning, so I’ll keep my mouth shut on that one.   What I’m talking about is a lot deeper and more holistic than banning. It’s about an attitude toward life and what it means to be a dignified mensch (and also real and honest about human nature). Essentially the mandate is this: We are all responsible. We are not created to point fingers and accuse, rather to be leaders in our own lives. As human beings and as men and women, the more we focus on our moral obligations to others, and the less we insist on the full spectrum of rights for ourselves, the more our society will thrive. With that kind of mindset, the yoga pants controversy would take care of itself.

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Posted on: Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Author: Ali Begoun
About: Ali is a longtime Jewish educator and popular life and relationships coach. Anyone who has learned with Ali will testify to her warm and connective style and her ability to make Judaism relatable and relevant to our personal lives. Ali teaches a wide array of Jewish topics, but her primary focus is on the Jewish approach to self esteem, personal growth, women’s issues and relationships. In addition to her popular classes, Ali also offers private life coaching sessions, personal growth groups for Jewish women, a Bat Mitzvah club for girls and an upcoming fully subsidized trip to Israel in October, 2014. Ali and Rabbi David are the proud parents of Chana, Talia, Aryeh Leib, Eliezer and Yosef.

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