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.


  1. So besides agreeing with everything you said, I think the most frightening part of the article is that they don't realize that by encouraging surgery they are telling girls to put themselves in סכנת נפשות, or "peril" which they have a halachic obligation to stay away from ״ושמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם״, for something they have no halachic obligation for, getting married. It is really bothering that this woman is actually clueless about Halacha. Not to metion things like lashon harah, or ואהבת לרעיך כמוך, and the many other odd Halachot that are being transgressed. Anyway may she find a beautiful husband for her son and be זוכה לתשובה שלמה

  2. @Michelle -- This reminds me of my favorite part of the article, which is the lovely vignette of the Satmar rebbe shunning the "meager provisions" in the concentration camp and subsisting "solely on the portions of raw potatoes that Hannah, a young woman working in the kitchen smuggled out to him daily – at great risk to her own life." Not to be crude or anything, but WTF? An instructive lesson on maintaining a higher standard of kashrut at the risk of human life? SOMEONE ELSE'S human life? No, thank you. That is not the Judaism I signed up for.

    @Aliza -- Some issues. ;)

    Item 1: "...while perhaps not the most gorgeous cartoon alive..." This is priceless. Deadpan. Perfect.

    Item 2: "I see much less pressure of the same sort put on men" and "Do the men also believe that only the most beautiful woman is worth getting to know?" Keep in mind that the men in the shidduch system are in such high demand because they do the heavy lifting -- of blatt gemara -- and it's thus not really reasonable to demand that they waste time and effort on taking care of themselves or dressing nicely. It's not like they're going to work or something.

    Item 3: We do appreciate that you wear clean clothes, but don't make me call you pretty in public. People would get the wrong idea.

    Item 4: "Let’s be equal-opportunity here, shall we?" I'm in favor. But not that guys should also put effort into their appearances because girls do. The equal opportunity I'm in favor of is, "Mom, I appreciate that you're putting your own reputation on the line to try to find me a shidduch, and haven't spoken with my disabled youngest sister in years lest she be seen by someone and ruin my prospects, but next time could you find me someone who isn't fat, dirty, and lazy? SRSLY. KTHXBAI!"

    Item 5: Corollary to Item 4, I'd be willing to bet that killing the shidduch system somehow, if there were in fact a way to do that, would in pretty short order lead to a marked increase in the number of Jewish guys who aren't total slobs.

    Item 6: It occurs to me that the A in the new Arbitribe logo looks like it's being sick all over New York City.

    Item 7: This is just for the sake of a chazaka, having gone 6 already. So you know, what the heck, 7's a good number.

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