Friday, April 20, 2012

Rethinking Cosmetic Surgery as an Aid to Beauty

Yesterday’s guest post “Tyranny of Beauty’ sums up much of the anger and frustration expressed at Mrs. Halberstam’s article  about ‘Shiduchim and the Importance of Beauty’ - and at my sympathetic view of it. After reading the post and the many responses to my own post - I have reconsidered my views.

To say the least, the author of that post was very upset. And I completely understand why.  She saw Mrs. Halberstam’s article to be anathema to the values of the Torah.  She also saw it as an insult to every Jewish woman – outraged by the implication that the Jewish woman of today is simply not beautiful enough to find a mate.

It is hard enough dealing with a culture that glorifies the superficiality of external beauty.  Mrs. Halberstam’s attitude only exacerbates this problem.

I still believe (as I’m sure the author of yesterday’s article does) that in the real world looking one’s best matters – especially when dating.  That includes all of the things that go into looking good that I listed in my original post. And it should be added to attributes like personal character, intelligence, education, and personal kindness. Although these are far more important than physical beauty, beauty is still very much a part of our own Jewish culture. In fact, I was reminded by an article in Ynet of a Rashi  that makes reference to this:

Moses felt that the mirrors were an inappropriate donation because they were used by Israelite women to beautify themselves in order to arouse and entice their exhausted slave-driven husbands in Egypt.

The great medieval commentator, Rashi, explains that God instructed Moses to accept them saying that these mirrors are, “More precious to me than anything else because through them the women established many generations in Egypt.”

While it is true that this Rashi refers to women beautifying themselves for their husbands, it should not be lost on us that they were in fact… beautifying themselves. I would suggest that the very same reason God had for placing such a high value on those mirrors applies today in beautifying oneself for purposes of finding a mate.

I don’t think the author of yesterday’s post would disagree with that either.

What I think is being overlooked however is something that was left unsaid by Mrs. Halberstam and yet could very well lie at the heart of the problem she sees.

It was not however overlooked by one of my frequent commenters, Wit:

Can you blame most girls for downplaying their looks when many of them spend years in a school system that drill into them the message of being tznius almost to the point of a young 18 year old girl looking matronly. 

When a girl has so much emphasis put on the concept of "tzanuah" in her adolescent and most formidable years it can actually have a serious negative psychological affect on her as a woman.  She has in essence been told for years that it is NOT okay to attract attention with your looks and body.  Now she is just supposed to undo that?

Could it indeed really be that the indoctrination about Tznius young women get as adolescents is where the problem Mrs. Halberstam tries to address really lies?

There is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that how a man and a woman look when they first meet each other is an important factor in whether a relationship will develop.

That said there is a malaise in western culture that places far too much emphasis on looks. And it can cause in women - and increasingly even in men as well –unrealistic expectations about how they should look as well as distorted body images of themselves if they don’t see themselves measuring up. This can lead to all manner of self esteem problems which can in turn easily lead to clinical depression, or severe eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

The over-emphasis on beauty that is promoted in western culture is pervasive. Even in the most religious among us who rarely if ever see pictures like that- trying to avoid looking at them - those images have nonetheless permeated our collective psyche.

The frustrations of young women looking to date and having a hard time doing so because of the much smaller pool of available men must be tremendous. Add to that the feelings of inferiority in the looks department that many young women are made to feel by the prevailing culture of airbrushed beauty - and you have a problem of tremendous magnitude. One that is easily exacerbated by an article like the one written by Mrs. Halberstam. Although I am sure that was not her intention.

The truth of the matter is that even though looks do matter, only the shallowest of people will see that as the entire basis for a relationship. Good people will look at all those other important qualities I spoke of.  But even non shallow idealistic people are attracted to the physical as well.

So I stand by my view that one must do whatever one can to look as good as possible when dating or meeting Shadchanim or anyone else that might want to ‘set them up’.  And let that be added it to their resume along with their other fine qualities.

Mrs. Halberstam intentions are good. She does not deserve to be vilified. Her heart is in the right place. But in her zeal to do something about it she crosses a line:

There is no reason in today’s day and age with the panoply of cosmetic and surgical procedures available, why any girl can’t be transformed into a swan. Borrow the money if you have to; it’s an investment in your daughter’s future, her life.

Here I now part company with her. What she ends up doing with a statement like this is perpetuating the misconception that every single woman can look like ‘a swan’. Or put another way - look like a model or movie star. Telling young people (or their mothers) that as a general policy they should even borrow money to have cosmetic surgery done in the cause of seeking physical perfection sends exactly the wrong message and contributes mightily to the poor self image far too many young women have of themselves today. A false image - that can lead to very serious negative emotional consequences.

For not thinking it through enough and supporting cosmetic surgery for young people as an aid to finding a mate, I sincerely apologize.

That said, I would will end with a bit of wisdom from Evanston Jew (ej). When the conversation shifts to individual and informed choice here is what he had to say:

If a woman, a grown up woman, 22 and older, single and in search of a shiduch, decides her chances would be significantly improved if she would fix her nose, & and her assessment is reasonable, she has the right to have such a surgery. Second, if such a woman asked a parent what to do, the parent has the right, not necessarily the obligation, to advise her/his daughter to proceed with such an operation if they believed it is a good idea.