Women's orgs fight sexist ad promoting weight loss for marriage

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz: "A bas Yisroel (daughter of Israel, or young Jewish woman) should be cherished for her neshama (soul) not be shamed for her body image."

 FAT-SHAMING is just one of the problems with the ‘Family First’ ad, which also ‘singles-shames.’ (photo credit: i yunmai/Unsplash)
FAT-SHAMING is just one of the problems with the ‘Family First’ ad, which also ‘singles-shames.’
(photo credit: i yunmai/Unsplash)

With so many awful things going on in the world, one might think an advertisement is not a big deal. 

You like what you see, buy the product. If not, turn the page. But some feel that too many have turned the page on an issue that should not be glossed over: a lack of physical representation/depictions of women in haredi publications.

Israel and America are free countries and surely magazines and media outlets can do what they want. But what responsibility do they have when it comes to the power of their platform in a moral sense? 

Some take the strict stance to not include any images of women, stating that the reason is a need for modesty. The rationalization may be that it’s a slippery slope, and once women are included, people may demand more things that the publications don’t want to publish. 

Furthermore, publishers may believe it is precisely the decision to avoid showing women that attracts and protects their readership base, with a revenue stream giving them evidence that they are making the right decision for their business.

 THE AD from ‘Mishpacha’s ‘Family First’ magazine. (credit: Mishpacha) THE AD from ‘Mishpacha’s ‘Family First’ magazine. (credit: Mishpacha)

Some examples which have drawn criticism include Yated Ne’eman’s picture of Hillary Clinton in 2016 with numerous hands and no head on her neck. Another example was when the Yiddish paper Di Tzeitung published a picture of the Situation Room where president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden were there with Clinton, secretary of state, as the killing of Osama Bin Laden took place in Pakistan. The outlet completely deleted Clinton from the photo, which was actually illegal. Mishpacha magazine raised eyebrows when faces of female Holocaust survivors were blurred out in a photo that accompanied a story about survivors in 2018.

NOW COMES an advertisement for a product called “Slim Trim” in Mishpacha’s Family First. The text reads: “This year, she’s in Israel. Next year, she’s in shidduchim. Concerned she’s growing in more ways than one?! Tell her about Slim Trim!”

There are fingers in shoes that are supposed to resemble legs. When I saw this, I thought it was a parody and was surprised to find out it was a real ad. I’m not sure I’d advise someone to get on a heated bicycle, but I’m not an engineer so I can’t comment on the functionality of the product.

Mishpacha posted the following statement: “We deeply regret the publication in last week’s edition of an ad containing damaging messages regarding women and weight loss. For the past year and a half, our editors and writers have promoted the ideals of intuitive eating and health at any size in a variety of formats. This ad does not reflect our beliefs and values. We’ll be reviewing our advertising protocols to avoid such situations in the future.”

It will be interesting to see what the new protocol is.

Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll is director and co-founder of Chochmat Nashim, whose goal is to make women’s voices seen and heard. The Beit Shemesh resident believes the apology came due to pressure, and she hopes the magazine will be more aware of the messages they are sending out in the future.

  Shoshanna Keats-Jaskol (credit: SHOSHANNA KEATS-JASKOLL) Shoshanna Keats-Jaskol (credit: SHOSHANNA KEATS-JASKOLL)

“The ad is problematic in numerous ways,” Keats-Jaskoll told the Magazine via email. “Not the least of which, is telling our daughters that they need to be thin in order to be loved, that they should be dating for the age of marriage at the age of 18, and when you combine it with the policy of not showing images of women, it’s another layer of reducing us to our bodies.”

She believes the gym should also be held accountable for thinking the ad was acceptable since it “embeds the notion that only thin women are lovable, and that their purpose is solely marriage.”

According to Daphne Lazar Price, executive director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, who is also an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, fat-shaming, the exclusion of women in the ad, and the use of elongated fingers instead of women’s legs are all problematic.

“The relationship between weight gain (“she’s growing in more ways than one”) and the transition from seminary to shidduchim reinforces the impossible standards of the shidduch system that make demands of young women looking a certain way that demands societal pressure to ‘accelerate weight loss,’” Lazar Price wrote to the Magazine. “There are high rates of incidence of eating disorders in the Jewish and Orthodox community that exceed the national average.”

She added that the policy of excluding women from ads or pictures was troublesome, with negative results looming.

“The decision to exclude women from (some) Orthodox publications is damaging to women and men, boys and girls,” she wrote. “Saying that there is impropriety – especially when falsely attributed to Jewish law – to not include images of girls and women fetishizes and sexualizes them.

“It also sends a message that is belittling of boys and men, by saying they cannot control themselves when they see basic images of girls and women in any setting – including business ads where a woman is the main business; woman, girls and women modeling clothing; or in ads depicting otherwise heteronormative family settings.” 

While it would not be expected to develop an eating disorder from one advertisement, ads are a litmus test of what is or isn’t acceptable. Overall messaging can have a negative impact, according to Nava Silton, professor of psychology at Manhattan Marymount College and a Fox 5 news correspondent.

“Seminary girls studying in Israel often have to acclimate to a new country, a new learning experience and are trying to find their comfort zone,” Silton explained. “Disordered eating and body image disorders disproportionately impact women and religious women more specifically. Ads of this sort can further exacerbate this vulnerability and self-consciousness around weight.”

Nationaleatingdisorders.org reports that a study on ultra-Orthodox and Syrian Jewish communities in Brooklyn showed one in 19 girls had a diagnosis of an eating disorder, a 50% higher rate than the mainstream US population.

Silton added that the exclusion of women’s faces in select media was “degrading and unhelpful.”

Ronny Geva, professor of psychology at Bar-Ilan University, said via email that the ad is in bad taste and belittling to customers. The target audience, denoted as “she,” is described as a passive entity that should be corralled into a path chosen for her.

“It is wrong to think about anyone (or control anyone) this way,” Geva said. “Why do they allow themselves to take over someone’s freedom to choose their life path?”

Geva said graduate school should be an option, not simply “seminar” and one should not be pressured to get married in the next year. 

“Between the words, we are led to understand that if “she” is not necessarily slim, she is not entitled to pursue her life dreams. Why? Says who?” 

According to feminist Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, people often don’t realize they make people feel marginalized by giving less esteem to those who are not married as well as those who are not slender.

“It is disgusting and quite nauseating,” Weiss-Greenberg said of the advertisement. “It is not only fat-shaming, it is singles-shaming. When we talk about a shidduch crisis, ads like these are part of the problem.”

One man commented in an online message that this was not really a big deal because there are many things people could get offended by. 

It is true there are many offensive things, but if there is psychological harm that can be prevented, why not look at solutions to help people?

I remember a school friend of mine who ate nothing more than an apple for lunch. I thought it strange but never imagined she had an eating disorder. I later found out she did. Living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for many years, I’d often see some men eating like it was a contest and I was concerned about their health. There’s a Seinfeld episode where Jerry thinks he’s not cool because he only ordered a salad. 

On one occasion, I saw a man with a woman he was seemingly dating, and he was eating a pastrami sandwich, French fries, a knish, mashed potatoes, stuffed cabbage, a hamburger and a Diet Sprite. While it is obvious that there is a double-standard in which women are held to a higher standard than men in terms of body image, I wondered if matchmakers were telling men to lose weight. I asked one matchmaker, who said if the man makes a good salary, she doesn’t usually bring it up. 

 PHOTO BANK images give a more realistic picture of everyday religious life. (credit: JLPB) PHOTO BANK images give a more realistic picture of everyday religious life. (credit: JLPB)

ANOTHER DOUBLE-standard is that while there is a fear that a picture of a woman could cause “impure thoughts” in a man, by virtue of allowing male photos, but not female photos, there is an implication that a woman could not have “impure thoughts” from of picture of a man. In real life, there are attractive people walking in the street. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone switch sides of the street because someone was attractive.

Ortal Shetrit is a Jerusalem resident who has taught graphic design at the high school and collegiate level and has created works for numerous media outlets, from haredi to secular.

“Speaking only in my capacity as a graphic designer, it is important to hear the customer and their needs,” Shetrit said. “As a designer, I can sell anything and do not necessarily have to agree or identify with their values. One has to listen to the client and their desires. I’m not the one to change or replace the values or content.”

Shetrit said there are creative ways to get around a client’s request that might seem impossible. For example, she said, she was asked to depict a man and a woman together without being allowed to draw the man and the woman. Her solution was to draw only the shoes of the man and woman next to each other, and she said the result was a success.

Daniela Weiss Bronstein, a clinical social worker, therapist, and the rebbetzin of the Hampton Synagogue in Long Island, New York, believes change is possible.

“I do think that the haredi media will begin to include images of women again, as was once common,” she said. “I think that between the women in the haredi world making change and the growing realization of the harm it does to be erased from communal spaces, the leadership will make an adjustment. 

“If the goal is not to sexualize women, then we need women to be seen in roles that are non-sexual, as full and contributing members beyond their ability to birth and raise children. It matters for the girls growing up in the society, obviously, but also for the boys. 

“The girls have the benefit of seeing amazing women in the women-only spaces they inhabit and having female role models involved in Torah, the arts, medicine, fitness, and so much more. The boys never get to experience that and are left to only relate to women as their mothers, sisters and future wives.”

She said the ad was off-putting and sent the message that one’s “unique self” matters less than how one fits into certain boxes.

People love to label others. I’d never heard of the phrase “single-shaming” before doing this article, but at times people have tried to make me feel inferior for being unmarried. 

I’m 43, but when I was 35, I was at a Shabbat table, and someone asked where my wife was. When I told him I was not married or dating anyone, he looked at me as if I’d kept a million-dollar lotto ticket in a pocket in my pants, sent it to the dry cleaners, and he just got the call that they lost my pants. 

“You must be a good actor,” he said. “You’re singing Shabbos zmirot! You seem happy!” 

All I could think about was my single female friends who were 28 or 30 and were told they were too old to get married. Why resort to fear tactics? I understand that Judaism says there needs to be fences and boundaries. Some would argue that change must happen from within, and pressuring a private company is not a good look. 

In addition, COVID is taking lives, Iran may be gearing up for larger-scale attacks or proxy attacks, there is always terrorism and there is increased antisemitism across the globe. 

The problem is that media publishers likely can’t solve the pandemic, can’t make Iran become friendly, can’t stop terrorists or antisemitism. Those same publishers might be able to improve the self-esteem, physical health and psychological health of women as well as men.

Surely, few things are certain. But what is certain is that every decent parent yearns for their children to grow up as happy and healthy as possible. If we see that is not happening and there could be ways to improve it, should principle trump health? 

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and president of Uri L'Tzedek, the Orthodox Social Justice Movement, said the ad signifies a need for reform. The Arizona-based leader said the ad may result in being a call to action.

“We must put a stop to the crisis of the frum objectification of women, the erasure of their faces, the silencing of their voices, the enabling of eating disorders, and call for teshuva (repentance) for the shaming,” Yanklowitz asserted. 

“An ad like this one is not a little slip but indicative of a much deeper psychological and spiritual problem in our Torah communities. A bas Yisroel (daughter of Israel, or young Jewish woman) should be cherished for her neshama (soul) not be shamed for her body image. The real tikkun (change) needed is a complete reversal of the policy to hide, erase, and silence women, in a distorted notion of tznius (modesty).”

Lazar Price said it is time to hold people accountable, and refraining from having pictures of women in the media should be in the past.

“It’s time to bring images of girls and women of varying ages and sizes back into the public sphere,” Lazar Price wrote. 

“Those who cannot handle seeing an image of a mother lighting candles with her children in tow without thinking ‘impure thoughts’ should perhaps seek counsel rather than make unhealthy and unnecessary demands that reinforce these extra halachic standards.” ■