Most women have long been socialized to believe that if we don’t look good, we aren’t good. And so we sacrifice feeling good about ourselves for that futile holy grail of looking good to others. And modern media assaults us with the most unapologetic messaging about just how good we have to look.
It is no wonder that statistics reveal that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. More than 30 million people suffer from eating disorders in the U.S. alone. Every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder.
It is nothing short of a 21st-century epidemic – an epidemic that illustrates our society’s obsession with surfaces and just how destructive it can be. The Jewish antidote to this surface-fetish is simple – identify with the insides instead.
As a woman with my own admitted body-image challenges, I was amazed to find that one of my life’s greatest periods of self-growth came from my greatest period of body-growth. I was 40 and pregnant – again. I had put on 70 pounds. You know how there are those skinny pregnant women… the ones who don’t look pregnant from behind. Well, I did look pregnant from behind. I looked pregnant from behind a van. I was waking up daily dreading looking at myself in the mirror. I was a hot mess of self-detest.
I was in my pre-Shabbat ritual of weeping on my bed, encircled by mounds of “the world’s most unflattering” outfits. Knowing that not one of them would cover up my bulging frame, my third chin, my relentless shame. I just wanted to ‘look pretty’… but could see nothing pretty about myself. And so I just sat there and cried it out piteously.
Until my five-year old daughter came bounding into the room, begging me to braid her hair so she would “look pretty” for Shabbat. This all-too-familiar phrase juxtaposed with my own weepy failure at being “pretty,” jolted me. Thankfully. Jolted me. Out of that messy slump of self-defeat. Pulled me back to myself and all I knew to be true. Mainly that “pretty” is more than skin deep. And that I had to get that message clear once and for all — for my daughter’s sake, for my marriage’s sake, for my sake, and, gosh darnit, for the sake of full-bodied women the world over….
I wiped my tears, cracked a smile and triumphantly stood on the bed in all of my enormity. Brought the brush to my lips like a microphone and pronounced: “Beauty, my dear, is not beheld in mirrors. Beauty is self-love and good-acts and a sterling spirit that faces obstacles with grit!”
My daughter giggled and heartily agreed. She hugged me tight and we proceeded to braid her hair for Shabbat. I threw on some skirt or another and this time bore the sight of myself in the mirror with a forgiving smile, a sense of humor and a commitment to make some meaning out of this wild goose chase of self-love in spite of (or maybe because of?) my mounting weight.
And then came the meal. Ahh, the Shabbat meal. That overwhelming, overstuffing, over-the-top weekly ritual. Would I restrict? Would I indulge? Would my cup overflow? And what about my plate, my bowl? I tensed up in anticipation of the obstacle course of that four-course meal.
But then we started to sing Aishet Hayil, A Woman of Valor (Proverbs 31), the haunting tune that we sing to usher in the Shabbat meal. Suddenly the profundity of this song that I sing so routinely every week struck me with much-needed clarity. I drank in its simple message – Celebrate the inner and inherent value of women, not based on their body or beauty, but based on their brilliance, compassion, ingenuity.
Each line of this ancient paean highlights another angle of feminine strength – from business savvy to creativity to wisdom. Now, this was the kind of media messaging I wanted for my kids.
The final crowning verses bring this pro-woman message all the way home: “Grace is falsehood and beauty is vapid. A woman who fears God, she is praised.” This phrase moved me the most. For the Hebrew term for “fears God” – yirat Hashem – does not translate only as “fear.” Yirah is also related to vision – to ‘seeing’ God. “A praise-worthy woman is a woman who sees God.”
I asked myself bluntly, “Am I seeing God? When I look into the mirror with self-disgust, am I seeing God?” Absolutely not. My self-judgment had rendered me utterly blind to the divine. Not only blind to the God who made me but blind to the God who resides within me.
What’s more, yirah can also be translated as “paying attention.” Am I paying attention to the Godliness in my reality, in this instance, in this meal? If I were paying attention to the Godliness in this moment, would I be so terribly worried about overeating? And that was the way I ate the entire meal. Paying attention to God. To the God in me and in my family, in the overflowing kiddush cup and in the honey-glazed chicken. I centered myself around the idea that I am a soul with a body. And if my body is, in fact, the vehicle of my soul… how then do I best feed it?
Lord knows I am rarely able to maintain such elevated consciousness in my day-to-day. But every Friday night meal, when we slip into singing Aishet Hayil, I use it as a chance to remind myself that my worth is not based on my external beauty. It comes from my insides, my soul-side, not my outside.
The Aishet Hayil 3-Step to Healthy Body-Image:
Step 1: Search Out Your Highest Self
The opening lines of Aishet Hayil are, “A woman of valor, who can find?” It is as if this song of hide-and-seek is charging us with the task of finding this spectacular woman who has been somehow lost.
All too often we think the only way to reach our goals is to focus on the lowest parts of ourselves. We are very skilled at finding our faults and disparaging the heck out of them. We vainly hope that we can hate and punish ourselves right out of our bad traits. Every day as a psychotherapist I watch clients cling to self-hate like a life jacket because they think it will help them succeed. We think it is the only way to change, to improve, to generate success. “If I hate my fat self then I will be more likely to exercise or eat less.” Maybe…
But I have found that locating our lowest parts rarely generates real success. And even if there are external ‘successes’ born from self-loathing, those ‘successes’ do NOT create a truly successful life. They might generate external milestones but they do not generate internally satisfied lives. The woman suffering from anorexia may very well be successful in meeting her weight loss goals but if she is not doing so out of self-love then it will be disastrous.
So often the highest parts of ourselves get lost and we need to search for them.
Actively search out and focus on your aishet hayil – your most valorous and fabulous self.
Find her, celebrate her, serenade her.
Step 2: Yirat Hashem – Pay Attention to the Soul Side of You
Jewish wisdom insists: We do not ‘have’ souls. We are souls that ‘have’ bodies. And yet, so often we sculpt our self-identity with the clay of our physical form. It says explicitly in Genesis that we are each made in the image of God. What would it look like to truly believe that and to ‘see God’ in myself? First and foremost, it would mean not being fooled by our surface/face in the mirror and remembering that we are our insides.
The Hebrew word for “face” is “panim.” Beautifully, panim comes from the root, “b’phnim,” meaning “insides.” Contrast this with the English word, face. Face connotes externals – the face of a building, the surface of things. Panim insists that when we look at our face, we do not forget for a minute that what we are really seeing is our insides.
Try this exercise. Every time you see a mirror, use it as an opportunity to stop and see the Divine. When you gaze into the mirror, try to see through the outer image to the insides – not your body but your in-dwelling soul. What is the part of you that shines through your eyes, that enlivens your limbs? Re-identify yourself and say aloud, “I am not my body. I am my soul.”
Step 3: Develop Your Inner Resources
The first female Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir, said famously, “Not being beautiful was the true blessing. Not being beautiful forced me to develop my inner resources. The pretty girl has a handicap to overcome.”
Golda got it. And here is our chance to get it too. Golda was a master at developing her inner resources. Aishet Hayil repeatedly refers to these inner resources. It celebrates, “pri Yyadecha – the fruit of your hands”.
Develop your inner resources. How many hours a day would you have to invest in exercising to be thin? Imagine if you invested that much time in developing your inner-muscles of mind, communication, personality? Who are you inside? What are the fruits of you hands? What are your valuable ideas, opinions and unique service in the world that have nothing to do with your looks? Focus there! Move the focus from your outer features to your inner treasures. And polish those inner gems.
Sisters, here’s to celebrating our bodies in all their shapes, shades and sizes.
Our struggles with body image can actually gift us with our greatest portal to wisdom and personal growth. Celebrate the gains!
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