Torah Musings: Looks Can Be Deceiving


Looks Can Be Deceiving  

Sarah Pachter

Erica walked into a clothing store in Europe. Striking at 5’10”, weighing only 110 pounds, she was a typical American model: unhealthy by most standards, yet barely able to keep her weight down in order to continue her successful modeling career. Her manager walked alongside her as they entered the store, and he angrily pinched a minute quantity of fat he found on her, saying, “You need to lose this, or else.”

She sarcastically thought to herself, What difference does it make? They can just edit out any extra pounds I have. I can’t starve my skin away. After all, they still “touch-up” everything anyway.

My student, Erica, left the modeling business shortly after this real incident occurred. As she described this scene to me, I could do nothing but shake my head in disapproval over the way she was treated. Unfortunately, I had heard these sentiments before. Cameron Russell, a famous model, has made a TED Talk about this very topic. One of the top questions people ask her most is, “Do they really touch-up pictures as much as they say they do?” She answered in front of her overwhelmingly large audience that they don’t merely touch them up. The people in those pictures are not actually humans once the image is fully edited and presented to the public. It is a full-blown construction. The “model” is a merely a canvas: a blank slate that they use to create a completely new image from.

She shared pictures of herself in a magazine looking tall, slender, and suggestively posing in embrace of a man. In reality, she felt completely awkward; she was not yet 15, and had just started high school. She showed personal photographs from the day of the shoot, compared with the actual magazine’s pictures, and it looked like two different people, years apart. She explained to me then that “touch-ups” are an understatement. The entire image is an illusion.

A deception, if you will.

We often think that this beauty-deception is a result of our skewed modern world. However, in reality, this concept actually began long ago, with Adam and Eve.

The Torah describes the Garden of Eden as a paradise, using the term “pure clarity” to describe it. This clarity was seen in everything that was present there. Animals, plant life, and objects looked exactly as they were.

A poisonous mushroom looked ominous, while an apple was bright and beautiful, practically yelping, Eat me! Adam and Eve knew just from looking at an object whether it was good or bad.

Once the pair sinned, however, confusion was introduced into the world. A mask, or cloud, of confusion was created to obstruct that clarity. Hence, the beauty-deception concept with which we live today was established.

Allow me to describe this beauty-deception in today’s terms. You see a billboard featuring a stunning model with her hair flowing while riding a horse. (It’s a perfume ad. I’m not really sure why she’s on a horse – but stick with me here.) She has a bright smile on her face, and her head is tilted backwards, enjoying the sun, the breeze, and life itself. Life is perfect for this woman, who has not a care in the world.

Now, let’s zoom in behind the scenes of this image. The reality is not actually very pretty at all. She has been sitting in this position with her head cocked at this angle for hours straight. Her back feels like it’s going to break, and she hasn’t eaten in three days, in preparation for this day. It’s downright painful. The final image looks pretty, but the process to get it is not pretty at all.

Taking this concept to a deeper level, Yad Vashem has a beautiful painting of a sunset at the end of a corridor, past the entrance of the museum. As you walk closer towards the work of art, however, it becomes apparent that it is not a sunset at all, but rather a gruesome depiction of the fire of the crematorium in Auschwitz, and the ashes of the bodies alongside it.

This especially horrific beauty-deception is reflective in the Nazis themselves. The leaders were sophisticated and refined externally, famously appreciating symphonies, art, and intellectual and scientific pursuits. Inwardly, however, they were monsters. Something that seemed good and beautiful on the outside but was in fact full of evil on the inside.

Similarly, the Torah describes the non-kosher pig in this way.[1] The pig is the only animal with split hooves but which doesn’t chew its cud. It looks kosher on outside, but doesn’t reflect that internally.

All of the previous examples clearly demonstrate beauty-deception, but what is true beauty?

A model might describe beauty as pain. A scientist, on the other hand, could define it as symmetry. To an artist, beauty may lie within the eye of the beholder.

The Torah’s definition is an interesting twist on all three of these. Let’s first go to the first place the word or concept is mentioned: “G-d made every tree which was attractive to the sight and good for food.”[2]

Why would this sentence discuss the fruit of the garden as being attractive to the sight first? If I were G-d describing the function of food, I would say, “Here, look at this apple. It is good for you…and it’s pretty, isn’t it?”

It is through the Torah’s sentence and the order of the words that we can truly see the importance of beauty in consumption. Hashem understood that for humans, attraction inherently comes first, even before nutritional value.

As humans, we appreciate beauty so much that studies have been conducted regarding the effect of beauty on patients recovering in hospitals after surgery. The studied patients with windows facing a tree needed less pain medication and recovered faster than those with windows facing buildings. Humans appreciate beauty deeply, and have a strong, internal need for it.[3]

Consider an upscale restaurant: the table is covered in fine linens, the dining room has a pleasant ambiance, and the stemware feels elegant. The food is presented as artwork, making it taste better, due to the additional eye-appeal.

But then, to feed a dog? You just throw some brown, lumpy food into the dog’s bowl, and he’s as happy as can be!

If you have ever hiked in Israel, at some point you must have stopped to enjoy the splendorous view. Looking out from a mountain peak can even be a spiritual experience. But a goat walking across the Ein Gedi trail does not stop to enjoy his view. Rather, he simply grabs another mouthful of grass and continues chewing!

The Torah says the food in Gan Eden was attractive to the sight first. Beauty is important, and is not something to disregard as insignificant or vain. Simultaneously, Hashem defines the concept of beauty for us: the harmony between the desire of the body and the soul. When the fruit is attractive to the sight and healthy to eat.

Sarah, the matriarch, was considered one of the most beautiful women in creation.[4] As Rashi writes, she was as beautiful at one hundred as she was at twenty, and as beautiful at twenty as at seven.[5] Hence, Sarah was extremely attractive externally, but her internal goodness matched her radiating exterior.[6]

As humans, we all walk around with a shell. After their initial creation, the souls of Adam and Eve radiated from the inside out. After their sin, however, their skin became opaque, hiding their true essence.

I recently came across and anonymous quote that said the following: “If only our eyes saw souls instead of bodies, how different our ideals of beauty would be.”

Science and Torah both describe beauty as symmetry, not just of the right and left side of the body, but inside and out, as well. Beauty radiates when our inner and outer selves match, allowing the soul and body to represent each other as the cohesive unit that they were always meant to be.

[1] Parshat Shemini

[2] Genesis 2:9

[3] Summarized from The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan, pg. 206

[4] Tractate Megillah, 15A

[5] Genesis 23:1

[6] Genesis 23:1