By Doni Joszef
Is it a “sin” to look attractive? Is it a “mitzvah” to look otherwise?
The beauty business is hardly struggling. Nutritionists and plastic surgeons are in high demand because their products are in high demand. After all, who doesn’t like to look good? Most of us strive to look presentable. No, we strive to be more than presentable; we want to be attractive.
There’s nothing strange about this phenomenon; humans naturally want to look good in the eyes of their beholders, and, in healthy doses, this desire keeps us fitting into our pants and brushing our hair (or wigs). But when the need to look good becomes a need to look jaw-dropping, people can’t help but notice—and not always for the better.
Different religious communities have different methods of combating this urge—some more overt and aggressive than others. The rationale of such “control settings” generally comes in one of two forms. The first is a more cautionary cause: men are animals; tempt us and we morally unravel. The second is a more ideological stance: true beauty dwells within, cheap beauty dwells without. A third force which keeps dress codes in order is not a line of logic, but simply the social pressure of conforming to norms and communal expectations.
What one community considers “conservative” another may deem “provocative,” and those who step beyond the boundaries of such norms tend to be judged unfavorably by those who don’t. This has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with social psychology (although it often appears under the guise of religion). Conformity is an unavoidable fact of communal life—for better or for worse.
Those who obey the mandates of this third force, without buying into the rationales of the first two, find some clever ways of grabbing attention without technically crossing the lines. They stay within the strict legalities of the law so as to avoid the discomfort of social backlash, but nonetheless find ways to trample the spirit of those laws by compensating with tighter skirts and looser body language. Our community has come up with some interesting nicknames for such individuals, the likes of which I’ll spare mentioning for now.
Our contemporary culture tends to either passively dismiss, or vehemently detest, all three of the above-mentioned forces. To the first, it demands more of men and less of women. A man is not an animal, and if he can’t control his impulses, there are correctional facilitates to control them for him. To the second it displays advertisements and magazine covers, ever inflating the value of external beauty and the hottest tips and tricks to make it easily accessible. To the third it urges individuals to be individuals, mocking the conventions of conformity and social standards by labeling them closed-minded and inhibited. (Ironically, the same culture demands a leap of blind faith in its own revision of traditional rules, usually offered in those same advertisements and magazine covers.)
Many people believe that religion is anti-beauty, pro-ugly, or both. Judaism has never been such a religion. Biblical and Talmudic sources acknowledge the value of beauty. We hardly label good looks as dangerous liabilities. We appreciate beauty and we have blessings to express this appreciation.
So where, and why, does all the confusion set in? Why do certain religious communities seem so set on banning beauty? In many ways, looking good is like hosting a blog. We tend to judge the extent of our success by the numerical value of the reactions we receive. If nobody notices what we share, it must mean we’re just not “winning.” And not winning makes us feel like losers.
Hence provocative headlines and provocative outfits. The provocative headline screams “read me!” and the provocative outfit screams “look at me!”
Both requests are rational to a certain degree, but, unchecked, they can spin out of control. The desperate blogger and the desperate dresser are both desperate for the same thing: attention.
Religion has nothing against beauty. It has something against desperation.
It’s not a sin to look attractive. And it’s not a mitzvah to look nasty. It’s just unhealthy to be desperate. And whether that desperation is for blog hits or double-takes, the insatiable need for attention will always remain just that: insatiable. v
Doni Joszef, LMSW, works in private practice and presents innovative workshops on a variety of psychosocial topics. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in media psychology. For more information, call 516-316-2247 or visit DoniJoszef.Com.