By Rivky Herman
Have you ever browsed through the latest list of “The World’s Most Beautiful People”? Have you then looked in the mirror and wondered how different you might feel if only your nose were slightly smaller or your hair were a different texture?
Society often places unwarranted pressure on its people to fit into certain stereotypical molds that dictate the meaning of beauty.
Models are frequently portrayed as being flawless, and others often compare their features and bodies to these figures. This is unhealthy on many levels. As a result, perfectly fine-looking people may unfortunately suffer from issues related to self-image. Sadly, such issues may, in extreme circumstances, lead to unnecessary physical modifications to these people’s bodies.
I often wonder who is qualified to judge which individuals are model material. What qualities do these expert judges possess that allow them to define beauty and decide who is attractive?
I remember having a discussion with a group of friends regarding the topic of attractiveness and height. The shorter girls complained that wearing heels frequently hurts their feet. In contrast, the taller girls wished they could just once wear heels and not feel like they are towering over their friends.
I recently learned a valuable lesson relating to these matters from my grandmother, Mrs. Frieda Gelber. She is referred to as “Bubby” by everyone who knows her. She is a charming and friendly woman with olive-toned skin and light blue eyes. Bubby claims that she used to be five feet and two inches tall and has papers to prove it. Today, she stands at just below five feet, yet she is much greater than that in stature.
Bubby is a Holocaust survivor. She and my grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Yisroel Gelber, zt’l, vowed to never share the horrors of their experiences with their children, and their lips were sealed for years.
Bubby lives in the present and takes pride in the accomplishments of her children and grandchildren. She frequently jokes that while she does not possess any college degree, as her children do, she has an honors degree in cooking. She can take what one might consider useless scraps of food and create delicacies that fill the stomach.
Bubby’s wisdom and accomplishments exceed what she creates in her kitchen. She teaches great lessons, often in subtle ways, from her own personal life experiences.
Recently, I began to ask Bubby questions regarding her experiences during the Holocaust. I yearn to learn details of my family’s history, and I want future generations to know the stories of their ancestors.
I ask only a few questions each time I speak with her about the Holocaust. She becomes upset easily when discussing her experiences during the war. I have heard her screams while suffering from nightmares and I have witnessed her waking up dripping in sweat.
Bubby endured the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as other camps. She shared with me that she felt faint daily while she was a prisoner in Birkenau. Bubby’s cousin pinched her and encouraged her to stand when she felt that all of her energy was depleted. The lack of food was taking its toll, in addition to the emotional and mental torture and forced labor.
Among other responsibilities, one of her duties included physically transporting heavy metal bars that were used to build trains. She was assigned to this duty together with other girls.
Each moment in the camps was saturated with fear, starvation, and exhaustion. However, Bubby smiled as she shared with me the experience of the task relating to the metal bars.
Bubby was the shortest girl among the laborers involved in this particular assignment. Therefore, much of the weight was carried on the shoulders of the taller girls. Their height could have been beneficial for them in other circumstances, but in this situation, Bubby recognized and appreciated that her height of five feet, two inches surely protected her from further physical exhaustion.
Bubby’s experience during her time spent in Birkenau acts as a lesson to us all.
Her height might prevent her from consideration as a model according to some standards. She may not be selected to walk down runways in Milan. If she wishes to wear heels in order to appear taller and more attractive (according to the standards of some), her feet might hurt.
Bubby’s height, however, saved her from additional torture during the Holocaust.
We all enter this world with different tasks and are given the exact tools required to survive and complete those tasks.
Let us now consider the true meaning of beauty. Does beauty come from the shape of a nose, the texture of one’s hair, or a certain height? While the meaning of beauty may be subjective, my feeling is that it truly comes from within.
Have you ever seen a person with nice external features, but felt that due to their character they were in fact quite unattractive?
Next time we look in the mirror and notice physical flaws on ourselves, let us embrace our bodies and ourselves. Our eye color, skin tone, height, and figure are all tools designed to help us complete unique tasks. It is the character and perspectives of a person that should determine one’s beauty. In fact, others frequently do not even take notice of slight “imperfections” that we notice on ourselves.
Bubby’s experience serves as a model of how to appropriately recognize and utilize one’s own unique physical characteristics. We learn that each of our distinctive features is truly tailor-made for each of us to live our lives in a most productive manner.
There are models who walk down runways and those who are featured in magazines. Then, of course, and perhaps of greatest significance, there are role models. Bubby is a true role model and, without a doubt, according to the aforementioned description, one of “The World’s Most Beautiful People.”
Rivky Herman, MS, CCC-SLP, TSSLD/bi, obtained her master’s degree in speech-language pathology from Columbia University’s Teachers College and is working as a medical therapist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center’s Infant and Child Learning Center, where she provides services to children with varied disabilities. She supervises graduate students completing their internships in the field and clinical fellows working toward obtaining licensure and certification as speech-language pathologists. Rivky can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.