Twisted Values and the Tyranny of Short-sightedness: A Plea to Love Our Daughters as Much as We “Love” Our Sons
Marriage – of our sons – above all else! Based on Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum’s article and the ethic it both reflects and promotes, it seems that for a substantial segment of our community this has, effectively, become the driving consideration in the quest to effect shidduchim. The collateral damage this ethic delivers to others we deeply cherish – our daughters – and to our community at large seems to be little considered and of no consequence to too many.
Clearly, Ms. Mandelbaum was well-intended in her essay. She cares deeply about our daughters and wants to advance their cause. It is all the more regretful then that her message so sorely misses the mark from ultimately promoting the helpful outcomes she envisions. Her article is troublesome on many levels. Should women – and men – try to look well-groomed, presentable, and in their best light, on their dates? Of course. And speaking more directly to her central thesis, should women, due to different gender characteristics, perhaps invest a bit more when doing so, in order to appeal to men’s more visually-centered nature? Perhaps they should indeed. No less then our Holy Torah seems to suggest there is a time and place for feminine physical enhancement, as expressed in narratives and midrashim ranging from the opinion that cosmetics rained down together with the mahn; the midrashic commentary that God braided Chava’s hair and added many other adornments before presenting her to Adam; or the account of the honorable women in Mitzrayim who wielded their maros tzovos (bronze mirrors) to life-sustaining effect.
But even considered against this backdrop, Ms. Mandelbaum’s message precariously oversteps: it dangerously promotes objectifying women –bnos yisrael – and valuing externals over internals; promotes shallowness in our men, kowtows to the basest value system, and seems to suggest little faith that God can get people married through reasonable, normal channels – without women having to resort to spending thousands of dollars and putting themselves at mortal risk re-engineering their parts.
She thinks it’s all worth it if one marriage results? Well, let’s consider: What kind of marriage might that be? Getting women into marriages with men who don’t appreciate their pnimius – their internality – at least as much as their chitzonius – externals – is an empty and dangerous “triumph”. Do we really want a situation where ‘the operation was successful but the patient died’? Our community already has too many marriages happening for the wrong reasons, and too many divorces to show for it. We don’t need more. Nor do we need more of the anguish of marriages built on appearances, which do “endure”, but all the while harbor discord and dysfunction behind their pretty doors.
Furthermore, at what cost will that one marriage gained come at if we and our precious daughters buy all her attendant messages? Indeed, how many more women with low self-esteem, poor self-image, and its too-frequent sequelae of anorexia, bulimia, cutting, and other problems will result from wholesale buy-in to her message that the pivotal factor in order for a young woman to marry in our “frum” society may very well be her looks?
I appreciated Ms. Mandelbaum’s sharing of her own deep distress growing up feeling cosmetically inadequate. It clarifies how a well-meaning and astute woman might have mis-stepped so. One can’t help but wonder though, if perhaps her vision has been clouded by the residual effects of her own personal body-image travails growing up. Ms. Mandelbaum appears to have identified with the tormentors of her youth, believing that the values which held the self-esteem of her early years hostage are justified enough in their violations to be appeased rather than vanquished. It seems that these traumas lead her now to project her “solution” onto other girls and women. Mind you, we – and she – have no way of knowing if she wouldn’t have gotten married just-fine-thank-you even without a nose job. Nor does her theory explain all the not-too-good-looking married women, and the older, stunning, single ones (the ones who’ve never had “after-market” improvements), walking around.
I think the bigger problem – perhaps the core problem – and its solution is hinted at and completely glossed over in her fourth paragraph. She writes: “As a friend recently told me: ‘When my nephew was 19 and started shidduchim, he went out with 19-year-old girls. When he turned 20, he still went out with 19-year-old girls. He kept getting older, but the shidduchim that he was “redt” continued to be 19-year-old girls. Now he is 24 and baruch Hashem just got engaged – to a 19-year old girl.’ Sadly, women do not have this same recourse.”
Nor are we letting them. A shidduch system which can think it’s okay to keep setting up men with only (or primarily) 19-year-olds, even as the men get progressively older, is one that devalues women, promotes infantile men, and basically – by sheer mathematical statistics alone – consigns frum women to remain single at alarming rates.
Ms. Mandelbaum “rail[s] against the unfairness of it all (although the shadchanim are completely innocent of any wrongdoing, whatsoever; it is the system that is at fault– not they—the stark realities of supply and demand).”
Ms. Mandelbaum – we have met “the system”, and “the system” is us (to paraphrase Pogo) . We have helped create the “stark realities of supply and demand” (and apparently, you would have us continue to do so). We create those stark realities, and the stark disparity between the growing legions of single frum women, and the no-such-legions of single frum men, by acceding to an ethos of entitlement and outsized self-regard which holds that if she’s not the newest, youngest, freshest, (and pardon me) “hottest” catch out there, then she can’t be the choicest either.
We create that “stark reality of supply and demand” when we have drunk the Kool-Aid of society-at-large, believing that if we only appease the enemy, offering up our daughters to the Baal of body-worship, then our daughters will have peace in our time. The words we choose often betray our mindset – Ms. Mandelbaum wonders why more of the girls she saw hadn’t “gone overboard [emphasis added – by Ms. Mandelbaum] in presenting themselves in the best possible light?” Why hadn’t they “made a huge effort to deck themselves out”? Apparently temperate efforts fall short.
Girls must go “overboard,” make “huge” efforts, be all “decked” out. No room for modest, understated subtlety anymore.
“One way of looking at the story of Purim,” says Ms. Mandelbaum, is to see it as the tyranny of beauty ruling every society in which Man (and woman) has ever lived.” Ergo, we too must allow ourselves to be ruled by this tyranny. But since when are we, Am Kedoshim, “every society”? Yes, sadly, we, Yidden, have at times succumbed to the mores of our host societies – but at those times it has always been our Divine mandate to aspire to rise above – not to work harder to assimilate and sink further within.
But surely the problem is not our having imbibed the mores of our host society! Rather, it must be that our daughters have gotten less pretty and more slovenly with time.
There is something unnerving, if not telling, that in making the case that “[t]here are very few women who can’t use a little extra help,” Ms. Mandelbaum references “the most celebrated magazine models” who “can look downright plain when stripped of all cosmetics” as proof that, “al achas kamah v’kamah girls who are not born with perfect features” i.e., our daughters, could use some help too.
“Why,” she wonders, are our daughters “in denial about the qualities young men are seeking in future wives?” “Yes,” she continues, “it is somewhat disillusioning that men dedicated to full-time Torah learning possess what these girls might perceive are superficial values, but brass tacks: they want a spouse to whom they are attracted.”
While we all want a spouse to whom we are attracted (and rightly so), it would appear that by Ms. Mandelbaum’s reckoning, today’s frum girls must contend with no less than “celebrated magazine models” as the yardstick with which they must compete. Perhaps this is truly so. But I take a glimmer of comfort in Ms. Mandelbaum’s statement that, “[t]he young men themselves might be too shy or ashamed to admit it.” That glimmer of hope, however, quickly fades when she goes on to reassure us, “but their mothers won’t hesitate to ask what for some is the deal maker/deal breaker question, namely: “Is she pretty?”
So in case our sons are actually self-aware and sensitive enough to divine that there may be something just a little problematic and undesirable in their valuing externals above all else; in case a few of them are on the fence as to whether they should really act on their human but less desirable inclinations, let’s be caring mothers and (a) judge, on our sons’ behalf, what “pretty” means to them, and (b) make sure we can help scuttle any chance that “pretty” may mean something different to them by letting them actually meet the girl.
This insidious, secularly-informed system – our system – that promotes a demand for (a) very young and “pretty” women only, and (b) as defined by individuals other than the suitor in question – speaks of shadchanim, parents, and mentors who are at best dangerously ignorant of the devastation they are inadvertently facilitating, and at worst small-minded, short-sighted, and indifferent to the unavoidable fallout which they are sowing. This in contradistinction to what should be our goal were we to adhere to the more classically traditional “kol Yisrael areivim zeh l’zeh” ethic: enduring marriages founded on lasting values which honor and support the welfare of the extended family of klal Yisrael over the long-term (not just the “lucky” few women who make the first cut in the musical chairs nubile-nineteen-year-old beauty pageant contest that some believe “mothers who care” ought to be running for their sons).
Yes, (subjective) beauty plays a role in courtship. But when we – “the system” – allow it to rule, then we – not beauty – become our daughters’ tyrants. We are fearful our daughters will remain single for too long, and so we grasp at straws – thin, brittle, unstable straws. But “extreme makeovers” and intensifying their already ample body-image anxieties are not the answer.
* * *
What about the argument that Ms. Mandelbaum is just acknowledging an unfortunate reality – our sons (and/or their parents) value appearances above all else – and is simply trying to respond to that reality?
It is difficult to understand why the solution to this body-worship “reality” is to sacrifice our daughters on the altar of devaluation, denigration, and potential mortal harm, rather than turning to the solution of better educating our sons and asserting that we will only support them in those behaviors which bespeak a ben torah.
For a boy or his parents to prefer that he keep dating girls who are 19, even while he gets progressively older, bespeaks a tragically mis-prioritized value system. And for some shadchanim to encourage this system simply because, I imagine, it’s the path of least resistance, is doing a disservice, over the long-term, to that very community they serve. If shadchanim, rebbeim, mechanchim, our community at large, and especially, our children’s parents, were to insist that we will only suggest to our sons shidduchim which are matched on midos, hashkafa, life-goals, background, and reasonable age-appropriateness, in that order – as opposed to first and foremost based on age and physical appearance – then things would change, because they’d have to.
Why do we seem to “love” our sons more than our daughters? And is it really love anyway? We are encouraging our sons to be infantilized, to see their prospective wives as simply there to promote their prestige, and to service them and their egos. Don’t our daughters deserve better? Don’t your daughters deserve better than to be married off to men – nay, little boys – with these narrow and superficial goals? And why do we have so little faith in our sons’ capacity to be educated to rise above this?
Ms. Mandelbaum credits the girls who showed up to the meet-the-mothers event for being “proactive and gutsy” in doing so; for having the “courage to show up” even though they “must have felt a tad awkward.” Now if only the rest of our community could follow their lead and demonstrate equal amounts of proactive, gutsy, courage – even if it will be a tad awkward – and “show up” to parent and educate our sons to weight the attributes they value in women appropriately and proportionately – instead of just putting value on women’s weight and proportions.
Ms. Mandelbaum implores mothers, “If your daughter’s shidduch prospects are being hampered by a flaw or problem that can be banished or remedied, please give her the . . . . support to correct it.” I couldn’t agree more. Give her the support to have it corrected by banishing or remedying the problem. Yes, teach your sons.
I implore parents, shadchanim – everyone – love your daughters (and for that matter your nieces, your friends’ daughters, and your daughters’ friends, etc.) as much as you (think you) love your sons. Create a system which does justice to that love – which actualizes it effectively in a way that yields the outcomes we all seek. Promote a system which sets your daughters (all of them) up for life-long companionship, and shalom bayis, and offspring as much as (you think) the current one does your sons. How? Talk to your sons, from a young age, about the true gifts that a wife who is beautiful inside and (only secondarily) outside, can bring. Speak with regard, around your sons, of the remarkable women you know. Of their outstanding character traits and the gifts they have bestowed upon others – kindness, caring, building, supporting, informing, nurturing, guiding, inspiring, etc. – because of those beautiful attributes. Then teach and guide your sons to look for a woman of comparable true internal valor whom he can hold dear. If this is the chief message our sons imbibe, the rest will follow. They will have no problem finding that woman who is attractive to them. Aim first to transform our sons into menschen who are Mordechais (“For Mordechai the Jew was a great man . . . and revered by a multitude of his brothers; he sought the good of his people and was concerned for the welfare of all his posterity.”) – and then place faith in HKBH that He will know how to bring each man’s true Esther to light.
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