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Jewish Women International combats self-destructive behavior among Jewish girls 


Speakers Leslie Goldman, Lori Weinstein, Mary Jo Barrett and program facilitator Alyson Weinberg combine their brain power for girl power 

Cady: And they have this book, this burn book, where they write mean things about all the girls in our grade.
Janis: What does it say about me?
Cady: You're not in it.
Janis: Those bitches!
--Mean Girls

If you’ve ever seen the movie “Mean Girls” with Lindsay Lohan, you know it’s not easy being a teenage girl these days. On top of the social pressure to look a certain way, there’s the desire to hang out with the right crowd, find the right boyfriend and get good enough grades to get into the right college. And, between ages 9 and 16, girls start to mature both physically and emotionally--much earlier than their male counterparts. Now add in the pressure from the media, television shows like “Gossip Girl,” complete 24/7 access to what everyone is doing through Facebook and texting. Girls today have no choice but to grow up fast, and sometimes turn to self-destructive behaviors like disordered eating, bullying, alcohol abuse and self mutilation to help cope with the stress and anxiety of everyday life.

I know you’re probably thinking, ‘that never happened to me,’ or ‘my daughter would never do something like that,’ but Jewish girls are no exception. In fact, they sometimes face even more pressure from their peers, family and themselves to succeed and live up to often unrealistic expectations. And it’s not just a coincidence that “Mean Girls” takes place on the North Shore of Chicago…

Washington D.C.-based Jewish Women’s International (JWI) is tackling the problem head on by going right to the source—mothers, educators and social workers. In response to a recently completed survey of professionals who work directly with Jewish girls, JWI has launched Brain Power for Girl Power Think Tanks, an initiative that brings together Jewish women to learn about and engage in constructive brainstorming around the issues that affect Jewish girls. The first of these brainstorming sessions was held Oct. 29 at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.

“In the blink of an eye, there will be a new group of women standing in our shoes,” says Lori Weinstein, executive director, JWI. “Jewish girls need a path and we’re here to partner with you and clear it for them.”

The survey, “Jewish Girls and Their Behaviors,” which was designed by JWI in conjunction with Professions Research, Inc. of Washington, DC, polled 1,000 Jewish professionals on Jewish girls’ participation in behaviors such as anorexia, alcohol abuse and self-mutilation, or “cutting.” The survey revealed that the three most common destructive behaviors encountered in Jewish professionals’ work with Jewish girls are: disordered eating habits and patterns (48%), bullying (40%) and risky or precocious sexual behavior (38%). For girls ages 9 to 11, the most common behaviors included bullying (66%), disordered eating (35%), alcohol abuse (6%) and cutting (3%). For girls ages 12 to 15, disordered eating patterns and bullying were the most common (75%), followed risky sexual behavior (69%), cutting (58%) and alcohol abuse (48%). And of those surveyed, only 1 to 6 % said they felt parents were very aware of the problems facing their daughters.

“Jewish girls are coming of age in a time that is much more complicated than we did,” says Weinstein. “We want to create that metaphorical embrace among teenage girls, to make sure they have a safer passage along the bridge.”

How long is a girl a child? She is a child, and then one morning you wake up she's a woman, and a dozen different people of whom you recognize none.
--Louis L'Amour

Mary Jo Barret, a leading authority on trauma and violence and executive director and co-founder of the Center for Contextual Change, spoke to the group first, answering the question: Why do girls participate in these destructive behaviors?

Young girls, she said, view self-destructive behaviors as empowering, and as a friend during a time in their lives of naturally heightened activity and anxiety. Sometimes, she says, they know exactly why they are engaging in these dangerous behaviors, but don’t have a lot of motivation to stop. One girl explained that she cut herself because “When I see the blood, I know I’m not empty.” It’s something their parents cannot control, Barrett says, something that’s only theirs.

“These behaviors are the way that these girls try to and successfully empower themselves, give themselves value and control,” she says, and for Jewish girls who come from affluent homes, “it’s the convergence of a perfect storm.”

Today’s young girls have more of everything and constant access to information. They can create a Facebook profile that has nothing to do with who they really are, and are often losing their own true identities, she says.

“They live in a society that values this materialism and values being something you’re not,” Barrett says, “not even having the opportunity to build that self-esteem because too busy building a faux being.”

There are no rules in this house.
I'm not like a regular mom.
I'm a cool mom. Right, Regina?
--Mean Girls

Parenting styles have changed as well, and maybe not all for the better, Barrett says.

“We want to be our daughters’ friends and we’re ambivalent about limit setting,” she says. “The other thing we don’t teach our kids is how to cope with frustration.”

Also, Barrett says, because there is such an emphasis on competition, parents aren’t emphasizing altruism, or taking care of other people in the community.

The differences between boys and girls at this age can be explained by neuroscience. Before puberty, Barrett says, boys and girls have the same level of depression. After, girls double while boys remain the same. Also, girls go through puberty much earlier than boys, so their bodies mature much faster than their brains.

“Their bodies are literally ready for sex before their brains are,” she says.

Additionally, women store memories on the right side of the brain, the more emotional side, and so they tend to ruminate on things while men store memories on their left side, remembering facts, and coping through  problem solving. Sometimes, to stop the cycle of rumination and worry, girls turn to self-destructive behaviors to try to release those feelings.

What the daughter does, the mother did.
--Jewish Proverb

Following Barrett, Leslie Goldman, health writer and author of  Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth about Women, Body Image and Re-imagining the “Perfect” Body , spoke about her battle with an eating disorder during her time as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Leaving Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire for UW was a big change for Goldman, who had always been successful in high school.  “I went from being a big fish in a little pond to a little fish in a huge pond of 40,000,” she says. “What better way to handle it than to avoid it?”

She began feeling the pressure to fit in and the need for control and began under-eating and over-exercising. When she came home for Thanksgiving, everything hit the fan and she was put into a treatment center for anorexia. Years later, Goldman’s experiences would inspire her to write her book, talking with women in gym locker rooms to reveal the truth about body image.

Though there is no proven research, Goldman says she thinks there is a definite link between being Jewish and eating disorders. Among the reasons, she included the pressure to succeed, strong dedication to education, putting others before yourself and, for many, having to the money to finance gym memberships and plastic surgery.

“I believe to be Jewish is to have an eating disorder of some sort,” she says. “In Jewish life, food is used to show love, food is used to mourn, holidays are based around food,” she says.

I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life's a bitch. You've got to go out and kick ass.
--Maya Angelou

Following the speakers, the participants split into groups to define several problems—the influence of food, the media, sexual pressures on self-destructive behaviors—and proposed programming to combat those problems.

After a similar Think Tank program in Detroit the following day, a December seminar in Washington, D.C. about girls in leadership—how accomplished Jewish girls are, and a spring seminar in Los Angeles about girls and money, JWI will likely conduct another survey and eventually develop new programming based on these findings.

“Our goal is to drill down our understanding of where Jewish girls are,” Weinstein says, “and create new programming driven through the bloodstream of Jewish organizations.”

To learn more about JWI and the Brain Power for Girl Power Think Tanks, visit  www.jwi.org . 

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