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Don’t Yuk My Yum

Naomi LessFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

Ever feel shut down just because of a look someone gave you?  We've all experienced it. But Naomi Less calls it out and gets at the root of why it happens with a strategy for eliminating it from your world. This inspirational talk is especially important for anyone who lives with or works with tween and teen girls.
Songwriter. Activist. Rocker. Educator. Worship Musician.
Naomi Less and her half-Israeli/half-American band, share music that spans edgy pop rock to meditative soulful song.  Naomi tours worldwide bringing a strong female musical presence to conferences, camps, and Jewish communities, often headlining – successfully breaking through the glass ceiling of male-dominated music performance.
Founder of Jewish Chicks Rock and Jewish Kids Rock, Naomi builds Jewish rock programs in camps and after school programs across the US encouraging the next generation of voices to speak out for justice and values.
Naomi is a seasoned facilitator and program designer. Her educational experience includes Northwestern University’s school of music, JTS Davidson School of Jewish Education, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and the Institute for Information Jewish Education at Brandeis University.  Naomi currently serves as Associate Director and a Founding Ritual Leader at Lab/Shul, NYC. She is a founding company member of Storahtelling ritual theater company.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl and she knew exactly what she wanted. She would say outspokenly sharing her opinion, “I like this!” or “I don’t like that”. As she began to grow her voice changed from “I like this!” to “I don’t know, what do you think?” to “whatever I don’t care”. Did she really not care? Course she cares, and deeply, but as our guru on girls’ development, Professor Carol Gilligan at New York University says, as girls grow through pre-adolescence they begin to lose their voices. Now some contributing factors to this are of course the media, but also girls social peer groups. And with the complete barrage of media images and sounds and advertisements telling a girl what to look like, how to behave, what to like or not like, what she can do, how she should act, how is a girl supposed to grow up to sanely and self-confidently and healthily find her authentic voice? It is an uphill battle, and one which many organisations and even some corporations, like dove soap, are fighting. Just the other day I posted on my facebook page an ad, I don’t know if anybody else saw it, about getting rid of ‘fat talk’, did anybody see that? Okay, so check it out. It’s about how some women, many unfortunately, have learned to speak to themselves either internally or out loud about their bodies, really degradingly and negatively. The media has a long way to go, but, I want to focus in on this second contributing factor to girls losing their voices as they travel through pre-adolescence, and that’s their social peer group.

Now, how many of you recognize this face? Not the movie Mean Girls or the character, but how many of you recognize that face? Raise your hand if you think you’ve ever received that face before. Okay, a lot of hands went up. Brace yourselves. This I have coined ‘the F.U. face’ – I’ll spare you from using the full language there, but use your imagination, this is probably the most popular face between tween and teen girls certainly in America and trust me I have seen it around the world. This face is given about something you’re doing, or you’re wearing, or a way that you’re acting from one girl to another, it’s like an exchange. And this face is so debilitating, it makes you feel so small, like a spotlight shining on you completely degrading you, stripping you naked in front of everyone in front of you. It has so much power and it actually hit me so hard that I wrote a song about it, which you heard a clip of at the beginning called ‘The Real Me’. So, the tougher question is, how many of you have given, as a teen or tween, this face to someone else? My hand is raised. Guilty. So, Ladies and Gentlemen and everybody in between, I stand here Naomi Less, stand here on a campaign to eradicate the F.U. face from our facial inventory. Who’s with me? (applause) Now, in order to do this, we have to dig down deep, deep, to what’s behind this face, right, to uncover what’s underneath it. And, bottom line, behind the F.U. face is an instinct in a person to belittle or to cut someone down to lift yourself up. I mean, let me say that again so you can see it. To cut someone down, squash someone, in order to elevate your status. That’s what’s behind it. Now I tell you, I do a lot of work with pre-teen girls in America, tween girls, in camps, in youth groups, and it is a very, very tough age for them to navigate through. Counselors beg me when I enter into a camp to come work with their bunks. I see these counselors they are sad, they are crying out “please save these girls and don’t make them go through the pain that I went through”. They wanna say that my heart cries out as well too, as their own hearts, these tween girls, cry out from a deep really dark place, crying out to you, God, anyone, please help save me, what can we do, as caring adults in their lives we can try to make a connection, tell them their voices are valued, we can support them to the pain, we can convince them “It gets better’ – big slogan, right – but does it? How many of you have received that face as an adult? Uhuh. Me too. So, we need to work on this together as a community to help girls build skills around eradicating this face from their facial inventory and how to respond when it happens to them.

So I’m going to show you something, don’t know if you can read it very clearly. These slips of paper are from girls I did an exercise with at a bunk at a camp, a Jewish summer camp where they wrote down what they felt most uncomfortable, what in their bunk made them feel most uncomfortable, most unsafe. You see the middle one? It says ‘when I’m given a look’. When I’m given a look. Others are ‘my weight’ ‘not having a solid group’, ‘when I’m excluded’, etc. etc.. We need to work on this and I’ve personally experimented on a number of different methodologies, which by the end of this talk you will have succinct strategy to take home with you for the girls in your life and even for yourselves. Music is my medium, I created a program called Jewish Chicks Rock, where I create collaborative Jewish rock bands comprised of girls, and in this work, in this little microcosm, yes we break down cliques, we help girls find their unique voices, to advocate for their ideas in the mix, to speak, right, to not lose their voices, to learn to give critical feedback to other girls that doesn’t ‘yuk my yum’, that’s the title of the talk, do you know what that means? Don’t yuk my yum? It basically is a polite way of pushing back against the F.U. face and saying don’t make me feel small about something that I actually care about. So all voices are heard and valued in Jewish Chicks Rock, and in this programming what we do, and by the way I’m not a creative genius I stand on the shoulders of the entire girls rock camp movement that has taken off like wildfire all around the world. So, this method is not just for a rock band, this is not just a proposition for music, this is just the medium, right, music is just the medium, it’s the trigger that helps these girls to be able to speak out about what is bothering them, to create a safe expression zone where they are able to express themselves and to move beyond those F.U. faces. They identify the issues and then as a group they work together to brainstorm how they are going to crack this community that’s afraid of F.U. face zone and it takes muscle building, muscle building of acceptance, appreciation and awareness.

So what have I learned from this experience that I can share with you? Well, the bottom line is that we need to combat our deep seated instinct that our first response when we see difference is to squash that person that we are looking at which actually will then lift our own status. And I say combat because we have our work cut out for us between the media, and the girls social peer influences, it’s got to be a serious effort but we can do it.

Five steps. Not brain surgery, but let’s plant them in our heads.

Step one – ‘Look’. See the look happen, be aware that it’s actually happened, don’t become immune to it, don’t let it just fly by. Notice – where’s it happening? Who’s it happening from? We have to start focusing our attitudes on this.
Step 2 – ‘Speak’. One of the more challenging pieces. Speak meaning intervene. You have a voice, so use it, and if you’re not comfortable doing so there are plenty of people in the community that will help you, but this is about using your voice and pausing – not letting that moment fly by, pausing, because this is this is your community, these are your daughters, these are your little sisters, these are your students – if not you, who?
Step 3 – ‘Imagine’. Imagine the possibilities. What would this look like? Actually brain storm with these girls what would it look like to have a community and peer a group where uniqueness and difference and self-expression is actually valued. I know, I hear you. I know you agree. What would people be saying to each other? What would the positive pieces of this be? When somebody does something that’s different? Would you celebrate it? Would you acknowledge it? When somebody tries something new, do you give them accolades or do you look at them, right? Imagine what the responses would be in those positive moments.
Step 4 – it takes ‘Practice’, right? This is not just something that comes overnight. When you receive that face and I’ll tell you my song, I froze in the moment I got that face. I didn’t say a word, I regret that moment which is why, umpteen years later, I wrote a song about, because I’m still doing tikun, anyway. So really work with testing out different responses to that face that you receive. One group of girls that I worked with actually took on that phrase ‘don’t yuk my yum’ and that became their bunk mantra. Anytime that face emerged – “don’t yuk my yum, k?” – and it worked.
Step 5 – ‘Commit Publically’. Everybody makes new year’s resolutions, the only ones that stick are the ones you say out loud to a friend and actually hold yourself accountable if so, right? Can you publically commit to your girls, to your friends? I am not dealing with that face anymore, it is not going to a part of my life. What kind of covenant, what kind of brit are you willing to make with yourself and your community to eradicate that face from your arena. At the end of the day the F.U. face and the impetus behind it – squashing someone else to lift yourself up – is a contagious plague and it’s not just limited to girls as evidenced by your hands in this room.

So, I challenge you to begin to develop this muscle in yourself and in your social peer group. But just start with yourself as an experiment. See what it would mean that the next time that face happens you don’t just sort of wave it off, you actually point it out, say something and say “that’s not cool with me, we don’t do that here, that’s not what this community is about”.

If you start with yourself, you will watch and see ripples of change occur in your arena.

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