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How To Combat Teenage Girls’ Angst: Educate Teenage Boys

Most Sundays I do laundry, or have brunch, or see a movie. But I spent this past Sunday immersed in various forms of female teenage angst, and what I came away with was that more boys and men should have been there with me.

The day began at a conference on Food, Body Image and Eating Disorders in the Orthodox community. Co-presented by the Orthodox Union and The Renfrew Center, which recently launched a treatment program specifically for observant Jewish women, the conference on eating disorders was meant to raise awareness about the prevalence of eating disorders in the Orthodox community and to educate therapists about the particular issues that those who are Orthodox and have eating disorders face. For me, the conference provided unpleasant reminders of all the women I know who have struggled, or are struggling, with eating disorders, and, as renowned therapist Dr. Esther Altmann who gave the introductory address noted, how difficult it is to be a woman and not have a complicated, if not outright dysfunctional relationship with food.

On a somewhat lighter note, my day concluded at the premiere performance of the debut production from the Girls Theater Project, “Becoming,” which explored the issues Jewish girls age 10 to 17 face, in their own words, and I was thankful to writer/director Joyce Klein for leaving all mention of binging and purging out of her production.

The play hit on some heavy issues but with a light, humorous touch. In my favorite scene, a girl comes to terms with the pains and frustrations of menstruation by conversing with a cartoon version of her uterus, whose name is She-la. As girl and uterus come to an understanding about the changes occurring in her body, the scene culminates in a shared dance between them. Yes, it sounds bizarre, and it was, but it was also surprisingly beautiful. (Catch one of the two remaining “preview” performances this week on Wednesday night or Sunday night at the 14th St Y.)

As I sat through both conference and play, I kept thinking wouldn’t it be great – wouldn’t it help girls and women – if there were more boys and men in the audience? While mothers might need reminders of what being a teenager was like and of what their daughters are going through in a world that, at least from a technology standpoint, is pretty different from the world in which they grew up, fathers are more in need of an education on this subject. And while girls need a safe space in which to explore freely the things that are bothering them and in which to talk about the ways boys affect them, boys need to be made aware of girls’ concerns, and, maybe most importantly, of the effect they have on girls.

One of the presenters at the conference, eating disorder survivor Aliza Starshefsky, who speaks frequently to school groups about her experiences (Aliza speaks so frequently she has become famous in some circles, with a group of girls at the Salute To Israel Parade exclaiming excitedly upon spotting her, “Look, it’s the anorexic girl!”) mentioned she recently addressed an audience of teenage boys for the first time. She didn’t hold back with them, she said, explaining to the young men “that their words matter,” that the things they say can make a huge impact on a young woman. The boys’ reaction? Shock. “Why would they listen to what I say?” they asked. (Why, indeed?) Aliza said the boys walked around stunned for the rest of the day, grappling with what they had learned.

Clearly, boys and men, and the desire for their approval, are not the only causes of eating disorders or the varied host of issues facing teenage girls. But giving males some understanding of the role they do play in causing females pain might make them more sensitive to their female counterparts’ needs. Educating fathers, teachers, and other males in guidance roles can only make them better nurturers of their female charges.

And, from the other side, we women could benefit from knowing more about what boys and men go through.

Surely a world in which there is no mystery between the sexes would be less dramatic and more boring, but we needn’t worry much about that. Complete understanding between individuals as complicated, emotional, and unpredictable as we all are, is impossible.

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