Wednesday, March 21, 2012

It's The Shidduch System That Objectifies Women

I'm sure that by now, many of you have read Yitta Halberstam's recent article in the Jewish Press.  In it, she bemoans the fact that frum young women are exacerbating the "shidduch crisis" by not taking every possible step (up to and including plastic surgery) to make themselves more beautiful for their dates and their mothers-in-law to be.

In her article, Mrs. Halberstam describes a gathering she attended where single girls looking for husbands could get together to meet with the mothers of young bachelors.  At the meeting, she observed, to her dismay, that most of the girls wore very little, if any makeup.  She was shocked.  Didn't these girls realize that they were there to be inspected as potential wives for their sons?  How could they attend such a meeting without dolling themselves up?  As Mrs. Halberstam put it (empahsis mine):

Were they in denial about the qualities young men are seeking in future wives? Yes, it is somewhat disillusioning that men dedicated to full-time Torah learning possess what these girls might perceive are superficial values, but brass tacks: they want a spouse to whom they are attracted. The young men themselves might be too shy or ashamed to admit it, but their mothers won't hesitate to ask what for some is the deal maker/deal breaker question, namely: "Is she pretty?"

A lot of lip service is given to the notion in Judaism that women aren't judged in shidduchim solely by their sexuality and appearance.  Much thought and consideration is given, they say, to her character, her middos, her family and on and on.  They point to pesukim which extol such ideals such as "Sheker haChain v'Hevel HaYofi." How much more beautiful and modest this is, they say, than in the "secular world" where women are viewed largely, if not solely, as sexual objects.

Personally, I'm beginning to think that it's just the opposite.  I don't know how many of you have noticed, but in the "secular world," there is no "shidduch crisis." I see lots of wedding photos and videos on the Internet.  I've seen quite a few "proposal" videos as well.  You know what?  Girls who are less than gorgeous and who don't wear tons of makeup manage to become engaged and marry every day.  Girls with "average" looks, girls who are overweight, girls who have physical handicaps, blind girls, deaf girls, and on and on.

But what about Mrs. Halberstam's "deal maker/deal breaker" question of "Is she pretty?". Aren't men interested in looks?  Don't men want wives who are pretty and attractive? 

The answer can perhaps be illustrated by a friend of mine.  When he was dating, he had a list of traits (both physical and non-physical) that his future wife had to have.  She had to be in a specific age range, with specific hair color, a weight range and on and on.  He dated for a while, unsuccessfully.  And then, something happened.

He moved out of town and met, apparently on his own, a divorced mother fifteen years his senior.  She was overweight and had the "wrong" hair color.  And, yet, he was deliriously happy with her.  He found his match.  She certainly wasn't was he was looking for on the physical side, but he was so happy with her emotionally, mentally and spiritually that he simply put all that aside and decided that he loved her for who she was inside, despite the fact that she had all these qualities (older, overweight, divorced, mother) that would have caused her to be kept out of the "shidduch market."  In other words, once he found someone  he was happy with, the physical side of his "wish list" became less important and, perhaps, irrelevant.  They're still married, fifteen years later.

And that's exactly how it is in the secular world.  Don't men want pretty wives?  All other things being equal, perhaps they do.  But people are willing to make trade offs.  He loves her sense of humor, so who cares if she isn't a size two?  He sees an inner beauty in her that attracts him, so who cares if she isn't well-endowed or has some crooked teeth?  He loves the fact that she laughs at the corny jokes he likes to make, so he doesn't worry about her lack of high cheekbones.  And on and on it goes every day in the "secular world."  Women manage to find their mates despite not being physical knockouts, fashion models, D-cups, nose jobs and excessive makeup.

In Mrs. Halberstam's shidduch world, however, the exact opposite is true.  In her world, a man is so motivated by looks and appearances that if his potential wife is not pretty, it's unlikely (or impossible) that any other qualities that she may have can make him happy. So, she and other mothers like her stand as the gatekeeper to her son's dating world, weeding out anyone who isn't pretty, reinforcing the idea that such a "deal-maker/deal-breaker" question could or should even exist.

To me (at least), that *is* the objectification of women.  Rejecting, out of hand, girls who don't meet some standard of physical beauty is objectifying them.  Pleading with girls and their mothers to wear lots of makeup and have plastic surgery to make them look better solely for the purpose of attracting a potential husband is objectifying women.  Determining that a man cannot be happy with a girl who isn't a stunning beauty is further objectifying them.  It's a shame when men do it, but it's doubly shameful when women do it to other women.  And it puts the lie to the idea to the idea that shidduchim are not about physical beauty but about middos, etc. 

I've been married to Eeees for over twenty years.  On the day we first met (Friday, Feb 26, 1988), she was not wearing any makeup.  She didn't wear any on our first date, our second date or on any other dates.  To this day, she barely wears any makeup.  I can say, with complete confidence, that I have *never* seen her out of the house with lipstick.  Furthermore, when I met her, she wasn't a size two or a size four, or even a six or eight.  She did not have the face of a fashion model.  Nonetheless, I was completely swept off my feet by her.  I will admit that *I* find her incredibly beautiful physically, but it wasn't her physical beauty that won me over.  It was her sweetness, her gentleness, her sense of humor, her middos and her warm, wonderful heart that won me over far more than her appearance.

No, Mrs. Halberstam... physical beauty was not a "deal-maker/deal-breaker" for me.  Nor is it for billions of non-frum/non-Jewish men (who aren't shallow jerks) around the world every day.  It's a shame that, in this area where we claim to have superior values to the rest of the world, we find ourselves asking "Is she pretty?" as a "deal-maker/deal-breaker" question before going any further.

The Wolf


azigra said...

You met your wife on my fourth birthday.

Anonymous said...

I think it's ok to admit that physical attraction does matter, to an extent. The problem is the gross objectification displayed in the article as well as the one-size-fits-all measure of beauty. I never wear make-up either, could stand to lose 10 pounds, and ave various other imperfections (a bearing children has not exactly helped the cause). My husband does love me for my intellect, my kindness, and whatever other intangible qualities he sees in me, but there was no "tradeoff" either. He didn't say "well, she meets all the other checklist items, which are anyways more important than looks, so it's fine"- he genuinely thinks I'm beautiful! He finds me beautiful in addition to all the other, more important qualities, and no, I do not meet Yitta's artificial, objectifying, disgustingly shallow standard.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

First of all, kol hakavod on this post.

Now, physical appearances do matter. Yes, your wife wasn't wearing much makeup and might not have been a size zero when you met her but still you found her attractive. He she been the exact same person but a turn-off in appearance to you (500 lb, moustache thicker than yours, etc) then you wouldn't have married her.

The problem isn't physical attraction but expectation. The frum world today, due to the large amount of money that supports it, has found itself in a bubble of sorts. Real people in the real world know that you can't have it all and that if you wait for that perfect boy/girl to come along you'll die single. People are reasonable in their expectations and prepared to compromise to create a lasting relationship.
This is not the case in the frum world. Everyone grows up believing that the "Artscroll family" is real and possible. The boys really believe they're entitled to women who are physically perfect, able to whip up a Shabbos meal for 12 without breaking a sweat and keeping the house clean all while holding down a full-time job to make sure the bills are paid. And did I mention that she wears her pearls and heels while cleaning the oven? Anything less isn't what he signed up for.
The girls, on the other hand, are taught to expect the next godol hador, complete with perfectly fitting black hat, nice beard and a talent for learning full-time. Anything less is to be rejected.
inability to compromise. Expectation of perfection. That's why there's a shidduch crisis, a financial crisis, an OTD crisis...

Ken Zein (formerly NJG) said...

I expected to be really outraged by this article; instead, I was only somewhat disturbed.

I think it's ok to point out that some people need help with their appearance. Just because some subjectively hypo-attractive women (and men!) manage to wed doesn't mean that if they improved their appearances they couldn't marry sooner/better, whatever. The reality is that someone very overweight will have a much more difficult time finding a mate. Someone with a crooked nose may as well. Etcetera, etc.

I agree the problem is one of expectation; however, I would like to point out that in the 'secular' world- where overweight and less attractive women manage to marry- they do it largely on their own, without being herded through some external vetting system replete with resumes, A-lists, B-lists, references, community pressure, etc.

I also believe, frankly, that certain girls' schools are responsible for what Ms. Halberstam witnessed. Girls are indoctrinated from a young age not to speak to boys, touch boys, be around boys, think about boys. Girls (and boys) are drilled in their heads that sexuality is, at worst, dirty, and at best, something for procreation only and holy. They are told that the secular world is too materialistic, too focused on beauty, too "gashmiusdik", and that a real 'bas melech' isn't concerned with such things.

No wonder, then, that 18 year-old girls, who have been sheltered from boys and most secular media their whole lives, are clueless about how presentation matters.

I guarantee that if boys and girls were allowed to meet on their own, in college or through events, that there would be no shidduch crisis. There wouldn't be any unmarried pregnancies either, or whatever it is that the Yeshivish Flatbush community is so fussed-up about all the time. You don't see any 'shidduch crisis' among Young Israel and YU families. Sure, they might get married a bit later, but there's good reason- they have an education and a means to support a family.

But the perpetuators of the shidduch system will keep on perpetuating it, keep on crying 'crisis' and nothing will change.

ksil said...

"it wasn't her physical beauty that won me over. It was her sweetness, her gentleness, her sense of humor, her middos and her warm, wonderful heart that won me over"

that is a great quote.

by the way, those are the things that are sustainable and last for the long term. looks are rarely sustainable. how short-term focused does one have to be to just get married for looks? how unstable could that bond be between thopse 2, if after a few years the attraction wears off....this article you quote is embarassing

PsychoToddler said...

Agree 200%.

It seems to me that a lot of what goes on in the "frum" world is the exact opposite of what they profess.

I wonder what kind of next generation they are turning out.

ksil said...

"The boys really believe they're entitled to women who are physically perfect, able to whip up a Shabbos meal for 12 without breaking a sweat and keeping the house clean all while holding down a full-time job to make sure the bills are paid. And did I mention that she wears her pearls and heels while cleaning the oven? The girls, on the other hand, are taught to expect the next godol hador, complete with perfectly fitting black hat, nice beard and a talent for learning full-time. Anything less is to be rejected."

this is just false, garnel. false.

"You don't see any 'shidduch crisis' among YU families."

ken zein, you ever been to the uppwer west side? no? i didnt think so....otherwise, i think your points on pre-marital interaction with the opposite sex is right on...

BrooklynWolf said...

Of course physical appearance counts. I don't dispute that. But, somehow, in the rest of the world, it doesn't always end up being a "deal-maker/deal-breaker" (as Mrs. Halberstam put it). In many cases, people manage to look beyond it (to varying degrees) to come to love the person inside, despite any physical "flaws."

The Wolf

S. said...


Now, physical appearances do matter. Yes, your wife wasn't wearing much makeup and might not have been a size zero when you met her but still you found her attractive. He she been the exact same person but a turn-off in appearance to you (500 lb, moustache thicker than yours, etc) then you wouldn't have married her."

All this is true, but you're neglecting the fact that some people can only - or think they can only - be attracted to someone who is hot. Or worse, even if they are attracted to someone who would not be considered outright hot, they assume, hope, wish that they will marry someone who is. "She's pretty cute, and really nice," he might think, "But the next one could be really hot and really nice" and never give the first one a chance. Is he not harming himself with this attitude?

So yes, you are probably correct that almost everyone who marries (without ulterior motives or blinders, such as mistaken ideas about piety and the like) finds their spouse attractive. Furthermore, everyone finds some people unattractive, even if in every other way they would be great. But there still are some people who do not find "attractive" enough for them, and wind up overlooking people they could be great with, or even missing the boat entirely by never finding someone hot enough (or never having the ones who are hot enough wanting them).

However, I think this issue transcends shidduchim. What, people in other societies don't also only want someone who is hot? Nonsense. And these are the minority in all social groups, and the proof is that most people are average looking by definition, and (I think) most people wind up matched up eventually.

Unless the contention is that shidduchim are unique in that they don't really give couples the necessary time to see if they really are genuinely compatible, or even to become smitten with anything apart for appearance and a few other basic, but not very deep, things. I hear that. I certainly think shidduchim only work well for a small percentage who are basically the elite in the frum community, who have all the desirable qualities.

But ultimately all these speculations fail because even in the shidduch world people who are not hot, or not even average looking, get married every single night. Overweight people get married, people with bad skin and teeth do get married. The real crisis, it seems to me, is simply the anxiety involved in so many others judging you and deciding if you are worthy enough to be suggested for a date and, in the case of the female, accepted. People who don't have it all going for them are of course considered less, and a great deal of anxiety must come along with it if there really are no other chances besides for someone thinking of you and doing something about. And if you've been doing that for 5 years, and even less chances are presented, and there is still no option for meeting someone on your own? Well, that's a crisis.

As far as the Upper West Side, my guess is that 40% - if not fully half - actually come from families where shidduch dating is the norm.

Ken Zein (formerly NJG) said...

I hear the point about the UWS, but is that really a representative sample? IOW, in the secular and non-Jewish worlds, there is also a subset of men and women- both attractive and not-as-much- who remain single indefinitely. Maybe they have 'committment issues', who knows- but the same could be said for their secular counterparts.

I think what we need to understand regarding the 'shidduch system' vs. the, I'll call it the 'free-market' system, is that, well... it's a free market. The 'market' of potential matches will work itself out. And it does- that's why you see what seem to be lesser attractive people pairing with more attractive people. And yes, that happens in the shidduch world too, but the important difference is that in the non-shidduch system, no one is steering anyone or making anyone's choices.

I'm sure you have heard about attractiveness studies where men and women were randomly assigned numbers which were affixed to their foreheads, so they could not see their own numbers, only others'. Almost all couples chose a partner with a number within 1-2 of their own.

Defying Gravity said...

Great post!
"It's a shame that, in this area where we claim to have superior values to the rest of the world, we find ourselves asking "Is she pretty?" as a "deal-maker/deal-breaker" question before going any further."

I ask this question all the time. How is it that the frum community can pride themselves on being "special" & "separate" when we are guilty of such lows.

P.S- You are the same "Wolfish Musings" that posts in the YWN Coffee Room, aren't you? I always enjoyed your style & I'm glad I found your blog.

G*3 said...

In a way, it’s the logical conclusion of the shidduch system. People are matched up largely based on lists of traits on paper, not by meeting and getting to know each other first or recommendations from people who know them. (In fact, people who do know a guy and a girl they think might be good for one antoerh often won’t set them up, because being a shadchan involves so much more than just giving the guy the girl’s number and telling the girl to expect his call.) In the abstract, physical beauty is very important. If you’ve never met the girl or heard from her friend about how great she is, if she exists not as a person but as an abstract resume, why not demand beauty?

That said, there are plenty of non-models getting married everyday in the frum world, too.

Wasn’t there a seminary a year or two ago that was trying to convince all of their students not to wear makeup, ever? You even posted about it:

So you have individuals on both extremes who get attention because crazy people make news. And you have most of the frum world, which is somewhere in the middle.

mlevin said...

Wolf - you are right, looks are not important when a man is choosing his wife, but in this warped frum world it's the mothers who are choosing the wife for their sons. It's the mothers who are trying to figure out what their sons might find attractive based on occasional superficial interaction. (I say it because I doubt there are many sons who have deep conversations with their mothers about how they feel about girls and what they think is attractive.)

Mike S. said...

Even within the realm of physical attractiveness, the checklist is totally useless. i found my wife very attractive when we met, and even more so 30+ years later. But if you had asked me before we met to write down a checklist a what made a girl attractive to me, you would not have expected me to find her attractive. Similarly, checklists of desirable personality and religious traits are dehumanizing, and obscure the fact the we relate to people on an individual basis.

But the fundamental problem with both the shidduch system and the more open dating system (which can also be dehumanizing) is that too many supposedly religious people forget that the Torah requires us to respect the human dignity of everyone, even those looking for a spouse. Until we teach that to our children until it is deep within their souls, tinkering with communal structure will at best offer marginal improvement.

Anonymous said...

I am not frum but have frum cousins who do kiruv and have spent a lot of time with frum guys who were unmarried, and have frum friends.

I completely see what Wolf sees and have wondered about it for years. My secular friends all committed to family and children and met women they loved who ran the gamut. And these guys, on paper and in person, should have had their pick: Ivy League, handsome, great attitudes, good personalities. They married who they married and stay married.

I listen to frum unmarrieds and often am startled at the way they view young women. Almost completely rating them on looks. The word that comes to mind is immature.

Finally, I also believe that the whole keeping the genders apart just fosters unhealthy attitudes towards the opposite sex. I have not checked this out, but I understand that anorexia and bulimia are more pronounced in the frum community than in the secular world. And for guys, just a childishness towards girls that must be tough for the girls to bear.

It’s sort of 1950’s but less healthy.

Balansen said...

S. makes a good point about the short duration of most frum courtships tipping the balance in favor of looks. There is good reason for why the expression "love at first sight" exists and the expression "love at first conversation" does not exist.
If a woman's looks are somewhat lacking, the chances of a man being smitten with her on the basis of a couple dozen hours of conversation are not substantial. The Wolf sights the "secular world's" ability to eventually pair everyone off, but it has much more time built into the process. Though she comes off as callous, the author of the piece is simply being realistic.

SubWife said...

Wolf, great post. The only thing I disagree is you somewhat idealized view of secular dating. I have read numerous articles and all of them say the same things: when there are more women than men, women are treated like cattle. It happens now in colleges, where female undergrads make up more than half of the undergrads; it happens in NYC where, for some reason, there are a lot more single women than men. In this situation early sexual involvement is almost a given and women must choose whether to give in on certain principles or risk being completely alone. And the stories of men stringing women along for years are just too numerous. I guess there are problems everywhere. Somehow, though, it seems that more often than not, women get the short end of the stick.

Michael Lipkin said...

Excellent post!

Not sure if the dating situation in the non-frum/Jewish world is ideal, but your point is certainly valid and well taken.

Pragmatician said...

I loved Garnel's "Artscroll family" naming and description.

And indeed why shouldn't I get one of those girls?:)

BrooklynWolf said...

I never claimed the secular-world dating situation was ideal -- but there is no "shidduch crisis" there/

The Wolf

SubWife said...

actually, Wolf, there is. There are many highly educated, good looking women looking to get married who can't find a suitable mate. Mainly because men do not want to settle down until their thirties, at which point their female peers' ability to have kids is diminishing.

Ichabod Chrain said...

Glad to see you're posting again. I agree with Subwife that there's the equivalent of a shidduch crisis in the non-frum world, but I think much of it's due to feminism, the legal risks men take in getting married, and an unreasonable sense of entitlement among women 30 and under.
Also I think Mrs. Halberstam's article illustrates one of the problems. She's shocked that women didn't wear makeup.
I don't know why women have this insane idea that they need makeup. (I don't mean lotions and skin protections, I mean the stuff that has color to it.) A lot of men don't like visible makeup because it looks artificial, and suggests that men are idiots who can't tell the real from the artificial.

SubWife said...


I agree with you that the shidduch crisis in the secular world is due to feminism. However, I am looking at it from a different perspective. This crisis usually hits educated women who for various reasons haven't found their mate by the time they are 30. (after that, the chance of getting married diminishes sharply with every year.) At this point, these women tend to be very successful in their careers and want somebody equally successful. What they find is that most men their age either settled down, many still want to play the field and very many are still finding themselves and voluntarily not employed full time. I can't vouch for every woman's feeling of entitlement, but from what I hear the the demands for most women are rather tame: single,kind, loyal, with interest in kids and marriage and gainfully employed. These women claim that there aren't that many men out there fitting that description.

Anonymous said...

This Halberstam doesn't represent the drum world -- or anyone besides herself and her own vanities for that matter.

Anonymous said...

*frum world (not "drum")

ksil said...

ichabod, what does this mean? "an unreasonable sense of entitlement among women"

also, my experience is that many single men (secular), 30-40 years old, have ZERO interest in getting married, but only want to play the field, and those that do get married, do so reluctantly. again, only anectdotale, but it seems to be widespread (at least in new york). mah sh'ein kein, by the women, in the same age bracket - they WANT to get married, and move to long island...asap. thus, crisis

Ichabod Chrain said...

I meant unreasonable sense of entitlement by non-frum women. Frum women don't have an unreasonable sense of entitlement.

BTW, Wolf, can you do something about the letters you have to type in to prove you're not a robot and get something posted. I'm not a robot and there's often a letter or two that isn't clear.

BrooklynWolf said...

BTW, Wolf, can you do something about the letters you have to type in to prove you're not a robot and get something posted. I'm not a robot and there's often a letter or two that isn't clear.

I'm afraid not. That's something that's under Google's control, not mine.

Normally, I'd get rid of it, but I found that without it, the comments become filled with spam.

The Wolf

JRS said...

GI said <<< The boys… believe they're entitled to women who are physically perfect….. the girls are taught to expect the next godol hador >>>
I agree with most of your statement, but the above is not so accurate. As everyone keeps saying, it's a 'boy's market': the "boys" (if only they were expected to be men) all have long lists of girls' names to be looked into; the glrls, OTOH, are lucky to be given a name or two. So the boys can afford to meet with only the thinnest, prettiest, "best" girls.
The girls, OTOH, are forced---if not consciously, then by a combination of market forces, circumstance, maybe even a touch of innate feminine wisdom---to be somewhat more flexible. Yes, they're all taught to go for a talmid chochom---but in practice, the only criteria---in the boys' or the girls' yeshivas---for being put in approximately this category is that the boy be in yeshiva. Unless it's all changed drastically in the last 20 years, boys in bais medrash are not tested, held to any standard of productivity, punctuality, intellectual or ethical accomplishment.
So you've got a lot of sincere, intellegent, pretty girls--some of them even fairly accomplished in their jobs----going out with a bunch of schmos whose goal for the day is getting to seder before 10 AM. (long-term goal: obtaining a new suit & perfectly matched tie at the Garage).
In sympaty to my own gender, some of the girls--having been totally indocrinated---won't give any guy a chance who doesn't totally, completely fit the image---i.e. they'll sooner go out with one of the under-achievers described above, no questions asked, long as he's in yeshiva----than with a serious, professional working guy who learns---seriously---1.5 hours a night.

JRS said...

In the frum world, there’s certainly an unreasonable sense of entitlement to marry women 30 and under

You’ve got some very, uh, ordinary men (i.e. balding, fat, not particularly witty, wealthy or charismatic) over 35 (often WAY over) who for some reason---they’re in yeshiva, they're working, they want to have “many” children---are allowed to feel they should only deign to go out with much younger, more accomplished/good-looking/charismatic women.

dovy said...

>I loved Garnel's "Artscroll family" naming and description.<

Anyone else notice how 95%+ of the kids drawn in frum magazines or books have blond, re, or brown hair (and usually blue eyes). What's up with that?

Shades of Hitler?

Woodrow said...

Just to focus on one narrow issue: why would a mother know what a son thinks is attractive?

It seems to me that the whole matter is so visual and idiosyncratic that anyone's guess as to who anyone else will find attractive is not likely to be useful.

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The Yiddishe Cup

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Anonymous said...

thanks so much for posting this article. as someone who is at an age where the shidduch system applies I really appreciate how well you articulate the issues with the system. About a year ago I was thinking about going into shidduchim and I mentioned this to one of my rebbetzins, the only advice I got was to get a hair cut, contacts, start wearing makeup, invest in a new wardrobe etc. I quickly realised the system was not for me.
I know I'm pretty but there's not way I could pass an arbitrary vetting process.
I went back and read the article, it's pretty constent with what I was taught in seminary. Including the part about plastic surgery. And I think it comes from a few places. There's just a general trend of women in thier twenties to wear less makeups than say the 70's or 80's which is when someone who has a son of marriageable age would be dating and its quite possible these mothers are comparing these girls to thier experiences in dating.
And I think what's even worse, is the nefarious need of the more orthodox communities to conform utterly and completely. Even to the point of having a narrow standard of how a woman can look to be attractive.