Few columns I have read from the orthodox community have disturbed me as much as Yitta Halberstam’s recent piece in the Jewish Press advocating that young women engage in plastic surgery in order to be more in demand for a shidduch (Jewish marital match). Worse, Yitta encourages us parents to be the ones to send our daughters under the knife. I was so floored by what I read that I decided to take time from my all-consuming Congressional campaign to respond.
I have met Yitta. She’s a fine woman with a luminous soul. So Yitta, please don’t take this personally. I mean no disrespect. But you can’t be serious.
Here is Yitta begging orthodox Jewish parents to heed her call: “Mothers this is my plea to you: There is no reason in today’s day and age with the panoply of cosmetic and surgical procedures available, why any girl can’t be transformed into a swan. Borrow the money if you have to; it’s an investment in your daughter’s future, her life.”
Witness the modern Jewish tragedy writ large. Had this piece been published even in a secular magazine it would have come in for the sharpest criticism and condemnation. Yitta, are you not aware that we face an epidemic of young American women dying of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia because of the kind of misogyny you advocate above? About eight million American women have an eating disorder and the numbers are increasing greatly in the orthodox community. I published a column a few years back about a seventeen-year-old girl in a seminary in Jerusalem, known to my family, that died of anorexia. The root cause of eating disorders is this dangerous belief that a young woman is not born a princess but an ugly duckling in need of some radical personal makeover in order to appeal physically to a man.
How dangerous is the kind of drivel about young girls undergoing surgical procedures as advocated in Yitta’s column? Well, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Ten percent of anorexics die within 10 years of contracting the disease, twenty percent will be dead after 20 years, and only about thirty-five percent ever fully recover. And the mortality rate associated with anorexia is twelve times higher than the death rate of all causes of death for females aged fifteen to twenty-four years old. (Source: South Carolina Department of Mental Health)
The assault on women in our time is serious, concentrated, and deadly. It’s remedy is a more wholesome, more spiritual culture that looks at a women in her totality: mind, body, heart, and spirit. This is the kind of world that Judaism, with its unique emphasis on a woman’s spiritual gifts, has always sought to create.
How tragic, therefore, that columns of this ilk are appearing more frequently in orthodox Jewish publications, as if the words of King Solomon “that beauty is negligible but a woman who fears G-d is to be praised” is something of a bygone era, replaced even in the religious Jewish community by the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
Is the author really suggesting that we take our young daughters – and I, thank God, am blessed with six – and put them under the knife, bankrupting our families in the process, so that they can better appeal to shallow religious charlatans who would prefer a woman who is all form and little substance? Is this what three thousand and three hundred years of Jewish tradition has come to, that a nation that has always dared to walk alone, with different ideals and values from the wider culture, should so fully capitulate to the most corrupt, misogynistic values, that we would advocate that our young women have plastic surgery in order to get married?
Earth to Yitta: It’s not women who have to have breast enlargements, collagen injections in their lips, and Botox needles shoved in their foreheads in order to marry. Rather, it’s men who need a deeper, spiritual inoculation. Tell the Yeshiva students that the Torah they are learning is supposed to actually change their hearts. They’re supposed to be influenced by its values and judge a woman’s beauty not just by her hourglass shape but by her incisive opinions, graciousness of character, and spiritual glow. It’s the feminine which draws the masculine, and the feminine is something subtle, noble and refined. It is vulgarized when it becomes entirely about the physical form and rapidly loses its appeal.
And by the way, Yitta, I assume, in the interests of egalitarianism and fairness, that you’re also advocating that the young guys who indulged a bit too much in the cholent get their stomachs stapled and liposuction to make them more appealing to the girls?
I have worked in the field of human relationships in the secular world for most of my professional life and I have never even heard it suggested by the most superficial relationship expert that we should take young women for plastic surgery in order to attract a husband. Because most of those experts would rightly say that any man that expected extensive surgical procedures prior to marriage is a shallow jerk, and any parent who would inflict that on their daughter might just be guilty of abuse.