A ‘culture of kindness’ means ‘no body talk’
Earlier this year, the Jewish overnight camp Eden Village in Putnam Valley, NY, garnered a great deal of attention for its “no body talk” policy, which camp leaders described as providing a “break from mentioning physical appearance, including clothing.” The policy has sparked wide discussion. The below article, adapted from the Eden Village website, is an explanation of the policy. Another is a response from Camp Be’chol Lashon in San Francisco, which “provides a space for racially and ethnically diverse Jews.”
What is Eden Village Camp’s “Body Talk” guideline?
The guideline is just one small building block of our “culture of kindness.”
While at camp, we take a break from commenting on our own or others’ appearance or clothes, be it negative, neutral, or positive — with caveats for health and safety issues and healthy body-awareness building (e.g. instruction in sports; music and arts; nutrition education), and we do have important conversations about body image, social pressures, gender socialization, puberty, self-esteem, etc.
What’s the reasoning behind this guideline?
1. It clears time and energy for what we most want to grow here! Our young people overwhelmingly report feeling safe and free here very quickly — so we get to play, build deep friendships, explore our gifts, build skills, and build our sense of purpose and meaning. Focusing more on the inner world, in accordance with Jewish values, is a much more fruitful path to healthy growth, and it just makes for more interesting conversations. Our intergenerational community prizes pursuit of wisdom. Camp is an immersion in sound principles of self-worth.
2. It takes off the table a major source of subtle bullying, social cruelty, and inflated importance of appearance.
3. The temporary respite from all the body commentary, together with our sessions and informal conversations on body image, helps create a space that naturally fosters breakthrough sharing and insight — about how one feels about one’s own body or the pressure one might feel to look a certain way, and where those messages come from, and tools for going home and being a lighthouse in a world that’s usually really different from camp. Campers come away with a powerful awareness of media influence and social pressures and how all that has impacted them, and the agency to engage intentionally with all that. In a society where eating disorders are increasing at alarming rates and consumerism is damaging our environment, the guideline helps campers sort out external “noise” from their own inner guidance.
Why include positive commentary in the guideline? Why not just ban negative body comments?
If you tell me “You have great hair,” for a minute it might feel nice and I might feel a certain kinship with you and obviously it’s not the end of the world. But physical compliments are still judgments on our appearance. This time the verdict was positive; next time it might not be. The scrutiny adds pressure on me to provide an encore, to spend time grooming my hair tomorrow too, so as to continue receiving approval. I might privately hate my hair and wonder whether you actually really like my hair or just want to bring attention to it, or if I’ve received many such compliments I might be concluding that my hair is important to making me valuable. I might wonder why you never compliment my clothing. If others witnessed the compliment, those people might be thinking “I wish my hair looked like that! Maybe I should get it chemically treated,” etc. In short, it’s a whole lot of mental noise. And that’s just for a compliment!
Bonding via appreciations is great — we encourage more meaningful ones, like specific ways in which someone inspires you or a time you noticed someone doing something kind.
As for conversation starters, our campers suggest things like asking about people’s interests or ideas, the story behind a physical item, what they’re excited about, etc.
Do you think all body talk is “bad”?
No. First, there are the caveats to our guideline: In our yoga and culinary arts instruction and the like, we talk about postures, breathing, nutrition, etc., as part of growing physical health, skills, and body awareness.
Obviously any health or safety issue needs to be talked about.
There’s some common sense stuff, like if someone’s fly is down or they have spinach in their teeth, it’s compassionate to let them know.
We discuss body image quite a bit, as called for by the unique community in each bunk and tribe. These conversations and programs are crucial for processing the messages and pressures young people receive and empowering campers to be a force of change in their home communities. We have optional conversations about reclaiming a positive culture around menstruation, the way boys and girls get socialized and noticing/interrupting those patterns, and more.
Beyond this, there can for sure be merit to talking about bodies in safe, supportive contexts, like discussing one’s appearance as artistic self-expression, or expressing physical appreciation within a healthy relationship. While we haven’t carved out caveats for these kinds of scenarios, we find the guideline extremely helpful in creating that safe, supportive baseline context.
Remember, camp is just one or two months of the year — our aim is to equip our campers to thrive in the other ten months and for their whole lives. And no one is policing every interaction — it’s just a guideline to raise our awareness, not a hard-and-fast rule.
Adapted from Body Talk FAQ (edenvillagecamp.org/about-us/bodytalk/)