Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Shiduchim and the Importance of Beauty

About a month ago, Mrs. Yitta Halberstam published an article in the Jewish Press which created a firestorm of controversy. It was on the subject of Shiduchim. Specifically, it addressed ways in which young women can overcome what has come to be called the Shiddach crisis. In short her advice was for these young women to do whatever they can to ‘look good’.

Being at a disadvantage to young men by vastly outnumbering them in the Shiddach world, she felt that the best way to combat this is by improving their looks. This included not only good grooming, dressing well, using makeup appropriately, and watching one’s weight, but even opting for surgical procedures like plastic surgery if necessary.

Just about everyone jumped on her. The retort was mostly along the lines that instead of focusing on the artificiality of good looks, the focus should instead be on educating young men about the important qualities to look for in a woman and not to look so hard at looks.

Nice words. But foolish advice.

Not that I don’t agree with the idea that looks are not as important as other qualities in the overall evaluation about one’s potential life-mate. I agree that they are of secondary importance to things like maturity, intelligence, education, personality, and character. But just because they are secondary doesn’t mean they are unimportant. Physical attraction is very important. It is integral to the Shiddach process. Without physical attraction I believe it would be rare for an a couple to get married.

What may be overlooked is that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. What looks good to one person may not look good to another. And it is cultural. In western culture, there is a certain look that the vast majority of young men are seeking in a wife. And this applies to virtually all segments of Orthodoxy – from right wing Charedi to left wing Modern Orthodox.

There is a Rosh Yeshiva in Israel that I knew when he was dating many years ago. He is currently a happily married man with many children. He refused to date anyone that wan't very thin. He ended up marrying exactly the ‘look’ he was seeking. This is not to say he didn’t seek all those other qualities I mentioned. Of course he did. But he did not have to compromise on the look he wanted to get them. That’s because the pool of women he dated had a lot of women of great character and all those other qualities. He only dated women like that, but narrowed that field down to the look he wanted. And he got it.

I believe that this is the core of the problem that Mrs. Halberstam was addressing. She realizes that character matters far more than looks. But she also realizes the uneven circumstances between eligible men and eligible women. Women seeking mates by far outnumber men seeking mates.

The fact happens to be that a lot of young people are of fine moral character. What I think Mrs. Halberstam was saying is that many of them simply do not seem to care enough about their own physical appearance. She wasn’t judging them or trying to promote physical appearances over character. She was simply addressing reality. And suggesting that all is fair in love and war… or in this case simply love. Or more accurately getting someone to love - and love you back. If one has a physical defect that could be taken care of with some minor plastic surgery – it is no sin to correct it. Not that it is a moral good to do so - but that it may be a practical necessity in some cases.

I don’t think she meant that a woman should subject herself to a major physical change in looks. But a simple cosmetic improvement like removing a mole for example should not be considered beyond the pale either.

Not that I am advocating that anyone do that. I am simply saying that her approach is not an unreasonable one and should not be seen as shallow.

Of course it would be nice to educate young men to be blind to appearances and only look at character. But that is about as unrealistic as trying to change the spots on a leopard. Human nature is not going to change. And as long as young men have the upper hand in dating, there is nothing wrong with doing one’s best to compete for it in marriage- including in the looks department.

That said, there is a lot that can be done without putting oneself under the knife for cosmetic reasons. Personal hygiene, watching one’s weight, learning to use makeup to one’s advantage, dressing attractively, having an attractive hairstyle are matters of first course. And personality should not be overlooked either. Your personality will definitely affect the way people see you.

But beyond that I see no real problem with a cosmetic procedure to eliminate a defect in order to get married. As long as one doesn’t go overboard, I think it is quite fair for a woman to consider this option in order to compete in the dating world. This is no different than getting braces to straighten teeth, or getting them capped if necessary. Character may be the most important feature in a human being. But in the real world, even a Rosh Yeshiva seeks beauty. Why shouldn’t a woman do her best to compete on that level too?

The bottom line for me is that all those who have been criticizing Mrs. Halberstam ought to get off their high horses and realize that all she was doing is giving good advice and in no way downplaying the importance of character. And for those having a hard time getting married, she may be on to something.


I should hasten to add that when there is an overfocus on looks, there is a reverse problem. Some women have become anorexic in the cause of ‘looking good’. This has become an area of great concern even among Charedim. I definitely am not talking about becoming anorexic. There is a happy medium between being anorexic and letting yourself go - ignoring the way you look.

My point here is that paying attention to the way one looks is an important feature of the dating process. And if that means some minor plastic surgery along the lines Mrs. Halbertsam was saying, I think that's just fine. On the other hand - extremes in either direction are to be avoided.