“I don’t understand women,” my friend’s brother said with conviction. His blue eyes grew bright with passion. “No matter how many times I tell my sister she is beautiful, she never believes me. She always needs me to reassure her! Why doesn’t she see what I see?”
My friend was indeed conventionally beautiful. By anyone’s measure. If she was insecure, what did that mean for the rest of us?
His question was left unanswered. He touched on the constant battle millions of women face every day. In the struggle to be beautiful, we seek permission to be loved. We have a need to be loved for our beauty as well as for who we are as people. We want both. How do we achieve it?
If she was insecure, what did that mean for the rest of us?
It begins with freedom. We want to be free to be beautiful, free to be loved. On Passover we celebrated our freedom from Egypt. The word for Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, which can also be read as maytzarim, meaning “boundaries” or “limitations.” Leaving Egypt was only the beginning of the journey. Freedom is not the goal. It is, however, a necessary tool to achieving the goal of having a relationship.
The Jewish definition of freedom is not that you are able to do whatever you want. Freedom is the ability to be able to reach your potential. We needed freedom because it was the first step to building a relationship with G‑d. In order to have a good relationship with someone, we need to first be able to choose them. In order to have a better relationship with ourselves and embrace our own beauty, we must first free ourselves from one of our biggest obstacles: comparisons. When we learn to love ourselves, we allow room for others to love us.
In modern-day society, it is not always easy to be a woman. We are surrounded by billboards, magazines and actors that form not only our definition, but the world’s definition, of what is beautiful. Blame it on consumerism, but there’s always some product out there that we need to buy in order to “improve” our looks. Sadly, the message we are given is that we are not enough.
The dilemma may not be such a modern-day phenomenon. Today we complain that airbrushing a picture gives women unrealistic expectations of what they should look like. While that is true, it’s an old problem.
In regards to external beauty, women have always been confined. Take the corset, for example. It gave the Victorian woman a petite yet unnatural waistline. It was so tight that it actually affected the health of the women who wore it. Unlike modern corsets, these contraptions were made out of steel! The result was that everyone was trying to literally fit into an ideal that no woman could reach on her own.
When we discarded the corset, department stores started to emerge. Before this time, women had their garments fitted. Throwing away the corset did not make us free. We were still enslaved to the corseted waistline. The idea remained that in order to be beautiful, we had to fit into an external definition of beauty. Beauty was not something that could be constructed around us.
We don’t have to be enslaved to the beauty industry! The solution involves knowing what to take into ourselves and what to let go of.
On Passover, we had two commandments involving what we consume. One was the negative commandment not to eat leavened bread, or chametz. The other was a positive commandment to eat matzah, unleavened bread. On the days following Passover, these ideas are worth reviewing, because they are the foundation of what we must build on.
Chametz symbolizes ego. Ego is anything holding us back from becoming the best person we can be. In regards to eating, chametz personalities see food as a vehicle to control their lives instead of nutrients to enrich their bodies. Ironically, food controls them.
Chametz is the corset of life. Chametz is low self-esteem. Chametz is the impossible size that no one really wears, but which society defines as perfection. Chametz is the thin girl who throws up at night because she was fat as a child. Chametz is the woman who goes to restaurants and picks at her salad because she is afraid to eat. Chametz is saying, “She’s pretty, and so I am not.” It is the constant pressure to be glamorous, and never a reminder of what we should really be: beautiful.
The problem is defining ourselves so much by the way our bodies look that we forget that we are also souls
When you are in a chametz state of mind, you are trying to fit into something you are not. You are trying to be someone else’s definition of perfection. As conveyed with the corset, this type of lifestyle is not only uncomfortable, confining and unrealistic, but in the long run, very unhealthy. The problem is defining ourselves so much by the way our bodies look that we forget that we are also souls. That’s where matzah comes in.
Matzah represents freedom and humility. Humility is the key ingredient to being a free woman.
In order to be humble, we have to take away the extra fluff of life. We can’t be distracted by the physical beauty of others. We also can’t focus solely on our own physicality. We must balance perfecting our bodies with also perfecting our minds and our souls. We must realize that these components are uniquely ours, and that is what makes them special.
Matzah represents a healthy, ideal person. Although she learns from others, she is not in competition with them. Of course, she does work on her physical beauty, but she realizes that the beauty that is inside her also needs to be cultivated. Her motto is that image is indeed important, but even more important is spirit.
A matzah personality is beautiful, because she is being the best woman she can be without trying to be someone she is not. She knows she’s not “perfect.” She embraces her flaws. When she looks in the mirror, she sees what is beautiful. She is authentic. There’s something different about her. She works on making herself beautiful inside and out, in a healthy way. She dresses modestly because she respects her body, not because she has anything to hide. She wants you to see her inner beauty and not to be distracted by the outside. Her physical beauty is enhanced by the inner beauty that shines through. Most importantly, when she’s loved, she’s loved because of who she is, and not for whom she is trying to be.
Passover should have taught us to be free; but then, what do we do with that freedom? The days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, the day we received the Torah, are the next step. These are the days of the Omer. Once we are free to choose to have a relationship, we must work on building it. Matzah represents the entrance into this period.
Each day during the Omer, we work on a different aspect of ourselves. Our focus is no longer on the size of our dress, but on how it looks on us. When we realize that our true power lies in cultivating our unique traits, we must ask ourselves how we can achieve our potential, and then follow through. Once we work on perfecting ourselves, we are ready to have a real, loving and secure relationship, where we are loved for our unique beauty. This is the only beauty we can believe in wholeheartedly, because it is real and our own.
As we approach Shavuot, let’s work on developing what is special about us, so that we can offer it to ourselves, to the world and to G‑d.