When I was sixteen, I went to Israel for two months and gained about twenty pounds. I had been thin, even skinny, my whole life and never gave my weight a second thought. Suddenly, I found myself feeling self-conscious about my weight for the first time. For the next four years, from high school graduation through my first two years of college, I suffered from body image problems. My weight yo-yoed as I tried to control my eating habits with various diets, not to mention the affirmations I needed from others in order to feel attractive.

When I felt thinner, I would dress accordingly

When I felt thinner, I would dress accordingly: tighter, more revealing clothes. When I felt heavier, my looser, less alluring clothing came out of the closet. While my body may have been more covered-up during those times, was I necessarily dressing more modestly? What was the motivation behind each of these wardrobes?

In the beginning of the story of Esther, we are told of the lavish separate parties the Persian king Ahasuerus and his wife Vashti gave for the men and women of their kingdom. In his drunken revelry, Ahasuerus decides Vashti should be paraded in front of the men in her royal crown (and nothing else, according to the rabbis of Siftei Chachamim!). She refused and was subsequently dethroned. According to the rabbis, Vashti was not known for her modesty. What led her to reject the order of the king? The Megillah tells us she was a beautiful woman of beautiful form; what did she have to hide?

The Midrash gives a surprising explanation. Apparently, Vashti grew a tail and was embarrassed about her unusual appendage! While this Midrash is enjoyed by elementary students and creates nice cartoons for animated Megillahs, it is a bit hard for an adult to digest.

In a story where G‑d is not mentioned and there are no overt miracles, why would something as fantastic as a tail grow out of a woman's body? The Maharal of Prague provides a fascinating explanation. He explains that this Midrash does not need to be taken at face value; The tail could represent an extra heaviness added to her body which sapped her energy and added weight. Today we use the expression of a "spare tire" to imply a flabby stomach. What if the tail implied that Vashti had put on a few extra pounds and would not put her less than perfect body on display for public view? If she had been working out in the gym instead of indulging at her party, would she have willingly submitted to her husband's demand? If this were the motivation behind her refusal, does this constitute modesty?

I was learning to appreciate the importance of inner beauty

The next time I was in Israel was four years later for my junior year of college. I quickly submerged myself in all aspects of Israeli life, even adjusting my diet to a more European way of eating. I was also doing a lot more walking given the distance between my dorm and the college campus. To my surprise, I quickly shed all the weight I had gained from my last stay in the Holy Land. I was my dream weight at the prime of my dating life! Ironically, this was also the year that I was nurturing my religious Jewish identity. As much as the secular world might have been telling me to flaunt my newly svelte figure, I was internalizing Jewish values of modesty.

I was learning to appreciate the importance of inner beauty. I actually gave away all of my clothes that no longer fit with my new standards of dress. My choice of wardrobe no longer depended on the external factor of my outward appearance. Rather, I began to dress in a way that reflected the newfound internal dignity I had discovered. I still cared about my appearance, but I wasn't dressing to hide flaws or to flaunt perfections. My motivation was internal; my clothes represented my inner values of modesty. As I think back on this personal transformation, it makes perfect sense that I met the man who would become my husband that year, rather than merely dating a random string of boyfriends.

When we are first introduced to Esther in the Megillah, her beauty is described in more detail than Vashti's. In addition to having a "beautiful appearance," Esther also has a "beautiful form." While the deeper meaning of the Purim story tends to gets lost in piles of tulle and satin as little girls dress up as the "beautiful queen Esther," the Megillah makes no further mention of Esther's physical appearance. Even during the "beauty contest" episode in which King Ahasuerus must choose the most beautiful woman in the land, we are told that Esther was chosen on account of her grace and kindness; there is no mention of her beauty!

Esther was chosen on account of her grace and kindness; there is no mention of her beauty

The rabbis elaborate with several midrashim that actually downplay her physical beauty. They tell us that Esther was between the ages of thirty-five and eighty-five, average height, and of greenish complexion. This is all negated by what the rabbis refer to as a "thread of kindness" that ran through her being. The miracle appears to be an inside-out beauty contest! The most externally beautiful women were no competition for Esther's inner radiance. This is just one instance in which the Megillah topples our assumptions about classic fairytale storylines. The princesses we grew up with who were always chosen for their physical beauty and always needed to be saved by a prince were no match for our greenish Esther who saves the entire Jewish people by sheer force of personality!

When Esther must approach the king in order to stop the mass murder of the Jews after not being summoned for ninety days, we are told that she was dressed in "royalty." The rabbis ask why it does not say "royal clothing" which would make more literary sense. They answer that this is an expression of divine inspiration, prophesy. Her outer clothing was secondary to the divine sprit that enveloped her being. Whether Esther was actually beautiful or not is irrelevant. Without her inner dignity and values, she never would have been able to complete her divinely mandated mission. Vashti's beauty was fleeting, tarnished by a few extra pounds and lethargy. Esther's beauty is eternal, continuing to inspire strong Jewish women throughout the ages.