My first reaction to the headline “’No Body Talk’ Summer Camps” at the New York Times, was: That sounds like a smashing good idea. Even if these camps don’t improve self-esteem, they will probably have the effect of teaching kids to be better conversationalists, because any conversation composed of more than five percent “body talk” is a crushing bore. (I say this as an occasionally guilty party.) Learning to talk about things other than how one’s butt is looking these days is an important life skill, after all.
Sadly, the article itself dramatically dented my enthusiasm, particularly this passage about Eden Village and its owner Vivian Stadlin:
On Friday afternoon, when the campers, girls and boys from 8 to 17, are dressed in white and especially polished for the Sabbath, they refrain from complimenting one another’s appearances. Rather, they say, “Your soul shines” or “I feel so happy to be around you” or “Your smile lights up the world,” Ms. Stadlin said.
Signs posted on the mirrors in the bathroom read, “Don’t check your appearance, check your soul.”
It would be one thing if these summer camps treated “no body talk” as a short term exercise. Unfortunately it appears that, instead of just teaching kids to tone it down a little, “no body talk” has drifted towards treating bodies like they are a burden to be ignored instead of part and parcel of who you are as a person. It sounds wonderful on paper to live in “this wonderful, utopian kind of place where you’re not judged on anything except your spirit,” as one parent described Eden Village. But in the real world, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to include the body as part of your overall judgment of a person, such as when you are picking people to be on your tug-of-war team or auditioning potential sex partners. Doing things like covering up mirrors, which one camp does, treads a little too far in the direction of treating the body like it’s a source of shame instead of helping campers embrace their bodies for what they are and what they can do for them.
Slate intern Eliza Berman spent her summers in a “no body talk” camp and has mixed feelings about the experience. “It made me think twice about giving voice to any particular insecurity I had about my body,” she says, but as she got older, she started to feel how limiting this rule could be. “Not talking about your body can be a form of repression, of ignoring the reality that even if we don’t want them to, bodies matter in the world.”
Instead of treating “body talk” like a net negative, perhaps it would be better to reframe it. The issue isn’t that girls and women think about our bodies too much. When you consider tattoos, man-repelling fashion, or a good chunk of whatever Lady Gaga is up to, it becomes clear there are plenty of ways that people can use appearance to express their authentic selves. While “no body talk” makes sense as a temporary experiment, the longer term goal should be on how we think of our bodies, not whether we think about them at all.