Jennifer recently went to a "diva" birthday party. In addition to receiving gift bags containing fashionable hair bands, she and her friends all made their own lip gloss and sparkly body gel.
Jennifer is five years old.
Ever since Adam and Eve forfeited depth for superficiality, society has been obsessed with physicality. This obsession surrounds us – on billboards, in commercials, Internet ads, and popular magazines; and apparently even at kindergarten parties. It's the air we breathe. And we're suffering – especially females. Much more than males, females "self-objectify," evaluating themselves by outward attractiveness rather than inner qualities. And younger and younger girls are requesting not only cosmetics but cosmetic surgery.
Women are likewise displaying more and more to feel good about themselves. As the body dominates our self-image, perfecting it has mushroomed from feminine preoccupation to many young women's mission in life.
The religious Jewish world is not immune. Observant Jewish girls and women may show less skin than others, but bodies are occupying more and more of their consciousness – and tzniut (modesty) less and less. Many are caught in a tug-of-war between the Jewish value of downplaying the body and the secular ideal of flaunting it.
The media is largely to blame.
Media is one of the most pervasive influences in the world. In the U.S. alone, advertisers spend more than $250 billion annually. Advertising is our culture – and it's fueling our body obsession. One example is "the incredible shrinking woman."
The "perfect" female featured in ads today looks (and sometimes is) anorexic. Already in 2000, the typical fashion model was seven inches taller than the average woman but weighed 23% less. So much for an attainable ideal.
Yet this is the standard against which girls and women judge their bodies. In 1999, a study of fifth to twelfth grade girls discovered that while 29% were overweight, 66% wanted to lose weight. And body angst follows us into adulthood.
A Glamour survey found that while only one quarter of women ages 18 to 35 were overweight, three quarters believed they were. Even more shocking, nearly half of all underweight women thought they were fat. Losing 10 to 15 pounds was even more important to them than success in relationships or on the job.
Most females suffer from an extremely warped self-image, which leaves them criticizing their bodies for no reason. And the greater their exposure to the media, the worse they feel.
Perhaps the biggest distorters of our self-perceptions are women's magazines. Among the school students mentioned above, fashion magazine readers were far more influenced by the media's weight ideals and prone to diet. Likewise, college-age women exposed to ads featuring ultra-thin models experienced lower self-esteem, more negative moods, and greater depression than their peers – especially if the viewers were already unhappy with their bodies, as the overwhelming majority of women today are.
Television is no less insidious. The most dramatic example comes from the island of Fiji. Fijians long believed that big was beautiful. Large women were considered attractive, nobody dieted, and "You've gained weight" was a compliment. In 1995, however, television debuted in Fiji. After only three years of viewing American prime-time programs and commercials, 29% of adolescent girls were at high risk of developing an eating disorder, and 15% had made themselves vomit at least once. By 2007, 45% had thrown up in the last month. Today, eating disorders are rampant in Fiji.
MARKETING THE BODY OBSESSION
Advertising doesn't sell only products. It sells images and ideas, feelings and desires, dreams and values. It sells concepts of love, success, and normalcy. In short, it sells us an entire self that needs what it's advertising.
This self is externally defined. Superficial images of beautiful, thin women rewarded with fabulous lives become part of our psyches. We internalize the message that "I am my body, and perfecting and displaying it is the key to happiness." And since this self is empty, we're more likely to purchase products to fill ourselves up.
But this isn't all. Advertisers then "market inadequacy": We're not thin enough, our stomachs aren't flat enough, our figures aren't "sculpted" enough (as if women were sculptures!), our lips aren't full enough, our hair isn't lustrous enough, our lashes aren't long enough – in other words, we aren't enough. While males too are vulnerable to media mantras (their "abs" aren't tight enough, their biceps don't bulge enough, etc.), females are particularly susceptible. Puberty feeds a girl's brain with hormones programming her to obsess about her looks, and while this fixation will ebb, her appearance will remain a major concern. In addition, women are highly sensitive to social messages. Advertisers therefore consult psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, behavioral scientists, etc., on how to encourage female anxiety. And they've been quite successful: Even more than two decades ago, most women were unhappy with their looks, and those deemed "pretty" were just as unhappy as those considered "plain." Female insecurity is alive and well.
Once we're dissatisfied with our all-important looks, advertisers sell us on "the core belief of American culture": Any and every physical part of us can and should be improved and upgraded, even re-created. (Indeed, the women advertising these products are themselves "re-created" to the point where their photos barely resemble their real selves.) And their products will do just that. "True beauty," the cosmetic industry tells us, "comes from within: from within bottles, jars, compacts, and tubes."
The beauty industry needs you always to be "not there yet." That's why fashions change so rapidly – just when you think you're "in," you discover you're "out" and have to go shopping again. The idea is simple: If you're still trying, you're still buying.
Men are equally inundated. Fewer messages tell them what they should be, but they're told in no uncertain terms what – in terms of women – they should want. Many males as well insist they can differentiate between media images and real women, but associations are inescapable. Once a man has been conditioned to view only flawless, fake females as attractive, he's less likely to be drawn to an actual, imperfect one.
The beauty industry has honed "creating truths" to a fine art. Take this "fact," which virtually no one questions: Hair on a woman's legs is unattractive. An acquaintance enlightened me as to the origins of this notion. "Back in 1915, only men bought razors," she explained. "It occurred to Gillette [producer of razors] that if it could get the other half of the population to shave something, it could greatly boost their income. So it started marketing a new, feminine-styled razor called Milady Decollete to American women, featuring models showing off sleek, shaven legs - and the idea caught on." And Gillette doubled its sales. Today, or course, it's not only American women, and it's not only legs. Around the world, females shave, wax, and lase hair of more and more of their bodies. A growing number of men are doing the same. All this phobic hair removal is an expensive nuisance, and my skin-cancer-conscious dermatologist says it's unhealthy, but we can't imagine not doing it. We're sold – thanks to Gillette.
Living with all this pressure to have the perfect body, it's no wonder American girls' self-esteem plummets when they hit adolescence. To compensate them, we now have the concept of "girl power." However, as media critics have pointed out, "Almost as soon as the phrase was coined, girl power was snapped up by the media and just about everyone else was trying to sell [girls] something. What it sells is an image of being empowered. Once girls buy into that desire and go after that image, they're told that the way to get that power is through makeup, clothes and boyfriends."
The beauty industry urges you to show off your body so you'll obsess about it and spend money on it. Big business wants you to be a perpetual purchaser. So we have to ask ourselves: Who do I want to be? Who should I be?
Thankfully, there's an antidote to the media, and virtually everyone attempting to counter their influence is promoting it. Filmmakers documenting the objectification of females in ads, feminists demonstrating outside Miss America competitions, mothers telling their teenage daughters they look more beautiful without all that makeup, therapists helping lost girls find their authentic selves – all advocate a simple yet powerful concept: modesty, in Hebrew, tzniut.
Someone who knows and loves herself needn't go on display to feel valuable. Indeed, in empowering people to reclaim their self-worth, tzniut can spark nothing short of a personal revolution. As one teenager wisely observed, "I think the power of modesty might be stronger than most kids think – I think it can reconstruct someone's entire life."
Judaism encourages women to be attractive. But true, lasting beauty combines outside and inside. For anyone capable of looking beneath the surface, tzniut reveals a beauty so compelling it can surprise us.
One summer here in Jerusalem, I spoke to a group of nonobservant, college-age women about tzniut. Afterward, one student raised her hand.
"The other night our whole program was taken to a religious wedding," she told me. "We were told to dress modestly, so we did. I took a picture of all of us there. And you know what? It's the strangest thing - we all looked so much more beautiful than usual."
Men appreciate a look that reflects what's within – at least when they're seeking a real relationship. After a young woman I know started dressing modestly, her ex-boyfriend told her she looked better than ever.
But real beauty comes from more than just covering up. In the words of two researchers, there's something genuinely attractive about "being real to yourself and others."
I know a young woman who laughingly describes herself as having the kind of figure popular a few hundred years ago. She'll never be a cover girl, but her self-confidence, sparkle, warmth, and deep sense of self make her extremely attractive. Conversely, many women could be beautiful, but that "inner something" seems buried under too much makeup, desperate dieting, or other fruitless attempts to meet an artificial standard - all stemming from essential insecurity. In pursuing shallow beauty, they forfeit the real thing.
Tzniut gives us our selves and the possibility of genuine happiness. It helps protect us from superficiality and misery. And once understood, it's very hard to knock down. But it also makes us far less profitable – so the media do their best to destroy it. Tzniut is the media's nemesis.
In April 2009, 47-year-old Susan Boyle appeared on the popular TV show Britain's Got Talent. Plump and unmade-up, unfashionably dressed and coifed, she didn't exactly look like star material. When she said her dream was to be a professional singer, the judges looked highly skeptical. The audience looked disbelieving.
Then she opened her mouth - and blew everyone away. This plain-looking, middle-aged woman had a magnificent voice.
Before she'd sung even four bars, everyone was cheering. And when she finished, she received a standing ovation. People couldn't stop applauding.
They'd all written her off. And then they'd been so thrilled to be proven wrong.
Deep down, we all want to get past superficiality. We want realness. "Knowing what is real," someone wrote, "requires that we remember that we are wearing glasses, and [that we] take them off. One of the great moments in life is the moment we recognize we have them on in the first place." Susan Boyle made us realize we were wearing glasses - and when we take them off, the world is so much more beautiful. For just as anyone can have a beautiful voice, everyone can have a beautiful soul.
Tzniut enables us to tune out media messages and tune into what's real.