Body Shaming in the Observant World

By: Rachel Lelonek  |  December 1, 2016


“Grace is false and beauty is vain; a God-fearing woman, she should be praised.”  This is the penultimate verse of one of the most famous songs in Jewish tradition, “Eishet Chayil,” or “Woman of Valor” from the Book of Proverbs.  Attributed to the Biblical character, Abraham, as a eulogy to his wife, Sara, this song is sung by husbands and families alike each and every Friday night to mothers, wives and daughters, praising their deeds and all of the things women do for their families. And yet, for me, Eishet Chayil—especially this verse—has always been a testament to looking past the physicality of a person and focusing solely on his or her deeds.  It has been the way I’ve chosen to live my life and I aim to see beyond people’s physical appearances and highlight the inner beauty that is often overlooked or missed altogether.

Unfortunately, aiming to look beyond such external factors is not a widespread practice – whether it’s someone’s height, weight, the way they dress, etc. beauty becomes the measure by which someone is defined rather than the more qualitative factors such as personality, kindness and their positive character traits.

And my frustrations don’t end here. They go much deeper than the general society labeling a person solely by his or her looks. The issue lies in what such problematic mentalities cause and help propagate, namely body shaming, an incredibly insensitive phenomenon that has become the norm in the 21st century. With the constant circulation of media in our everyday lives, we are spoon-fed an unrealistic image of what each of us is supposed to look like: an unhealthy image that is far from attainable. Girls and young women are encouraged to aim for petite torsos with large breasts and behinds. From a young age, girls are taught to be ashamed of their natural beauty and to conceal it with makeup. And this problem does not stop with females; it infiltrates into male ideals as well.  Boys and young men are told that they must be muscular and physically fit, with bulging biceps and six-packs. It doesn’t matter how strong they actually are or how much weight they can actually lift; unless they look good, it isn’t good enough.

These absurd and detrimental physical standards artificially imposed by social structures are extremely harmful to the demographic that is most impressionable: young adults. And while Orthodox Jews have aimed to keep out negative aspects of the secular world, body shaming and judging based on physicality are two things that have begun to infect our communities. Beauty is no longer viewed as vain and people are quick to use physical presentation to judge others. This emphasis on exteriors is present at our university as well, and body shaming is felt by many students. For some, the experience of going to the Heights is stress-inducing, as many who are looking to meet a potential partner find their success to be dependent on looking their best. Even if one is simply going to the library to study, it is expected that effort is made to look “presentable.” Individual preferences and perceptions aside, this is a consistent issue which places a taxing burden on women, who are made to feel that they must constantly appear a certain way in order to be valued or considered worthy as a partner. The main example that comes to mind is YU Connects, an online dating outlet that many Yeshiva University students and alumni use. When attempting to create a profile for the website, one may not submit his or her application unless he or she fills out a body type, ranging from skinny to “a few extra pounds.”  This means that even before a potential couple is connected, someone will get the opportunity to judge their appearance before giving their personality a chance.

This “infection” doesn’t end uptown, but trickles down to our campus as well. Girls gussy up for co-ed events on the Beren campus. From the most passionate Zionists in Israel Club to the most business-oriented in TAMID, this epidemic sees no end. Co-ed Shabbatons are the worst exhibition on campus, and it’s is one of the reasons I try my hardest to avoid the co-ed Shabbats like the plague. Many girls get dressed up as if they’re going to a fancy simcha, all with the hopes of finding a husband at the end of the rainbow. Never in my wildest imagination did I think that students at a Torah-centered university would focus so much on the external and not on what was important: a person’s internals and personality. 

During midterms, I discussed this issue with a friend on the Wilf campus. I was somewhat taken aback to hear him express frustrations with “fat girls” who walk around saying they’re overweight, calling their obese bodies “beautiful,” all of which would only promote unhealthy body images and lifestyles. Perplexed by his take on the matter, I asked if he ever stopped to think of those women in terms beyond the number of pounds that appear on the scale. Had he considered that those women may have tried to lose weight? Perhaps they have medical issues? Whatever their story entails, is it not a sensitive matter that should be treated lightly. He told me it didn’t matter, because they weren’t promoting an ideal beauty. But what does “ideal” mean, and who gets to define it?

Such disappointing interactions leave me thinking: how can we change such mentalities? For now, all I can say is if you or anyone you know is saying that someone is too skinny or too fat, too short or too tall, and therefore isn’t beautiful, please take a moment to consider your words and the damage they may be causing, however unintentional. We can’t ever know the struggles of another person, or if body image or weight may be an issue for them. We are so quick to overlook the individual’s stories and experiences, and we no longer hesitate to speak. Instead, we assume that we somehow know what’s best for someone else. Whether someone has a double chin or a concave chest, a set of back dimples or a muffin-top stomach, that does not define a person’s internal self, and certainly does not determine his or her worth. It’s about time the 21st century and those living in it caught up with this notion and began to look beyond externalities.  We are all the children of Avraham Avinu and we should be learning from his example, by challenging superficial beauty and embracing those around us who fear God and hold their truest beauty within.