How an Ancient Jewish Ritual Helped Me Conquer My Body Image Fears

Photo: Getty Images/ Michael H
Most people associate summer with frolicking on the beach and splashing in the waves—but for most of my life, you would never have seen me there. When I was 27, I hadn’t owned a bathing suit in 15 years. I was ashamed of what my body looked like and uncomfortable in my skin. I actually believed that my body was not worthy of a bathing suit, that because I was curvier, I didn't deserve to get in the water.

Limiting beliefs like these are ideas that constrain us; they hold us back from living any other way because we don't imagine that any other way is possible. I didn't think I deserved to show my body, so I didn’t own shorts or sleeveless shirts. I didn’t go in the ocean or a pool for all of middle school, high school, college, and for many years after. I basically avoided any situation that meant I would have to strip down in public and be seen. Having extreme body dysmorphia caused me so much pain, and held me back at being a carefree young adult cannonballing into the water. It’s sad, but also part of my story.

I actually believed that my body was not worthy of a bathing suit, that because I was curvier, I didn't deserve to get in the water.

I’m 32 now and my relationship with my body has changed. It’s still evolving, of course, but it’s much, much healthier. My relationship with water has also transformed: What I used to avoid at all costs because of body image issues has become one of my most powerful forms of spiritual healing and renewal. How? Through the ancient Jewish practice of the mikvah.

Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. Which is crazy, because mikvahs have been around for a long, long time and are one of the original rituals of my ancestors. In Judaism, the mikvah is a sacred ritual bath traditionally used for cleansing, spiritual purification, and transformation.

In the most literal, physical sense, a mikvah is a flowing body of water—meaning, it must have natural water constantly streaming in and constantly streaming out. (Oceans are mikvahs, but lakes are not.) As one of the 10 required things that all Jewish communities must have, many synagogues have mikvahs in their basements that collect rainwater from the roofs.

On a symbolic level, people immerse themselves in this sacred water to mark a time of transition; the mikvah is a ritual or spiritual technology to accompany change, a symbol of new beginnings. For example, brides and grooms immerse before their wedding day, people getting ready to celebrate a Jewish holiday will use the mikvah to help prepare, and people converting to Judaism will use the mikvah as the one thing that moves them from entering the water in one form and exiting in another. Some women will use the mikvah every month following their periods as well as after childbirth. As with many aspects of all religions, how each person uses the mikvah in their faith is a personal decision.

Whenever I think back to that call, I still get short of breath and tight in my chest.

I was first exposed to mikvahs in a very serendipitous way: There is an organization called Mayyim Hayyim in Massachusetts that was started by Anita Diamant, the woman who wrote the Red Tent. It makes mikvah accessible and meaningful for a full diversity of Jewish people, and my synagogue decided to try it, too.

The “mikvah lady,” the woman who supports the ritual for people immersing, at my synagogue called me one day out of the blue and asked me to participate in a program designed for teenage girls and their mothers to use the mikvah as a place to heal from eating disorders. This was a very untraditional way to use this sacred bath, and she asked if I would be the model for the girls—if I would perform the ritual in front of these girls to show them how it was done.

My jaw dropped and my first thought was, “Absolutely not! This is my worst fear realized.” I felt like I should be the one receiving help for my own history of eating disorders and body image issues. Whenever I think back to that call, I still get short of breath and tight in my chest.

However, like many good leaders, I was extremely reluctant at first, but then realized perhaps this was the universe calling to say, “Hey, Sarah! It's time to heal. Do it for yourself and do it for the others around you struggling. You are needed in this world, time to be brave.” And so, once a month for a year and a half, I became the “mikvah model” for dozens of young women in the Washington, D.C. area. And it just so happened that along the way, the mikvah changed—and perhaps saved—my life.

Water can heal, water can help us, and water can make us feel whole.

Immersing in the mikvah has now become one of my most important spiritual and wellness practices. I realized how powerful water can be to help me transform my limiting beliefs of who I am and what I deserve. Every opportunity I have to emerge in my synagogue or in a natural flowing body of water, I bless myself, renew my commitment to my life, and honor the divinity pulsing through me. Water can heal, water can help us, and water can make us feel whole. While the mikvah is used for many purposes both traditional and unconventional, for me, it is the single most important thing I do to be comfortable in my body, to rock out at the beach, and generally transform from being a stuck person to a free person.

Although mikvah is an ancient religious practice, there can be modern ways to bring it into our lives. This ritual changed my life and I am committed to helping others discover it for their own wellness practice. So, when you find yourself at the beach this summer, dive in—in my book, there's no need to be Jewish or have any previous religious experience. Have fun, get real, and spread the word! There’s nothing about your deepest, darkest fears, anxieties, and insecurities that even the water can’t handle. Trust me. I never thought I would wear a bathing suit at the beach, but now I do. It’s amazing how I rejected water for such a long time, and now it’s become a major form of constant healing in my life. I fell in love with the experience of water hugging and supporting my transformations. And I’ve learned that water accepts everybody, wherever we are.

Here are the 5 steps for creating your own mikvah experience any time you find yourself near a flowing body of water this summer.

Ritual for overcoming body image issues
Photo: Getty Images/ Guido Mieth

1. Sit down and think about where you are, and where you want to transform to.

Get really clear about what you are changing. For example: If you feel like you have shame in your body and you want to get to a place of freedom, you’re moving from shame to freedom. If you’re feeling sad about a fight you had with a friend, you’re moving from sadness to happiness. If you are recovering from being under the weather, you are moving from sickness to health.

2. Break this transformation down into 3 steps, and write prayers for yourself to accompany each step.

For example, if you’re moving past shame, your first step could include a prayer like: “Thank you universe for helping me be in a strong body that is able to get to the beach.” That’s all a prayer is: Gratitude + acknowledgement of cosmos + awareness of moment or quality. A second prayer could could be: “Thank you interconnected world for making me feel comfortable in my body this summer, no matter what.” And a third: “Thank you divine spark for making me a beautiful and brilliant being who deserves happiness and joy.” (I often encourage people to create their own, personalized blessings, but here’s a link for traditional Jewish mikvah prayers if you want them.)

3. Find a partner.

According to tradition, you must perform this ritual with a peer. They are there to witness you in this moment of transformation. Talk about what you’re moving towards and the prayers you created. Remember: You are not alone in this, we are all connected.

4. Strip down and dive in.

A traditional mikvah experience would be done completely naked. You remove all nail polish, jewelry, and makeup so that your body is as natural as it came into the world and has no disconnection with the natural divinity of the water. (If you want to have this spiritual experience but you’d rather wear a bathing suit, we think that’s okay, too!)

Go into the water with your partner. Decide who will go first, and then recite your personalized blessings—make sure to say them out loud, your words mater! Immerse yourself after each prayer and make sure nothing on your body is touching anything but the water. When you do this, your body becomes part of the constantly changing world and allows you to transform. Take time to appreciate the moment and the water's embrace. Remember, the water can hold it all! Then switch so the other person is the witness.

5. Exit the water and reflect on the transformation you just welcomed and honored.

Talk about it with your partner, or reflect on it in a journal. Allow your body to absorb the healing properties of the water and this ancient, spiritual ritual. Go slow.

I believe we can take traditional practices and make them available to us in our form today. So if getting naked is too much for you, do it in a suit...but this is my full invitation to completely expose yourself. Have fun!

To learn more about mikvahs, check out these resources. And read more about At the Well, a global women’s wellness network rooted in Jewish wisdom (founded by the author of this story).

Did you know, your monthly women's circle has roots that reach back to Judaism as well? And here's another way to use a bath house to bolster body positivity.

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