Beauty and the bubbele

How can Jewish men and women reconcile a schizophrenic attitude toward appearance?

Beauty and the bubbele  (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Beauty and the bubbele
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
I remember the first time I discovered I was no longer pretty. I went on a work cruise with a Jewish colleague from Los Angeles. She was 25 to my 35, and even though she was tall and blonde and thin – quite the opposite of my typically Semitic, dark, curly-haired, short and curvy look – she reminded me of a younger version of me: passionate, ambitious, sassy.
I had decided to be her mentor, help her blossom. But on that cruise she didn’t need my help. Every guy surrounding us wanted my help with her – they talked to me but only about her: Is she dating anyone? Would she date me? I’d never felt so ignored. I wondered if at 35, I was too old, too short, too non-blonde for the WASPy West Coast. Of course, it was none of those things. I just hadn’t yet realized how extraordinarily beautiful my friend was. I hadn’t paid that much attention to her looks – or to other’s women’s looks at all.
I suppose that would put me in the minority of women, according to the recent media hullabaloo about how badly women treat other women they consider beautiful. This spring, British fluff journalist Samantha Brick published an essay in the Daily Mail headlined, “There are downsides to looking this pretty: Why women hate me for being beautiful.” She described how men have showered her with gifts and opportunities because of her looks, but how she’s been discriminated against by jealous women: bosses, wives protective of their husbands, even other mothers from her son’s class.
The backlash was fierce. The article garnered more than a million views, and thousands of negative comments castigating Brick as everything from “not even remotely attractive” to “delusional.”
“Yes, Samantha Brick is obnoxious, but the Daily Mail is trolling us all” warned the feminist website, sagely cautioning women to stop tearing Brick – and each other – apart. They were right. Daily Mail insiders revealed that the editors asked Brick to make her article more controversial and she did, in order to get published.
Still, when Brick tried to defend herself against the vicious backlash in interviews and a follow-up article, “What makes me so certain I’m beautiful? Daddy’s love,” she added fuel to the fire, saying that her critics were just more jealous women.
Confession: the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw her pictures was, “You? With the horse face, bad teeth and thick arms? You’re no shiksa goddess!” I wasn’t jealous, I swear. As a liberal feminist myself, I was sincerely hoping Brick would be a babe so that her claim could be taken seriously.
Because the question isn’t whether Brick is “all that” or if she is deluded. The real issue is how we women relate to good looks – in ourselves and in others.
It is worth noting that not too many Jewish voices weighed in on the debate. I suppose because we Jews are officially above discussing looks. Officially, our conversations in the public sphere are about the cost of Jewish education, the rising rates of assimilation, the disengagement of today’s youth from Jewish culture, anti-Semitism and/or anti-Israel sentiment. No one talks about looks.
Which is strange, because if you say “Jewish Woman,” one of the first stereotypes that comes to mind here in America is the “J.A.P.” word – the Jewish American Princess, an entitled girl/teen/woman who keeps plastic surgeons in business, burning her poor husband’s credit cards and remaking herself highlight by highlight into The Other (ski-jump nose, blonde, blown-out hair).
Beauty is vain I avoided most of the looks obsession growing up religious in Brooklyn, where we took seriously King Solomon’s proverb, “Charm is deceptive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears God should be praised,” the end of the 22-verse Woman of Valor poem traditionally recited on the eve of Shabbat.
That’s probably where the official Jewish agenda stems from as well. Don’t get me wrong: I am thankful that the Jewish public discourse is not as focused on appearances as the media and Hollywood are.
But I wonder if we can ignore the issue of beauty, pretend we don’t care about it at all, when it clearly affects issues in our community. There is a singles crisis, for example, in which people are marrying later, or not marrying at all, and it is very painful for Jewish women in a society that values family life – where men don’t have a biological clock. Even though it is rarely discussed, Jewish men too prefer The Young & The Beautiful.
Health is another example. Like many in Western cultures, our waistlines are expanding, and Judaism’s food-laden celebrations – say, six heavy meals on a three-day Yom Tov holiday – doesn’t help. Ditto on childhood obesity.
Recent studies have shown that a presidential candidate’s appearance “can generate a far greater vote swing than we previously thought.” If presidents are voted in because of their comely appearances, maybe women in Jewish organizations should be paying attention to the issue too, since 95 percent of CEOs at major Jewish organizations are men, despite the fact that most of the professionals there are women, according to a study by AWP: Advancing Women Professionals in The Jewish Community.
Last summer, a study of the London community revealed that women comprise only around 20 percent of the trustees of the 20 Jewish Leadership Council organizations, a quarter of their chief executives and under a quarter of members of the Board of Deputies.
How do we reconcile our schizophrenic attitude towards appearance? On the one hand, there’s the gazillion dollar batmitzva/ wedding, and on the other, the official Jewish “agenda,” more rooted in religious values of placing character above charm.
I traversed the two worlds and found it quite shocking.
When I moved to Los Angeles at age 30, I discovered that I was “Jewish pretty” – an 8 compared to other Jewish women in enclaves like New York City or Jerusalem, where I’d spent much of my life, but more of a 6 or 7 (if I’m being generous) when compared to the skewed celebrity standards in L.A.
In the end, I returned to New York City, where I met my husband. He’s Israeli, and, thankfully, like many Jewish men, he appreciated my spunk, my hutzpa, Brooklyn/Israeli attitude – and hopefully, my looks, too.
At my wedding last fall, my tall blonde friend from L.A. – still single – made a toast: “Amy has been my mentor for many years, and I’ve always looked up to her for her optimism. She has always given me hope.”
Everyone looked perplexed: Why does this stunning creature need hope? Having lived in two different worlds, I knew what she meant: happiness is made of many things.
Looks is just one of them.