My mother is officially the Queen of Exchanges. She can exchange and return anything! With a receipt, without a receipt, box, no box, in the original shopping bag, or a bag from a different store, new, old, very old- nothing is un-returnable. I remember when I was growing up, our trunk was always full of stuff! If I remember correctly, it was divided into two basic categories: stuff just bought and stuff to return. However, they weren’t separated so neatly, so the stuff to return was usually mixed in with the stuff just bought. I spend many an impatient moment rolling my eyes at The Queen as she rummaged through each bag, pulling things half-out and mumbling to herself. All I cared about was getting back home to attend to my important, world-changing duties of wasting hours talking on the phone while watching Stupidvision (as Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak so eloquently calls it). These days, I am happy/embarrassed to say that I inherited this trait, but it’s a watered-down version. The T gene (T = Tact) in my genetic code is recessive. Maybe it’s some inherent trait in the Jewish bloodline; whatever it is, it makes the word “no” inaudible. I like to say I got skills, but my mom, boy, she’s got skeeillz!
In reality, many women are Queens of Exchanges, but they may not realize it. Girls have exchanged their inner beauty for their outer beauty without even realizing it. This is how I see it - girls are raised with several main life objectives, one of them being the need to show off their physical beauty. This is arguably one of the most important life goals that is drilled into the heads of unassuming young girls, to the point that most never end up questioning the relevance of such a goal, even as mature women. Have you ever seen an ugly Barbie doll? I rest my case. There stems a major problem from this mindset: the need to look and express physical beauty ultimately sets a girl up for major disappointment and makes her a prime candidate for all types of neuroses later on in life. I know, there goes the extremism- but hear me out.
Think about what your daily routine is like. Most women, after brushing their teeth and so on, put makeup on first thing in the morning. Then, they make their hair look as attractive as possible. Or vice versa. The point is, that from the moment we wake up, our beauty is on our minds. If you’re used to looking like Cleopatra before walking out the door, you would most likely be nothing less than horrified if anyone saw what you look like when you just wake up! Not that you’re not pretty, but you’re just not used to going out without makeup. This habit starts from girls as young as 10 and 11 years old, maybe even younger, if their mothers allow it. And then at the end of the day, they wash off the makeup and experience a major “eww” moment when they see what they really look like. I’ve experienced this countless times, especially if I had done my eyes up really dramatic. Have you ever taken off the makeup from just half your face and compared it to the other half? Or am I the only crazy one? I can tell you that there are few times I have felt uglier than after doing this.
What messages are we sending out to our girls? Aren’t we telling them that they’re not really beautiful if they don’t have sparkly pink lips and thick black eyelashes? Aren’t we teaching them that they have to parade around like fresh bait in order to trap a lady-killer? Aren’t we setting them up for heartache after heartache when the lady-killer finds someone prettier? It’s double-talk; we say that the real beauty is what’s inside, but we don’t really mean it.
There is a double standard in beauty as well. Many women will date a man who is much less attractive than they are. Why is this? Usually, it’s because the man is a nice guy, who knows how to treat her. (That or maybe he’s a millionaire!) The point is that men can get away with not being a knockout, but women cannot. But instead of stopping this unfairness, we end up perpetuating it. We buy into the high-fashion magazines with the anorexic-looking models. We fall for the over-the-top airbrushed photos of models with impossibly perfect, wrinkle-free skin and a silky-smooth complexion. Why are we doing this to ourselves?
When a woman spends her entire youth focusing on her beauty, what do you think will happen when she reaches her 50’s? She’s going to hit Crisis Central in a bad way. When she can’t hide the sagging eyelids with a smoky eyeshadow, and the lips are too thin for lipliner, she’s likely to head straight for Dr. Feelgood, Plastic Surgeon to the Stars! It’s like an addiction that is impossible to break, until it’s broken for us. Along with the life crisis might come marriage troubles, as her husband, who married her because she was beautiful, is no longer attracted to her....oh, boy. You know where that leads.
Enter the timeless wisdom of the Torah. Modesty is not only an admirable trait; it’s a halachic obligation. Throughout the ages, Jewish women have preserved their beauty and their holiness through their tzniut, their modesty. Mainstream society, whether it was in Egypt, Rome, or Paris, always led women astray with the allure of glamour and high fashion- but Jewish women historically demurred. Until the last century, that is. With assimilation sky-high, Jewish women have adopted the modern, secular culture- so much so, that the thought of modesty is met with an upturned surgically-altered nose.
What is the Torah advising women to do, even in 2012? It is telling us to exchange one beauty for another. Ladies, it’s time to exchange the focus on your outer beauty to the focus on your inner beauty. Sure, it’s hard to get rid of the ½” thick layer of foundation and caked on eyeliner, but you can reduce it gradually. To me, it seems like there is an inverse relationship between inner and outer beauty. The more you focus on your outer beauty, the less you’ll focus on your inner beauty. And you know what else? I also think that there is an inverse relationship between beauty and self-esteem! It seems like even the most beautiful woman in the world is preoccupied with losing her beauty, just like the wealthiest people in the world fear losing their money the most. What an illogical, yet strangely common phenomenon.The Torah is trying to save us from certain danger- falling into the trap of insatiable beauty. You’ve seen those women- 60 something year-olds, with faces that look like they’re stuck in a wind tunnel...
Do you know what really makes a person beautiful? A great big smile. It’s simply irresistible! No one is immune to a whole hearted smile- we’re all compelled to smile back, even if we’re in a bad mood. When you smile, your face lights up. Your eyes have a sparkle to them. Your entire aura changes. You attract admiration and attention, but the good kind- not the sleazy kind. There is no downside to a big smile (except if you have loads of cavities!). Do you want that genuine smile, but you don’t know how to get it? Work on your emuna! Rabbi Brody accurately points out that when you walk around with a smile on your face, it’s a sign that you’re happy with the way Hashem is running the world. See, having emuna can make you beautiful, too!
I really can’t think of any positive reason for focusing on external beauty. Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with looking elegant and respectable; in fact, we should all strive to look our best. But there’s no need to go beyond what is your natural best. If you want to put on a little blush and light mascara, by all means, do so. The point is to not get caught up in your external beauty as your prime asset. You’re much more beautiful than that.