“No Body Talk”

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.

No. It’s a guideline, not a rule like waterfront safety rules. Overall, our campers tend to champion the guideline among themselves, after a few days of getting used to it in their first year. We do strongly address bullying when that comes up.
A bunch of things! 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 inter-generational community prizes pursuit of wisdom. Camp is an immersion in sound principles of self-worth. It takes off the table a major source of subtle bullying, social cruelty, and inflated importance of appearance. 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 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.
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.
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.
The body talk guideline is part of Eden Village’s larger culture, which is designed not as a retreat from the “real world” but as a training ground to let our kids and teens step more powerfully into the world – with more consciousness, sense of self-worth, empathy and tools for making social change. At first, the guideline feels weird – campers (and staff!) realize how ingrained body talk is and catch themselves a lot. Campers’ tongue-in-cheek compliments, like saying “Your soul shines” when someone is looking particularly spiffy, are part of acknowledging the urge to give physical compliments. Some kids tell us that early in, they spend time wondering what people would be saying about their bodies. We have conversation circles and informal check-ins as needed to address the body image issues that come up for people, and explore the urge to give and receive body commentary. Within a few days, these impulses generally fade significantly. Bunk groups and individuals often start parading around in costumes, capes, face paint, outrageous outfits. Each cabin has its own flavor. (The signs over the mirrors mentioned in the New York Times article – “Don’t check your appearance; check your soul” – was one counselor’s initiative in her bunk, not a camp-wide slogan.) We have fun! The vast majority of campers come to either treasure this guideline, or just kind of forget about it as not a big deal – just a small aspect of this supportive, healthy-living-focused community. Once they’ve been here a few days, many campers, especially our teen girls, feel relief and sometimes grief at having put down a heavy pack they hadn’t necessarily realized they were carrying. They see in stark contrast all that they’ve gone through in school, all the distorted messages taken in. There’s healing that comes from recognizing this. From there, they get playful and silly. They take joy in doing “love pranks” (surprises to make others’ lives more wonderful), working on projects that light them up, painting signs with empowering slogans to post around camp, etc. They end up forming some of the deepest bonds of their lives. It is a privilege to see hundreds of campers transmitting to each other the message of simple self-acceptance. Campers, parents and staffers regularly tell us the guideline has been a major positive force in their lives. A handful of campers have started body talk awareness campaigns in their schools, complete with posters and facebook page, and a few have started anti-bullying clubs.

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