The halachic male gaze and body weight vs. body feel
I am interested in gendered societal expectations and how both men and women conform to and subvert them. Gendered societal expectations apply not only to the topics of marriage, beauty, and strength but also, more generally, to how we behave in this world and how others expect us to behave. However, the specific issues of weight and appearance that flared in this "false advertising" debate caught my attention for two reasons. I'm about to leap off into two points that are not really related to the "false advertising" thing at all, so bear with me.
One is that since my sophomore Women's Studies tutorial in college, I have been interested in this issue of the "male gaze" and how women feel when they are subjected to it. (This term was coined by Laura Mulvey in the context of women and film studies, but has been more broadly applied to other areas of culture and society.)1
At one of the JOFA or Edah conferences circa 2003 or 2004, someone spoke about the way that tsniut (often translated as "modesty," for better or for worse) is taught at day schools, and what does that does to girls' self-perceptions of their bodies.2 I had never thought about tsniut in this way before, but it rings true. What does it do to a girl to constantly hear, from third grade onward, that men are looking at her skirt and judging her moral and religious worth based on its length? What does it do to hear admonishments about sleeve length? Is this fetishization of girls knees, upper arms, and breasts a good thing? This obsession, in halacha or at least in the current Orthodox world, with the bodies of girls and women as sexual objects is very disturbing and is, at least in my mind, a direct outcome of a halachic system entirely conceived of and codified only by men, or if you want to be very frum about it, filtered through the minds of men. The idea of covering yourself up to prevent a man from thinking certain thoughts about you (as opposed to for your own internal reasons) is about as abominable to me as the thought of losing weight to convince a man to think about you a certain way (as opposed to for your own internal reasons). Which brings me to my second point...
The second reason that I am interested in this topic is because of my own weight fluctuation and personal feelings about weight. Without going into the specific details of my various weight fluctuations from the ages of seven through twenty-something (booooooooring), let me just say that it's been up and down and up and down. This was not due to any attempts on my part to control my weight (never dieted, please God never will), and are mostly because of how fast I was growing at various times (an inch a year for the four years of high school), how much exercise I was getting, and how busy I was (being busy either meant I ate less or I ate more junk instead of meals). Most of it just happened as I was going about living my life. It wasn't helped by the fact that I used/abused sugar for energy and motivation before I learned to like coffee, nor by the fact that the activities that I enjoy the most are sedentary (reading, writing, talking).
In the winter and spring of 2005, I was happier than usual, which meant that I was more physically active than usual and more busy than usual, which gave me less time to buy and eat junk food, which meant that I lost a lot of weight rather quickly. Note that I was happy and more confident and subsequently lost weight, not the other way around. I later gained some of it back, but since that time, I have been treated differently on the street than I have ever been treated before. Mostly, I started getting comments (and attempts at getting my name and/or phone number) from unknown men. It was downright weird and a little bit confusing, and somewhat irritating. When I was heavier, I was able to go through life more "under the radar," which I appreciated in a lot of ways. I didn't think as much about how I looked, because clearly nobody else really cared or noticed how I looked.
Being skinnier again felt good for a few reasons, but I'm not at all willing to make a concerted effort to become skinnier for the sake of weighing x pounds or fitting into a specific clothing size. In the end, I am far more concerned with how my body and my mind feel to me than with what the scale says. There is a correlation between body weight and what I call "body feel," but it's less direct than I would have expected. I'm fairly sure that body feel has a much greater impact on how I look, than whatever the scale says, even 15+ pounds in either direction. When I feel good about my body, my mind, and myself, I dress better and am more confident. I have also noticed that people tell me that I look good when I am happy and relaxed, which is also the time when I feel most at home in my body, regardless of what the scale says.
I think that all of this ties back into the "false advertising" issue in multiple ways. For one thing, a man saying that his wife has gained weight after marriage and that that's not fair seems about as "male gaze"-ish as it gets. It sounds like a statement about his wife as an object, not as a subject.
For another, is it really about the weight gain, or is it about (a) what caused the weight gain or (b) how one feels about one's body as a result of the weight gain? Weight gain doesn't happen in a vacuum (that's not a statement about physics, it's a statement about the way we live our lives--maybe it's true in physics?), so something else is going on in these people's lives (depression, stress, over-commitment, avoiding emotional intimacy, compulsion, just being too damned busy to take care of oneself, not feeling worthy of taking care of oneself) and in their relationship (your guess is as good as mine). Maybe that's the issue. Because if he loved her when they got married, and he loved her body when they got married, and she liked her body and his body when they got married, I would hope that a few extra pounds wouldn't change that, all other things going well in the relationship. I really don't think it's about the pounds as much as it is about mental state. Maybe I'm crazy--it's been suggested--or maybe it's because I'm blessedly single and can gain and lose weight whenever I damn well please, but it seems nuts to reject your spouse because she gains weight. And if he gains weight? What then?
Anyway, this was all just some food for thought. (Hah!) I'm willing to be convinced that I'm wrong about most or all of this stuff.
1. See Laura Mulvey's Visual and Other Pleasures; John Berger's Ways of Seeing; Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.
2. This is one of several reasons why I would hesitate before sending my future potential children to an Orthodox day school. I went to a fairly progressive one, as these things go, and I still got all of these messages loud and clear. Luckily, I got other messages from other places to counter-balance those.
But there is one which I do think is fair to point out: while I think that the focus on sleeve lengths etc is unhealthy, and is distortive of the intent of the concept of tzniut, there is a decent amount of it on the men's side as well. Those same men who get so wrapped around the axle of skirt lengths wouldn't wear shorts themselves, so at the very least they're being as consistent as they can be, given that male and female clothing is qualitatively different.
A big part of the problem is the way it's explained: for boys, it's just an order "thou shalt dress like X"; for girls, I think that they aren't willing to take that for an answer.
IMO, the only reason it's okay to be concerned about another person's weight is either out of concern that there is some proxy for a physical or mental unwellness going on (or perhaps you're a really good friend and you want to tell someone that X article of clothing which used to fit no longer does). Notice that the same concern would apply to any significant variation in weight, not just gain.
It's definitely true that happy people are more attractive and energetic. That often translates to "thinner" because of the additional activity. But the happiness is what actually matters.
I do think weight and physical apperance matters in a relationship. I am not attracted to fat guys; never have been. I will love my husband until I die, but there is a point at which I wouldn't be attracted to him if he gained a lot of weight. There is a certain amount of fat that I can ignore, but there's a tipping point. Obviously circumstances matter: I'd be more forgiving of a significant weight gain if, God forbid, my husband was injured. But if he was just into the ice cream and vegging out, I would expect him to get help for his wellbeing and the health of our relationship. Help is available, and I don't mean diets.
I think you owe it to yourself and your partner to maintain a certain level of attractiveness, and that includes some degree of weight control. What's "too much" weight will vary for everybody.
Some may say that weight gain can be a sign of unhealthy habits. Such statements assume that weight alone can indicate health. I think this blog points out well that emotional and spiritual health are at equal play, if not greater that body weight.
The trends of how one relates to eating, how one regards food etc. reflect a person's emotional health. Perhaps the same can be said about exercising. However, one needs to be careful not to quantify a person's health by body weight and physical activity alone.
I know of obese women who give off a much greater confidence in their bodies that some women who weigh far less. Granted that our society challenges heavier people to create a body image that is independent of those around them.
Good "food" for thought! :)
I get creeped out by halachic sources arguing to the milimeter how much of my arms need to be covered. Because it reduces me to a sexual body, and a dangerous one at that.
I also get creeped out by how women attend, say, a ceremony recognizing academic excellence, in short tight strapless dresses. Especially in contrast to the men all covered up in suits, it came across to me as, "well, I might be smart, but it's okay, I have a hot body too. see?"
I've found a little bit of balance in interpreting hilchot tzniut for myself. But it's still awfully complicated...
Thanks for visiting and for your comment.
I'm not sure that I've often attended ceremonies recognizing academic excellence, where women wear short tight strapless dresses. Well, maybe undergraduates graduating, to some extent. I think that the older, professorial types are often quite covered up to ward off the message that worries you.
I agree that figuring all of this out can be quite a struggle. I hope to write about this more in the future.