‘I will only date girls that are a size 2.’ This comment was made by a young man I know over 20 years ago. He got his wish. He married a lovely young woman who is very thin. And ‘they live happily ever after.’ This may sound like a fairy tale. But it is a true story. He is a happily married man with many children and is currently a Charedi Rosh HaYeshiva in Israel.
I’ve mentioned this story before. I mention it again in light of a very insightful article by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in Ha’aretz. The truth of the matter is (whether we admit it or not) when dating, women are seen as objects first and as people second. This is true across the board. Religious Jew or otherwise. No matter how much any segment denies it. Even Charedim as the above anecdote shows.
Lest anyone say this is an exception, I would argue that this is the rule. (Which of course does have many exceptions – but exceptions they are.) How do I know this? Mrs. Chizhik-Goldschmidt articulates quite well why this is so obviously true. That every man wants to marry a beautiful woman is obvious in the general culture. Those of us who participate in it already know that. We are affected by it.
But what about the highly insular Charedi world? (For purposes of this post – I am excluding Chasidim whose dating methods are radically different than in the Yeshiva world.) One need only look at how Shiduchim are processed in that world and one can easily see just how important looks are to a man. Recall how a few years ago in a Jewish Press article one Shadchan even suggested that among other physical attributes like weight loss, using makeup, and wearing attractive clothing - plastic surgery should be considered!
Until recently Mrs. Chizhik-Goldschmidt saw only the world of Shiduchim from the perspective of a Shidduch prospect. Now she offers us a glimpse of it from the perspective of a Shadchan. Something in which she recently has become involved after marrying her husband who is a rabbi. It opened her eyes. Here is a key excerpt from her article:
It is for her that girls fuss when preparing for a wedding -- plastic surgery, hair blown out, manicures, expensive dresses, high heels (within some boundaries of modesty, surely) -- not so much for the men, no, the young single men will barely get a glimpse of the young single women at these weddings with separate seating. No, this whole ritual is done for the married women -- for the mere hope that one wigged lady sees her, at the sushi station perhaps, walks over and with a swish of her wand, says, “My God, you’re gorgeous, I know someone perfect for you. From a well-to-do family, too.”
So not only do men see women this way. Women see themselves this way. They understand that men see them as objects and seek first in a woman – her physical beauty. Everything else comes after that. Even in the Charedi world.
There is really nothing new in all of this. Although it bears repeating in light of the ongoing so called Shidduch crisis. In the Charedi world - age 25 makes a woman nearly un-dateble. There are a lot of 25 year old women that are single and not dating at all. It should therefore come as no surprise that there is so much anxiety about this – even calling it a crisis. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this post. But that this is a fact is indisputable.
There is a more important point to be made here made by Mrs. Chizhik-Goldschmidt. Which is the following. The claim that modesty is the reason why women should be erased in the public square is a huge joke. ‘Joke’ is her word. Not mine. But she is absolutely correct. For a woman who is dating, it is all about making herself physically appealing to men. It is about getting them to desire them as a mate by making themselves attractive. Instead of men avoiding gazing at women, they actively seek it out. Physical beauty comes first. Modesty hardly enters into the picture - as all of the evidence brought up in this article illustrates. The expression extolling a woman’s inner beauty - Kol K’vuda Bas Melech P’nima is hardly what a man dating a woman looks at.
One might be tempted to explain that when it comes to Shiduchim we ‘look the other way’in this regard. But it makes a mockery of the concept when it is so easily suspended. Either modesty is a virtue or it isn’t.
One might also be tempted to say that the very fact that there is such an emphasis on the physical beauty of a woman when dating is proof that women do need to be hidden from the public eye as much as possible.
Whether it is human nature - or a learned and ingrained response for men to objectify women, it is grossly unfair and demeaning to erase them from the public square as a means of dealing with the problem. We need instead to focus our attention on the inner person and not the externals – even if human nature tends us towards the opposite.
It is our duty to learn how to be civilized and to control our thoughts. It is certainly not the solution to hide women from our sight in every way we can. That is cruel. And it is even counterproductive. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" is not just a cliché.
As in all things, there has to be a happy medium. It is incumbent upon men to learn how to control their thoughts when encountering women that they might be attracted to (or to their pictures). And it is incumbent upon women to contribute to this effort by dressing in ways which are not provocative. One can be attractive without being attracting. That is what Tznius in clothing is all about.