Michael J. Salamon

No pigtails, no pleather

I was listening to a group of people debating the latest decrees about what is permissible for women to wear and more importantly to some, what they may not wear. The items on the do not wear list include leggings, pencil skirts, clothing made from leather, though pleather which is a synthetic leather made of plastic, is allowed, but a pig tail hairdo is no longer acceptable. Some stockings are still acceptable though flesh tones are among the items no longer allowed. Someone added that men are only wearing white shirts, black suits, nothing new there, but the acceptable ties are shaded in blacks and grays only; no shades of red, green, yellow or purple.

The debate was a fairly humorous one with some of those involved in the conversation fretting about the new regulations because they may have to buy new clothing for their children, others pointing out that these new rules were irrelevant because “no one listens to them anyway” and still others angry at the “Talibanization of the religion.” It was not a heated discussion but more of a rote, weary, jaded; ‘we have been here before’ conversation. The most important comment came from the woman who said “We never take this seriously so what’s the big deal?” Then she reconsidered – “It is a big deal. Our children are subjected to this nonsense and they believe it. They follow it. Our children are being misled by this stuff.”

I am not sure where these new clothing problems are coming from, whether or not they even exist as a problem and I am not even sure what a pencil skirt is. What I am sure is that all of these rules seem to be emanating from men, which leads me to wonder if the men who take on these issues have just a little too much time on their hands. Seriously, though, what is the purpose of these constantly increasingly rigid rules that most mature people snicker at?

If the purpose is to set strict guidelines for membership to an exclusive club that would make good sense if it attracted strong, independent, successful, and responsible people to join and bolster the alliance. These mature types of people are not usually attracted.  If the goal of the ever increasingly stringent rules is to set strong boundaries and keep groups separate and apart it might work for a leader who is despotic. This type of approach to delimiting membership is cultish and not attractive to honest thinking believers. Only people who cannot or will not think for themselves would allow their egos to become so subservient to another person’s compulsive reinterpretation of appropriateness and thus under the influence of a demanding leader. If, however, the goal of rigid rules for membership is to attract young, immature, easily manipulated people who are not yet at the point of understanding the breadth of human experience, reality or belief systems and their own need for self-actualization then constantly increasing the heat by increasing rigid rules makes sense. This is a psychological approach that can and does work. It is a manipulative approach that attracts susceptible, mostly young, people to a sphere of influence that uses negativity toward the outsider and rigidity for the membership to maintain itself as a unique group.  To the degree that it does attract vulnerable young people, parents must be more aware and more willing to take responsibility.

Parents speak about their children “flipping out” and rationalize the changes they see in their young adult children by saying that the radical shift a child takes to become significantly more religious is better than going in the opposite direction. I would argue that a radical shift in either direction is equally unsafe. A child flipping out regardless of direction, toward becoming fantastically subservient to a doctrinaire obsessed lifestyle or going in the direction of giving up all beliefs may seem like two wildly distinct ends of a continuum but they are a similarly and equally dangerous problem.  What is more, if a teen flips so radically the likelihood is that the teen had an existential emptiness and a need to look for something wildly different from what their home offered.

Here then is the issue – some of those people who “flipped” in their late teens and early twenties are now flipping back, but to the extreme opposite direction. There is a continuing inability on the part of the person “flipping” to find a comfortable place in life that allows them to grow emotionally and psychologically.  If there is a problem, it is never resolved with rigidity and subservience to compulsivity. An adult discussion about new rules should not be a casual, theoretical, or incidental one. Self-appointed leaders seeking a following know that the need to belong is what pulls in followers.  The stronger and more delineating the rules the more they can set their group apart from others and manipulate them. Seemingly innocuous dress codes are a part of the process but what comes next can be truly harmful.

About the Author
Dr. Michael Salamon ,a fellow of the American Psychological Association, is an APA Presidential Citation Awardee for his 'transformative work in raising awareness of the prevention and treatment of childhood sexual abuse". He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and Netanya, the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications), "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America) and "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."
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