Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tyranny of Beauty

Guest Post

The following was sent by a young woman in her twenties in response to my post on "Shiduchim and the Importance of Beauty". She is a graduate of Stern. She has asked to remain anonymous and I have agreed. I believe she speaks for a lot of people and along with many of the comments on that post has caused me to re-think my own views. Her words follow.

To preface, let me begin with the fact that I am one hundred percent head-over-heels in love with that quirky industry known as cosmetics. I own a significant amount of makeup, most of which gives me genuine and honest pleasure to select, test, apply and wear. (Taking it off... well, that's another story, but alas, nothing good comes without its own trials.)

Makeup is not the object of my anger, and neither would a theoretical encouragement that girls find ways to make themselves feel especially beautiful elicit this reaction. (The "suggestion" of surgery does not deserve our attention; unfortunately I also know and know of girls who were "fixed" before the crucial senior yearbook pictures were taken.) I believe that makeup can and should be used in a healthy and honest way to improve self confidence and enable women to get in touch with their own beauty.

But I do not believe that the article we are discussing called for any of the self-confidence, self-worth or happiness that makeup can impart-- or in fact that it values those things at all. Mrs. Halberstam was calling for physical change, or at least the temporary illusion of such, in the girls who might marry her son. She even apologized (forgive me if I loosen the definition of that word just a touch) for including under her umbrella of disapproval girls who were made up, but not to the point that she could tell. 

What does that tell us? It tells us (or anyway, it tells me) that this woman does not expect or desire makeup to be utilized in a healthy, positive way. It tells me that she views a girl who leaves her house clean, dressed neatly, hair brushed-- in other words, a girl who more than meets society's expectations for basic presentability-- as someone who is choosing to expose her inherent and fundamental flaws to the world.

That one should present oneself well in public is perfectly self-evident, and it is unfathomable to me that any more than one or two girls at the meeting Mrs. Halberstam attended were, for whatever reason, genuinely sloppy or truly negligent of their appearance. Why then, devote an article to which the vast majority of people-- especially women, and all the more so young women in shidduchim-- are already constantly, harrowingly concerned?

I strongly feel that there is necessarily a different message, a more meaningful backdrop when something so self-evident is proclaimed as revelatory-- particularly when it is announced in a public forum. In this case, by proclaiming to myself and my peers that we should "look beautiful", Mrs. Halberstam is telling us that we are not already beautiful as we are-- or at least that we are not "beautiful enough".

No matter how loudly one clucks about reality and The Differences Between Men and Women, "beautiful enough" is
not a quality that can be standardized or defined-- but that is exactly what Mrs. Halberstam seeks to accomplish, whether or not she knew it when she wrote her treatise.

I know the oft-tread response to this message. "Well, some people really need nose-jobs-lap-bands-keratin-treatments-contact-lenses, etc., etc." Perhaps some do, though I consider that a cruel and dangerous game to play. But not only is this argument a rabbit hole of colossal depth, it is actively blind to the point of Mrs. Halberstam’s article.

To the first: There is literally no end to even the most attractive person’s cosmetic flaws. 
It is a potentially limitless litany of imperfections and just-not-good-enoughs; if a girl isn't too chubby, she will be too tall. If she is the "right" height, she will have a less-than-perfect complexion. If she is able to conceal her blemishes sufficiently (not an easy thing at all, as perhaps the male half is not aware) then her nose will be too big, and if her parents pay to have her "fixed", then her hair will be too curly and "chad gadya, chad gadya!"

To the second: Rabbi Maryles, you of all people should know that messages change when they are addressed to the many as opposed to the one. Loving advice given to an individual is drained of any nuance or caring when transmuted into a communal critique. There can be no discussion of positive attributes, no subtlety in the assessment of improvements, and no assurance that the advice will be synthesized in a psychologically healthy way.

And psychological health is something Mrs. Halberstam shows little regard for in her article, even though, as you surely know, it is a profound and pressing problem in our community. Words like anorexia and bulimia are seen as buzzwords for extreme and unlikely scenarios, and so I am reluctant to use them, but what about simple self-esteem? What about looking in the mirror and reading one's appearance accurately? 

What about being happy, even if there are a few crooks in a nose or extra pounds around the waist? I cannot tell you how many of my set dance around the edges of mental illness and never receive treatment, or how many avoid looking in mirrors, refuse to stand for pictures, or hang behind the lights and grimace at other peoples' simchot. 

And an even greater number are just not as happy as they truly deserve to be.

There is a message being sent to us, Rabbi Maryles, a message that screamed to me from every unnecessary inch of this article-- that myself and all of my female friends are innately and fundamentally unsatisfactory. We are just not good enough the way we are.

Mrs. Halberstam implores our mothers to focus more on our pursuit of beauty, but believe me, we’ve been trying. If it isn't working, it is not because our bodies or our souls are ugly, but because we have already internalized Mrs. Halberstam's horrible hypothesis. No amount of makeup or lack of food will disguise or dispel these fundamental negative self-perceptions.

It is profoundly disheartening to me, not only as someone who believes that beauty and values come from within, not only as someone who wishes for my friends to be happy in themselves, but as someone who looks for strength in her community. The ephemeral physical standard to which we are held is gleaned largely from the “outside world”... but are we not meant to shield ourselves from unhealthy influence with our Judaism?

The messages of the media would not be nearly so powerful if they were not acted out daily in our lives-- most especially in the shidduch system, where values so many of us were instructed to reject or at least modify are now the basis by which our worth is weighed without moderation.

So, no. I have no problem with makeup. And yes, I do believe that every person should strive to look and feel their best when they engage with the world. What I object to is the decision to so flagrantly bind the body to the soul and then grind the lot in a crucible of criticism until an acceptable-- albeit artificial-- alchemy is achieved.

I know that many do not read this message in Mrs. Halberstam's article, and I imagine that others will dismiss my point of view as overreaction-- I wish it were. But I cannot help but see the blood sketched on the wall of reality in our community. The effects of its toxicity are already all too evident, and any widespread legitimization of this thesis will only manufacture misery too extensive for me to imagine.

If my response is considered excessive to the offense, I cannot think that I am doing anything unlike herding a family out of their home at the first sound of a smoke detector. The potential consequences are too extremely terrible to avoid a definitive and unequivocal action.