The Failings of Solely Focusing on Beauty
As women, we know that we need to take care of ourselves. We should eat nutritious food, dress in a way that makes us feel good inside and out. We have every right to highlight the best of ourselves – from the way we look to doing work that feels good for us. We need to engage in relationships that are nurturing, from friends to family.
We have the right to feel beautiful internally and externally, however we prescribe it.
Yet for so long, the way we look has defined us. The way we appear to the world somehow is understood as the sum of our parts. It even goes so far as to represent to others the totality of who we are, and maybe even what we have to offer.
In Megillat Esther we have a beauty contest. Women are collected from around the Persian empire, chosen because of the way they look. Sequestered, they are given the best beauty treatments and prepare to be chosen as the new potential Queen of the Realm.
Ultimately, the most beautiful woman, Esther, is chosen. The rest of the story does not fixate on her beauty, rather on her values and belief systems. It is her commitment to her people that propels the story forward. It is her faith in God, that pushes her to include her people in a fast that is meant to prepare her for asking for their lives. It is her cunning that plans the best way to ask for what she needs, and how to manipulate the egos of two very inflated men. She uses her beauty as a tool to save the day. It is not the sum of her parts by a long shot.
We know there is tremendous focus on external beauty in the Western world. Pretty people get better jobs and more opportunities. Beauty can make you popular, sought after, or even famous.
But it creeps into the Jewish world, too. Every time I hear a story about the pressures of appearances in the dating world it boils my blood a little bit. The fixation on externals; how much she weighs, how much makeup she wears, how she does her hair, how white her teeth are. It greatly disturbs me.
Don’t get me wrong- attraction is very important. But I believe that many who are operating behind the scenes and setting the standards of the dating world, do not truly understand attraction. Attraction is something chemical that pulls two people together. People are attracted to all sorts of things. Women are attracted to larger men. Men are attracted to larger women. And curly hair, straight hair, crooked teeth, and crooked smiles. Some men like tons of makeup. Many men prefer no makeup at all. To presume that a woman is unfit to be set up for a match, because she doesn’t fit a Western picture of perfection is illogical.
Projecting these ill-fated values of external beauty onto the men and women in our communities, is truly where the “Shidduch Crisis” lies.
Thinking that Western beauty is what upholds Jewish marriages is foolish. It’s not externals that hold us together, but value systems. Shared goals, and mutual faith in something bigger than ourselves.
Attraction is something primal and deeply misunderstood. It’s time we let people figure it out for themselves, instead of projecting what “we think” attraction should consist of.
We have every right to look and feel beautiful. What that outcome looks like should and will differ from woman to woman.
But don’t define us by the way we look. Don’t for one-second mistake that our power lies solely in that space.
It is the beauty inherent in our strength, faith, and talents. It is our intelligence and resilience. It is our capacity for love and leadership.
In the end, isn’t that what wins Esther the day?
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.