Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not the mother-in-law you want, I think...

Thanks to ProfK, I became aware of this Jewish Press article yesterday. [If your sensitivities are like mine, do not click on that link within an hour after eating.] Mrs. Yitta Halberstam, the author of the article, contends that girls should be encouraged to examine their looks and undertake cosmetic transformation, including surgery, to improve their chances of finding a shidduch [or, as we see in the article, finding mothers-in-law who will approve of them as a shidduch for their sons].

The concept of pursuing beauty for the sake of a shidduch is old; I've given shiurim on the conflicting views presented by Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg on the topic of cosmetic surgery for a shidduch, and the positions of various poskim. And you can see my thoughts on the importance of beauty in an old post ("You're so vain") here. I get it. But the message in this woman's article, and the way she puts it, is stomach-turning for me.

Here's an excerpt, describing a gathering the author attended. Believe it or not, the gathering was for mothers of eligible bachelors to meet eligible young women who might date their sons - that's right, the mother-in-law is now the chair of the Search Committee:

Let me tell you about this particular population of girls: They were between the ages of 21 and 24, and mostly seeking “learning boys.” (The organizers’ plan for the future is to hold additional events for other age groups and different categories of boys: learners/earners, professionals, working boys only, etc.) They were eidel, frum, sincere, intelligent, and committed to the learning ideal. But even the most temimasdika ben Torah is looking for a wife whom he finds attractive. Yes, spiritual beauty makes a woman’s eyes glow and casts a luminous sheen over her face; there is no beauty like a pure soul. Make-up, however, goes a long way in both correcting facial flaws and accentuating one’s assets, and if my cursory inspection was indeed accurate (and I apologize if the girls used such natural make-up that I simply couldn’t tell), barely any of these girls seemed to have made a huge effort to deck themselves out.

Since most of the young women at chasunas seem quite presentable, I couldn’t shake off my sense of disbelief as I looked around now. What were they thinking? How had their mothers allowed them to leave their homes with limp hair and unadorned faces? With just a little blush, eyeliner and lip-gloss, they could have gone from average to pretty. There are very few women who can’t use a little extra help. Even the most celebrated magazine models can look downright plain when stripped of all cosmetics, al achas kamah v’kamah girls who are not born with perfect features. So what was going on? Were they in denial about the qualities young men are seeking in future wives? Yes, 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. The young men themselves might be too shy or ashamed to admit it, but their mothers won’t hesitate to ask what for some is the deal maker/deal breaker question, namely: “Is she pretty?”

Thankfully, every one’s conception of attractiveness is different; beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and a woman’s intellect, personality and soul can have a tremendous bearing on the way in which her beauty is perceived. Still, there is trying, and then there is not trying. The mystery perplexed me: Why hadn’t some of the girls gone overboard in presenting themselves in the best possible light? I felt like shaking them in despair. As I further scanned the room (I had started assuming the role of disembodied observer once I realized that I was at the wrong event; my son is learning full time now, but plans to pursue a Ph.D so he wasn’t appropriate for this particular group), I could not help but notice the number of girls who could have vastly improved their appearances–gone from plain Jane to truly beautiful–if they simply made some effort.

This strikes me as so wrong, on so many levels. I'll pick just two:

1. Legitimization of the Beauty Pageant - Yes, boys are attracted by attractive women. And yes, the mishnah at the end of Taanis describes women from the time of the second Beis haMikdash luring men by saying תנו עיניכם ביופי, "Look who beautiful we are." But (1) That was a different psychological world in many ways, and it should not necessarily be re-created, and (2) They also said "Look how wealthy we are," and I don't see Mrs. Halberstam suggesting women should go out and get advanced job training to make a lot of money in order to attract a gold-digging shidduch and/or mother-in-law.

2. The role of the mother-in-law - I would hate to be such a woman's daughter-in-law.

Can you imagine what will happen every time this eventual mother-in-law wishes to visit? Is the daughter-in-law going to need to pretty herself in the maternity ward after giving birth, apply lipstick while cleaning up after a two-year-old, or work on her mascara while juggling multiple children and job, in order to convince her mother-in-law that she is doing everything possible to appease her husband's need for aesthetic satisfaction?

And beyond the immediate "No woman [who won't prettify herself] is good enough for my son" arena, what will this do to the family dynamic, in general? Now that we're appointing the mother-in-law as Chair of the Search Committee, is she ever going to abandon that position?

I would go on, but - what's the use.



  1. I have to tell you, this article . . . I can't ever recall reading something that made me so angry I felt a strong impulse to violence.

    But I think you're focusing on the grotesque suggestion the author makes, while missing the even more horrifying underlying assumptions. Had you started a paragraph or two earlier, you would have described what this event was: A speed-dating session in which young girls are introduced to perspective mothers-in-law who will then determine whether or not these young ladies are worthy of a first date with their sons.

    How disgusting, dehumanizing, superficial, and arrogant can you get? What kind of screwed up system looks upon this--as the author does--as a 'positive development' in the world of shidduchim?

    There are many horrible things in this article, but the underlying assumptions which are tacitly accepted as "the way things are" (at one point I think she says something along the lines of "it's not his fault, it's not her fault, it's the system's fault"--as if such a statement were not perniciously ludicrous) are the real horror.


  2. Oh, and on a more cynical note . . . Given the incredibly warped system subscribed to by Halberstam's target audience: It's only a matter of time before pilpulim arise along the lines of, "well, she's very pretty now, but that's only on the surface. If she had plastic surgery, then she likely grew up without the carefree happiness of the born beauty. She's probably filled with the resentments, angers and other emotional baggage of the ugly child/teen. You can't surgically remove that, and my darling bochur deserves a girl untainted with that sort of pain in her formative years." At which point the already offensively-invasive "research" performed before a date is allowed to happen will being to include discovery as to whether or not her looks are "God-given" or not--and the poor girls who went under the knife will find themselves just as discriminated against when it comes to date, but now they'll also be a lot poorer and less familiar to themselves in the mirror.

    Sigh, it's a week since I read her spew and it still make me angry.


  3. Post surgery a woman's genes remain the same, so what does that mean for the children born with the same large nose, receding chin etc? From day one do you tell them they're ugly and will be forced to undergo surgery as soon as doctors allow?

  4. Don't go gently into the night - but remember we get the leaders and the systems we want/deserve. Until a large enough group is willing to say no (cue Janis Ian - Society's child) "One of these days I'm gonna stop my listening
    Gonna raise my head up high.
    One of these days I'm gonna raise up my glistening wings and fly.
    But that day will have to wait for a while.
    Baby I'm only society's child.
    When we're older things may change,
    But for now this is the way, they must remain."

    Joel RIch

  5. The female shidduch candidate (FSC who has or wants everything can bring along a certificate attesting to her beauty from birth and that of her female relatives going back four, maybe more, generations. This will hopefully prevent speculation about bad looks somewhere in her genetic makeup--- I guess regular makeup wouldn't suffice.

    But, to be fair, does her Prince Charming need some similar advice?

  6. You must have been a beautiful baby
    You must have been a wonderful child
    When you were only startin' to go to kindergarten
    I bet you drove the little boys wild.
    And when it came to winning blue ribbons
    You must have shown the other kids how.
    I can see the judges' eyes as they handed you the prize
    You must have made the cutest bow.
    You must've been a beautiful baby
    'Cause baby look at you now.

  7. When I read this I assumed it was a satire (although a bit late for Purim)!

  8. Unfortunately, this is an extreme example of the superficiality and narcissism of the shidduch system. I'm too jaded with the whole shidduch situation to post in detail, but a good critique is that of Chananya Weissman: The community needs to make a concerted effort to deal with this issue.

  9. Thanks for all of the comments; I'm still shaking my head over this one...

  10. Joel Rich is right about 'the leaders we deserve'. Thanks, rabbainu - now I can't eat breakfast.

    'Frum' society is becoming more rotten by the day. The way shidduchim are done has always been a key reason that I'm glad I was educated in different circles. The crass materialism and self-indulgence defies any association with Hashem's Torah.

    This article only highlights that much of observant Jewry has taken a yet another step closer to the society of Ahasuerus.

    1. How certain are we that the crassness we see chronicled in our Jewish media really pervades our society? There could be a substantial majority conducting themselves sensibly through all this, under our radar.

  11. I didn't grow up frum, and my oldest boy is still fairly young. So I have no direct experience with the shidduch process. But I plan to bypass as much of it as I can. Let my boys make their own decisions. I trust them.

    I'm probably not going to produce any kollel rabbis. I've been teaching my boys that one of their primary duties in life is to be able to support themselves and their family. I want them to go to college and learn how to do something.

    So that already seems to put us outside the mainstream shidduch process. Fine. The whole shidduch system is dysfunctional.

  12. A response - curious to hear your thoughts on this...