This interaction always struck me as strange when I was younger. Why should I say thank you for something I have no control over? I felt both proud and somehow guilty for being a pretty girl – if I went to a new camp or school I would get attention from boys – I knew that wasn’t a given for all girls. It wasn’t always a blessing… being one of the first girls to wear a bra earned me attention from older boys, boys that I didn’t really know how to interact with. I got older – I learned a little more about beauty, my body, male attention, female jealousy. I felt ranked. I felt like I was always being sized up, both by girls and guys, and there was nothing I could do about it. I sometimes envied girls that were thinner than me, and sometimes, I envied girls that were not particularly “pretty” in conventional ways. I felt like they were freer – they could just be funny or smart or weird – they didn’t have to “deal with” the facade of perceptions that come with being a pretty girl.
I suppose this quiet obsession of mine is largely what led me to Orthodox Judaism. I was 18 and already jaded and exhausted by being a woman. I loved the idea that a human being was more than a body – that my body was a distraction from the “real me.” The laws of “tzniut” – the Orthodox dress code – seemed to me like salvation. It was also relieving and validating to be told that it was my “yetzer harah” – the little bad devil voice in me – that compelled me to want to get attention for my physical appearance. I needed to fight that desire, to cover my curves, and save my sexuality for one man – my future husband. It was a very compelling argument for me – I literally landed in Israel for seminary straight out of a secular Jewish sleepaway camp – which in America is synonymous for a two-month blur of hedonism. Seminary was a sanctuary. It took a couple months to let go, but I came around. I flipped out, blissful in my decision to leave the old me – and no one likes to say it this way, but baal tshuvahs often feel – the sexy me, behind. At the time it was liberating. Like a new diet, I was motivated by my conviction.
Eventually, when I got married and pregnant with my first child, I was grateful to have such little focus on my body and my beauty. I wasn’t that cute, belly bump type of pregnant. I was a whale. I was so nauseous for the first four months, and all I could do to make it (slightly) better was eat. Not just eat though, it had to be bread. Bagels to be exact. I’m talking about lots, and lots, of bagels. Each of my body parts expanded, even my fingers hurt from being so swollen. I watched myself transform like so many women do during pregnancy, and it was almost like an out-of-body experience. This wasn’t my entire focus during pregnancy – there was also the unparalleled thrill of growing a human being in my body. But the awareness of how rapidly and vastly my body was changing was difficult. I remember crying (and yes, those hormones are a joy as well) “I’ve never been faaaaaat.” I wanted to be a mother, but it was so unfair that I had to lose my body in order to do it. Some women commiserated, others told me I was being ungrateful – that barren women would do anything to get fat and have a baby – that made me feel like a selfish person, but it did not make me suddenly accepting of my new 50+ pound body.
I also started resenting tzniut and hair covering while I was pregnant. I felt so unattractive and I was dying to let down my long curly hair, buy a pair of maternity leggings, and shout “It’s still me! I’m still beautiful! Look at me!” But I had a religious code to uphold. And besides, I told myself, that’s your “yetzer harah” again wanting outside validation. You are growing a baby, this is natural, this is beautiful. There is undeniably a level of acceptance that must take place when your body changes – especially through pregnancy and breastfeeding — to resent it the whole way through would truly be a sad waste of time and energy when you are going through the most incredible transition into motherhood. But I must say, for many of us, that transition is not an easy one. I lathered on that stretch mark prevention cream like it was my job. And yet the stretch marks came. The little red lines crept across my huge tummy in my eighth month, and I watched them spread, and I let it go. I felt the baby kicking and turning inside of me, and that truly was so much more important than the way my skin looked. When he was born I was only twenty two. The pounds I had gained melted off. I accepted the stretch marks, albeit somewhat sadly, and then, I quickly got pregnant again and the whole cycle started over.
My youngest child is 4 and a half now. My marriage has ended, my commitment to Orthodox Judaism has been laid to rest, and now as a mother of three, at age 30, I find myself struggling again with the same questions that were there when I was 18. Thankfully, over a decade later, I feel better equipped internally to explore the answers. My beauty, or how others define beauty, does not encompass me. I alone look in the mirror at myself, and I alone hold the key to perceiving how beautiful I am. My body has changed dramatically since I was eighteen. Carrying and nursing babies was a huge physical endeavor, and my body bears the scars of those three experiences. I am both eternally grateful for my body’s abilities and for my children, and I also have feelings of missing my pre-baby body. My body now is small but it is strong. It has been through season after season of transformation and change. And the best part is that it’s ALL me. I look back at pictures of myself and I remember each stage – I was there the whole time – and I am here now. Working on present-living and mindfulness, have helped me connect to my body and my beauty.
A few months ago, after struggling with migraines for over ten years, seeing a neurologist, and trying several diets, an ENT told me something that I had never heard before. He told me that since I had a severely deviated septum (I apparently have Ashkenazi incestuous genes to thank for that one), it was likely contributing greatly – if not being the main factor – in my frequent and debilitating migraines. I decided to do a septoplasty – where they surgically separate that divider in the nose that my case, was completely collapsed on one side. The doctor told me I had one shot at nose surgery, and asked if I wanted anything done cosmetically to my nose too. I didn’t answer on the spot. I remember clearly sitting in my car after the appointment. I was alone and I opened the little mirror and looked at myself. Yes. I just felt an overwhelming sense of excitement at the thought of doing something different, purely for my body and my beauty – something that I had thought about before, but was never “that” big of a deal that I had wanted to pursue it. I had watched my body gain and lose hundreds of pounds, watched my shape and curves expand and contract, all the while being told: “it’s just your body.” I was empowered by the idea that now, I could say “This is what I’m going to do. And it’s going to look beautiful to me. And it’s just. My. Body.” I knew that I would get snickers and criticism from others, especially women – for deciding to alter my body surgically. But “acceptance” has been a big theme in my life, especially in the beauty and body image area, and I felt confident that this time, I would make a choice. Not accept a change, but choose one.