I was recently asked if I had any resources I could share for a presentation to a group of teenage girls on eating disorders. Now, while my clinical expertise is in child and adolescent development and risk issues, I am not an expert in eating disorders. However, I was able to put together some resources that I thought would be helpful for a general presentation. In doing so I came across a trigger video I made years ago that began with the Dove Beauty commercial and then went into some of the reasons young women and men may have a distorted view of femininity and masculinity. You can watch it here:
At the same time I was looking over this week’s Torah portion and came across the famous dreams of Pharaoh that I think gives us some ancient wisdom for a modern concern.
To recap the first dream and focus of my thoughts, in short Pharaoh sees seven fat cows get devoured by seven skinny cows. Odd dream to say the least, but the dream gets interpreted later on by Yosef as a foreshadowing of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Yet, the creepy dream is not what stood out for me. It was the description of these cows. A description I never really thought much about beyond the basic explanation despite having heard and read this part of the Torah many times.
The Torah describes the fat cows as “seven cows, of attractive appearance and robust flesh (41:2)” and the skinny cows as “cows of ugly appearance and lean of flesh devoured (41:3).” Certainly “robust” and “lean” are relatively acceptable terms to describe a cow. I certainly have ordered my fair share of lean meat and on occasion (and quietly) asked for extra fatty. Yet, “attractive” and “ugly” are not terms generally ascribed to livestock unless, for example, they are entered into the Houston Livestock show. So why this additional seemingly out of place descriptor?
Rashi states that the use of the term “attractive” was related to the the years of plenty as people look upon each other more favorably when everyone is prosperous. Rav Soloveitchik also points this out, but adds another explanation that may help us understand some of our cultural challenges as well as the ones that plagued Egypt at the time.
The Rav in Vision and Leadership (pg. 24) highlights the fact that Egyptian culture at this time was primarily focused on prosperity and aesthetics. We certainly learn this about the cows as the aesthetics were mentioned first in the pasuk. This would also lead to us to believe that if this was the primary focus of the cows, how much more would it be for the people themselves? In fact, a few pasukim later we see Pharaoh even say in reference to the cows, “I have not seen such ugly ones throughout the entire land (41:19)” alluding to the fact that only those of the highest aesthetics could exist in Egypt. Physical beauty was king and anything short of it had no place in ancient Egpyt.
In a society where physical beauty becomes the primary focus, we lose touch with the deeper levels of beauty, mainly the intellectual and spiritual aspects. Of course, physical attraction is important, but that is not for society to dictate but rather something that is highly personal. When society influences our view of beauty we are likely going to have a very distorted view of it. A standard gets created for a physical attribute where standardization can only exist to destroy the uniqueness and individual beauty of the individual. We wind up with a society that questions themselves, feels less then and, sadly, can’t see the unique beauty they posses.
A great example of this is the more recent Dove Real Beauty Sketches:
In the end of Pharaoh’s dream, the “ugly” cows devour the “attractive” cows. There are many explanations for these dreams and this conclusion as well. However, for me, it seems to try to challenge the Egyptians view of beauty and have them question what they thought to be true. If the “ugly” ones could devour the “attractive” ones, everything Pharaoh knew to be true about beauty came into question. It challenges the notion that physical beauty is not the most important or powerful aspect of a human being. It challenges the idea that there is only one element that lends itself to beauty. It also challenges the standardization of beauty and supports the notion that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, that many aspects of a person create personal beauty and that a world can’t exists when we do not recognize the uniqueness or unique beauty that each and every person holds. In the end, it reminds us that we are all created B’tzelem Elochim, in G-d’s image, and that is the only standard of beauty we should attribute to mankind and recognize, within ourselves and others, the unigue aspects of the indivual that makes each and everyone of us beautiful beyond measure.