Wednesday, March 28, 2012

All The Pretty Girls

Warning: prepare for a rant.It's a big one.
Last week, Facebook was seemingly set aflame with posts and discussions relating to a certain Jewish Press article, wherein a frum mother of a single son expressed her sympathy for girls who are having a hard time with the Shidduch system, and who are losing hope that they’ll ever find a husband. I won’t go into the nitty gritty details of the article (that’s what the link is for... yes, I linked it twice), but tell you instead that somewhere in the meat of the text, the point stops being the unfair treatment of women in the Shidduch system and instead becomes… how women aren’t pretty enough.
The author expresses her knowledge that her opinion will anger readers, but goes on to state how the girls at a “meet your future mother-in-law” event (again: what?) were “shlumpy.” Little or no makeup, not the nicest clothes… she expresses her view that maybe the girls would actually find husbands if they put more work into their appearance.
I already have a problem with this, but not enough to rant about it (I could even possibly see her point). THIS is where the spit hits the proverbial fan for me: the author’s recommendation that girls put more effort into their appearance…by getting nose jobs, investing in liposuction, artificially straightening their hair, and losing massive amounts of weight. And worse, using Megillat Esther to further “prove” that this is what women should do. After all, it’s a wife’s “job” to look good for her husband, isn’t it? Didn’t the women who were brought to King Achashveirosh in hopes of becoming queen prepare, perfume, and pamper for a full year before ever meeting him?
Oh, God, the agony. Seriously. I don’t tend to get enraged at articles, especially opinion pieces. But this one just struck a nerve. My problems with it are so numerous, I barely know where to start. Which flaw do I bring forth as the worst of the worst? How exactly do I prioritize here?
I guess I’ll start by pointing out that this woman has entirely missed the lesson of that portion of Megillat Esther. The text makes a point of stating that while all these women focused on their beauty in all that preparation, Esther did not accept any of the products and perfumes offered her. She instead “found favor in the eyes of all who beheld her”… but it doesn’t claim that this is because of her appearance. In the end, it is Esther, the one who didn’t accept all those beauty aids, who was chosen Queen. Lesson? Change your appearance, and you’ll become… a concubine. Can we please not take Tanach out of context and change its point to further our own?
But that's a mere nitpick compared to my main problem with the article, which has got to be... really? Nose jobs? Liposuction? Whatever happened to inner beauty? What kind of bedtime stories do women who believe this read their kids?

But let's forget the complete encouragement of shallow book-by-its-cover reading here. I get it, some people really are less attractive than others. Some girls genuinely don't put an effort into their appearance when perhaps they should. Some girl really are shlumpy. But I have a very hard time believing that so many girls who knew they were going to be scrutinized, who want more than anything to find a husband, would really not care about how they look. And you know this is true if you know any females at all.
So allow me for a moment to point out the difference between "shlumpy" and "simply dressed," which is perhaps what the author was going for.

As you can see, one of these girls has not brushed her hair, is wearing a stained shirt, wrinkled sweatshirt, and sneakers with her tights. Most importantly, she bears a very sour expression. THIS is shlumpy.  The girl next to her, while perhaps not the most gorgeous cartoon alive, is neatly dressed, with brushed hair, a simple (but clean) dress, and best of all, a warm, if nervous, smile. Maybe she’s not wearing makeup. Maybe she isn’t into fashion or maybe she’s a little awkward once she opens her mouth. But there’s an effort there. And she may be plain, or she may be pretty, but she is by no means shlumpy, and should not be judged as such just because others have set their standards a little high. Maybe I wouldn’t dress like her if I knew I was going to a first-impressions-based event, but I would never judge someone who did. 
But this leads me further into the bowels of the problem, that is how girls are judged, in all of modern society but especially in the Shidduch system. It is well known that self-esteem is a problem for many girls. The emphasis placed on appearances is so great, so overwhelming at times, that it does the dual job of convincing girls that they are ugly and guys that they are entitled to wedding and bedding supermodels. And in many places (but especially the Shidduch system), I see much less pressure of the same sort put on men. The way the author talked about her own son, coupled with her account of how every guy receives all of these résumés of single girls while the women sit nervously by the phone waiting for them to call back, makes me wonder… what are they telling their sons about women? Do the men also believe that only the most beautiful woman is worth getting to know?  

Meanwhile, girls are so pressured into looking their best , better than their best, all the time that (while there ARE those who don’t care about their looks when they certainly should) the much bigger problem is those girls who care WAY too much. The girls who wear clothes so tight they leave nothing to the imagination (while also receiving the mixed message about the importance of modesty) and enough makeup to make a clown self-conscious, the “Hot Chani” phenomenon I discussed in this post. The girls who look down on other girls and judge their peers by appearances only. And who can blame them, when this is what they hear:

An exaggeration, of course… oh, God, how I hope I’m exaggerating.
But as always, what do I know? Who am I to judge? I’m not in “the system” perhaps. Maybe I’m not quite as right-wing on the frum scale as the author of this article. But I am a young, Orthodox, single woman. I go on dates. I keep Halachot. And I may not be the most gorgeous woman alive, either. I may be average, I may be ugly, heck, I may even be pretty. But that’s a pretty subjective statement. It depends, of course, on your view. But I don’t think anyone could claim I don’t care about my appearance. I, like every girl, look in the mirror and sometimes needlessly think about what I must be doing wrong.

But I wear clean clothes every day. I do my best to dress neatly, modestly, and attractively. When I want to look nicer, I wear makeup. I blow-dry my hair. I try to eat right. I look for ways to (modestly) emphasize my good parts and minimize my flaws. Just like almost every other girl I know. But I have a bumpy nose. I have freckles. I have a plethora of other “flaws” that, if I wanted, I could “correct” with surgery. But I never, ever would. And there are many reasons for that.
First, and most importantly, because I shouldn’t have to. I am, thank God, blessed with a wonderful and supportive family that has always accepted me the way I am, and has always told me that I am at my best the way God made me. My self-esteem when it comes to my appearance is far from great, as anyone who knows me can tell you, but I have never truly thought I was hideous. But even if I was, who are you to tell me the way God made me wasn’t good enough? Why should I have to pay thousands of dollars and take needless health risks just to please some guy, his mother, and society’s sky-high expectations?  And why should you? I was always told to love myself before I expected others to do the same, and that confidence would be the key to finding happiness. Maybe that’s what these people should be teaching their kids.
Second, because surgery, even cosmetic surgery, carries some pretty heavy risks.  If you want to get a nose job, or already got one, go ahead. You’re welcome to. That’s your choice, and if it gives you the confidence you need, kol ha’kavod, great for you. But why do some girls think that they need one, and put themselves in unnecessary danger? And the danger is there. One of my best friends knew a beautiful teenage girl who was thrilled to receive a nose job, and who died on the operating table from complications with the anesthesia. A “better” (and I say “better” because I’ve seen some obviously “fixed” noses that I can’t imagine choosing willingly) nose isn’t worth your life.
 Why make girls think they need this to be pretty? Why teach this to kids? I have nine-year-old students who, coming from a community where nose jobs are common practice, have told me:

Like I said, I have no wish to look down on women (or men) who have gotten nose jobs or any other form of plastic surgery. If it makes them feel good about themselves, that’s amazing. But who is this mother to put down on paper that this is what should be expected of women in order to please their husbands? To this I roll my eyes and think, thanks for enforcing the Jewish stereotype. Thanks for giving further gravity to…of all things…Glee (groan) in its claim that “getting a nose job is a rite of passage for Jewish girls.” (Although I do have to admit that I loved Glee’s take on the “getting surgery to be pretty” situation). But really, doesn’t anyone see how this article encourages both the JAP AND Jewish Mother stereotype? Heck, even I read this article and immediately thought of The Big Bang Theory.

Besides, as I mentioned in my first Tzniut-themed post, I just couldn’t see guys putting that much emphasis on their outer appearance. I know plenty of guys that care a great deal about how they look, and others who don’t care but still manage to look great. And I know guys who are shlumpy. I have also been on dates where I’m almost sure the guy’s entire preparation consisted of:

And any girl I’ve spoken to has been on a date with a guy like that. But I'm well aware that most men aren't like that. My reason for mentioning it at all is to point out that if girls are shlumpy, so are guys. And if girls need to put effort into their appearance, so should guys. Let’s be equal-opportunity here, shall we?
Perhaps the worst part of this imbalance/double-standard in the dating world is that no one will fix it, since even women (as evidenced by this article) seem to buy into this archaic way of thinking, that a woman must be more goddess than person. And what effect does this have on girls, other than to lower their self-esteem and make them change themselves on the outside? It makes them shallow. It makes them more judgmental of each other than of the guys they date. And it makes them competitive, sometimes viciously. As a friend of mine pointed out after witnessing the social dynamics at (a modern Orthodox) shul:

It’s sad, but it’s an unfortunate reality of our community, one that I’ve recently been forced to face. I hate to look at it this way, but sometimes it seems that the dating game has become a fearsome competition. I’m not sure how it happened, but I’m certain this objectification of women, by women, isn’t helping matters.
But no matter how many answers and diatribes I can muster against this article, none will come close to one I read in the comment section underneath that article. It was a mature, well-written response by a woman who wished the author luck on eventually walking her child down the aisle at his wedding, something she herself could no longer look forward to, since her daughter died of anorexia. It had been the words of a well-meaning shadchen that had driven her to her illness, a suggestion that she lose some weight in order to make herself more “marketable” to men. She was a size 6 at the time.
For those of you who don’t know women’s sizes, a 6 is a healthy size, even on the thin side depending on your height. But that’s kind of irrelevant now. When I read this woman’s story, I cried. For her, for her daughter, and for all the nice, single girls who would read this article, look at themselves, and wonder whether it was aimed at them. What more can I say? I’m deeply saddened by this whole thing. But there’s only so many times you can tell someone they’re beautiful the way they are before someone undoes it all with one thoughtless word.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Diary of a Music Nerd: The Energy

Warning: I go to a pretty dark place in this one, so read at your own risk. Also, do not think I'm deranged because of this post. I am a normal, happy, psychologically balanced person. I swear.

I'm in one of those moments when I wish my post time was
some other time. Three weeks ago I had such a tough week that all I wanted was to never post again, and this time, all I want is to have been able to post last week. While we did get a solid post from Aliza (one that apparently everyone liked because it's racked up almost 100 views in the week it's been up), I feel like what I'm about to write about would have been more potent last Wednesday while it was actually happening instead of now as I write about it in retrospect. However, the impact was still strong enough to warrant a post about it.
I'll get into it in a moment, but first, a little about the title.

Diary of a Music Nerd was started as a bit of an experiment that never panned out in the way we at Arbitribe thought it would. In early October, a few months shy of our first birthday, we decided that new features needed to be added to spice the blog up a little, and while one never came to be, Diary of a Music Nerd drew its inspiration from my passion for music and a post I had written earlier that year with the same title. It was meant to be a weekly or bi-weekly short running column where I could just shoot out an observation about music whenever the whim struck me, drop a recommendation about a band I was digging at the time, review/discuss new releases, and just generally get into the subject from a "Jewish Metal Musician" perspective. It was a way that I could write about what I love but without disrupting the continuity of Arbitribe as a whole; it was supposed to be a way to keep the theme of the blog but still have that option on there for those who might find it interesting.

Now, obviously that's not what happened. Due to constraints within the Blogger interface, a serious demand on my time from school and other obligations, and our regular posting staff dropping like flies, among other things, it didn't quite work out. Almost a year since the original post was written, there have been only two more posts bearing that moniker and one was an absolutely impenetrable mass of music philosophy which I'm pretty sure is my least viewed post to date. At this point, DoaMN has been pretty much shelved.

That being said, I will still tack that header onto something if I feel that music played a central role in an experience that I think is necessary to share or at least is worth writing about. So just because you see that header, don't just skip the post because you're afraid that I'm going spend the whole time nerding out; it's only there to highlight the important role that music played in the story, or more likely, that the story wouldn't have taken place without music. With all of that long preamble now out of the way, I bring you the story of last week, which would certainly not have happened without music.

I had a bad day on Tuesday last week, but it was like a sneaky bad day because I didn't realize I was having it until it was almost over. It was just long, draining, and packed to the brim, and I walked into my room to wind down for the night in a very foul mood. Not foul like testy and irritable, just I was kind of emotionally drained. Something like that. Anyways, similar to waking up still drunk after a night of partying hard, my mood spilled over into the next day, and I woke up in a serious funk. However, aside from the lack of motivation to do anything, I couldn't and still can't quite pinpoint what exactly I was feeling. It was just that something was off. It was in this emotionally whacked out state that I began to go through my customary morning internet perusal.

Aside from Facebook and email and all that other stuff, there's a metal blog I read that posts from 10 AM to 5 PM Monday to Friday every half hour (ONE DAY ARBITRIBE, ONE DAY!!). Normally, the 10 AM post is something funny or ridiculous to get the day started, but that day, what greeted me was a post about an early 2000's noise-rock band, a favorite of the blogger, that had broken up earlier that day. I had never heard of the band, but someone suggested a few songs in the comments as an introduction to their music. I followed up on his tip and looked up one of the songs on Youtube, and so 20 minutes after I woke up I was faced with one of the most powerful musical experiences I have ever had.

You may have noticed that I didn't put up the name of the band, the song, or even the blog (though some of you may know which blog it is). There's a reason for that: I'm trying to spare you from psychological damage. What followed when I pressed 'Play' was close to six minutes of raw, primal, unbridled rage. The lyrics made no sense, the music consisted of a dissonant chord pattern, and the vocal melody was deliberately atonal, to the point that it's debatable whether or not this thing can actually be classified as a song. The effect of that absence of all musical merit was that there was a void that was left in the "song" and what spilled into that vacuum was emotion at its most primitive, pure level. As it turns out, the emotion evoked was vitriolic, psychotic fury, which proved to be detrimental to my already fragile emotional state that morning. Long story short, I had that song on repeat for an hour for no reason that I could even begin to try to understand, and as I stewed while it slowly filled me with anger, I became aware of a growing desire to completely destroy my room. Eventually though, I shut it off and got on with my day, and after a little while, my mood regulated and everything was normal.

Um...does anyone want to try and explain what the FREAKING HELL happened to me back there? I'm a deliberately nonviolent, happy person who loves everything because he's a hippie and can't remember any time that he actually wanted to physically hurt anything, and yet I was fantasizing about tearing my room apart in a violent fury. And lets not even get into the fact that I will cry like a baby when my parents eventually sell the house because I grew up in this room and the child in me never wants to live anywhere else. What the heck? Thinking about the whole experience afterwards tripped me out a little harder than the actual experience itself. What can make a person feel the opposite of everything they think?

The point of this all is that music is powerful. REALLY powerful. When I first got into metal everyone always told me that the music you listen to changes you, and this is the first time that I can say with absolute certainty that they're right. It was kind of scary. There's stuff out there that, like this song, is pure energy, and if you open yourself up to it, it can take over you. Oblivious of that, I sat in my room for an hour, systematically devolving while the vocalist spit acid into my ears. It was a powerful experience that really freaked me out, and I'm pretty sure it's obvious now why I didn't name names. I know that not everyone is as plugged in, and therefore as vulnerable to the effects of music as I am, but it never hurts to be a little more careful with your emotions, psyche, and soul.

I guess if you had to classify this it would be a cautionary tale: you are what you eat...sorta. You get the point. I guess maybe I just wanted to write about it also; it's a pretty cool concept if you can dissociate yourself from the emotional context of it and look at it "scientifically." Think about it, just listening to music can have a profound effect on a person on a deep psychological and emotional level. That in and of itself is a pretty awesome, powerful thing to consider.

I feel the need to end this on a less heavy note, so here's this: SHBOINGGGGGG!!!

Song(s) of the Day: The Energy - Audiovent

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Agony and the Apathy

First off, today is March 14th. Happy Pi(e) day to all!

We live in what I’ve heard referred to as the age of instant-gratification. I like to call it the Age of the Unimpressed, or even simpler: the Age of ‘Meh.’

I don’t know why we’ve become so jaded, but it seems to me that nothing impresses us anymore. We see stunts on YouTube and high speed chases in movies. We see people singing in their underwear on the subway, and it hardly shocks us. We can't see the coming spring for the traffic. Truly, this saddens me, because I believe that getting excited over nothing can help us lead fulfilling lives. But lately, I’ve been noticing that those around me simply can’t be bothered by some of the more, well, life-involved occurrences, like their fellow people. 
Last week, we celebrated Purim. Or at least, some of us did. I spent weeks before the day planning out my costume (Charlie Chaplin) and Seudah with my friends, and the days leading up to Chag putting together themed Mishloach Manot. But I’m dorky that way. I don’t expect everyone to put so much effort into their holiday preparations.

Who was that? That wasn’t me. I don’t make up cheesy holiday songs or poems…(casual whistling)
I even got invited to a Megilla reading/Purim party by someone I didn’t know well, to be attended by lots of nice young Jews I'd never met. Score! An opportunity to make new friends and meet new people! And a costume party to boot! I immediately invited along one of my friends (who dressed for the occasion as Audrey Hepburn) and off we rode on the crowded New York subway, looking to all the world like a pair of very confused Annie Hall impersonators.
We were pleasantly hopeful, but not too over-excited, at the prospect of the party ahead. We arrived to a room filled with people our age or a little older, who all basically knew each other, but not us. I did manage to pick out one or two people I knew, and so we settled in for a few hours of socializing.
But then an hour passed.

In the time we spent there, I had had conversations with a grand total of two people, both of whom I already knew and one of which was only there because he’d been dragged. Not one of the strangers, despite us having been forcibly introduced, batted an eye our way. They stayed in their cliques, costumed as the likes of Catwoman and Epic Mealtime, but wearing expressions as bored as a bunch of fourth graders watching My Dinner with Andre. We left early, bitterly disappointed and wondering, if people couldn’t properly celebrate and socialize on Purim, one of the most joyful and uninhibited days of the Jewish calendar, did this mean people were no longer excited about, well… people?
You can imagine how we felt on the subway ride back. Here we were dressed like some very convincing drag queens, and all to be ignored on what was supposed to be one of the most fun days of the year. Luckily, the next day, we had a far more exciting Seudah with our own friends, and THAT one, at least, was filled with laughter and some good-natured fun-poking.
But the experience at the party got me thinking. It brought to mind another conversation I’d had with a friend of mine, who I’d always assumed was much “frummer” than me. He expressed to me a lack of connection with his Judaism. It’s not that he didn’t believe. He had a lot of faith and was deeply religious. It’s just that, well, what was there to get excited about? It’s all this obligation. All this stress that comes with performing rituals day in and day out.
“But what about Shabbat?” I asked him (Shabbat is probably my favorite thing about being an Orthodox Jew. Personally, I think it keeps me sane). “Doesn’t Shabbat get you excited?”
“Oh yeah,” he answered, “I love Shabbat. I look forward to it every week. But every week it’s there. Why should I get all riled up about it?”
My answer now is the same answer I had then. Um… Why NOT?
If we can get all excited about the new iPad or the return (THANK YOU!) of a certain TV Show after months of long, cold hiatus (evil eyes at those responsible), why not about new people at a party? About dressing up like idiots? About having a glorious day during which no one can bother us via cell phone, when our lack of work means we just MUST spend the afternoon walking in the park in some of the most gorgeous weather I’ve ever seen mid-March?
Isn’t that what we’re always saying life is about? Especially in Judaism? “Hinei Ma Tov uMa Naim, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad”: What is more good or more pleasant than when friends get together??? Isn’t that why we sing in the Shabbat every Friday night, as much to get ourselves into it as to pray? Isn’t that why we spend money we don’t have on opera tickets and road trips? Aren’t we meant to be impressed?

I’m aware that I’ve totally just devolved this post from thought to full-fledged rant, and I'm not saying we should go through every minute of the day like the Double-Rainbow guy, but this apathy I see constantly is starting to bug me. I even see it more than anywhere else in my nine-year-old students, who must be some of the most impossible to impress people I know. These are kids who bring iPhones to school. Kids who have all of the latest toys and video games. Try getting them excited about a trip to the museum, or a classic book, or a beautiful day to play outside.

You might just get a little bugged too. It seems to me that so many people want to appear as if they've seen it all, that people are fooled into mistaking pretentious standoffishness for some sort of maturity (Just like Jeff Winger... HA!)
And as I type this, something else comes to mind. A memory of my high school dean standing in the center of a Rosh-Chodesh Kumzits, trying (and marvelously succeeding) to get even the most bored and jaded teenager to sing along and dance in the middle of the circle. He told us that just like we ought to have Kavanah (concentration) when we pray, we should have it when we live, too. We should always be AWARE of where we are, and live in the moment. Carpe Diem and all that cliché movie montage. And cliché it is, but more and more, I’m discovering the truth in it.
So here’s my Spring-is-Coming (that’s an occasion, right?) resolution for the remaining half of the Jewish calendar year: I’m going to live with Kavanah, and celebrate every coming holiday and special occurrence with all the joy and excitement I feel, no matter how dorky I may look.
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