Wearing Our Bodies Like the Splendor That They ArE
I know this is a fasting holiday, but I just have to say, I love ice cream! Anyone else here love ice cream? It’s my favorite food. It makes me feel good. I enjoy eating it—so many different flavors, any number of brands.
I want to tell you a story about when a simple delight was stolen from me. When something that brings me joy, was used to make me feel shame.
As a student rabbi, I had just led a Shabbat service. There was ice cream served at the oneg that night. I was scooping some into a bowl, when a woman in the congregation came up beside me and said in admonishment, “Don’t have too much. You don’t want to be a fat rabbi.”
It may sound funny now, but it didn’t feel funny then. I didn’t know what to do with the ice cream, I didn’t know what to do her, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I froze, my face burning red. I felt exposed and violated. I felt naked.
Our culture has created an environment with fixed ideas about how our bodies should look, encouraging us to feel comfortable, even driven, to share those ideas with others. Really, it’s no wonder that we do. Society not only promotes and participates in this kind of criticism, but deems it virtuous, packaging cruelty as concern, and thereby causing damage to each other and to ourselves, body and soul.
This needs to stop. We need to stop.
During this season, Judaism calls upon us to engage in teshuva, intense self-reflection. Our tendency is to avoid looking deep inside and examine ourselves with brutal honesty, to resist confronting how we may be hurting ourselves and others. And yet, we are so quick to harshly examine ourselves at the surface, so quick to criticize our physicality! Things about us that, unlike behaviors, are beyond our control. Aspects of ourselves that carry no moral value, that don’t cause harm.
We are fighting deeply embedded norms, centuries in the making, but they are a construct. We can change them. My invitation for tonight is for us to look at things differently, to look at ourselves differently, to look at each other differently. Together, let’s begin teshuva, shifting our gaze and experiencing life from a slightly different perspective. My ultimate hope is that every time every single one of us looks in the mirror, every time every single one of us looks at each other, we will see the beauty of God. I know, that seems like a lot to hope for. But let’s take the first step, by each of us imagining, “What if?”
What if sharing our weight was as easy as sharing our shoe size?
What if we weren’t embarrassed about our shoe size?
What if we didn’t see fat as unattractive?
What if we didn’t see thin as desirable?
What if we didn’t assume that thin people are happy?
What if we didn’t assume that thin people don’t struggle with body image?
What if we didn’t assume that everyone prefers to be thinner than they are?
What if instead of disdaining people for being fat, or admiring them for losing weight, we respected them for surviving each day in this world that is cruel to them?
What if the only question we ask ourselves before eating, is “Do I feel like eating this now?”
What if we eat without ever feeling guilt or ever feeling virtue?
What if we reclaim the money, the time, the energy that thinking about our weight, and trying to lose weight steals from us?
What if instead of choosing less for ourselves, we choose more — more love, more pride, more freedom, more joy, more food?
What if we feel comfortable in our skin?
What if we love our bodies exactly as they are? What if our children do?
Taanit, a tractate of the Talmud that means “Fasting,” tells a story about the great sage, Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon, whose intellect was outsized only by his ego. He had just wowed a bunch of his colleagues at a lesson given by their teacher. Feeling great, he was riding horseback to teach at a neighboring city. A man, who the text describes as “exceedingly ugly,” crosses his path, and shouts out a hello. Elazar, startled, blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind. “Yikes! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?”
Without skipping a beat, the man responds, “I don’t know. Why don’t you bring your disapproval to the Artisan who crafted me. Say to God, ‘Wow, how ugly is that vessel you made!’”
Ashamed and regretful, Elazar jumps off his horse, prostrates himself, and says, “I am so sorry for saying that. Please forgive me!” The man ignores him and continues on his way, with Elazar following behind (Taanit 20a—b).
The text doesn’t describe what makes that man repulsive to Elazar. I think that’s done with intent. Ugliness and beauty are subjective, and this text is meant to teach a timeless truth. What Elazar saw in the man is less important than what we see that causes us to say “Bleach!” We live in a society which reveres thinness. There is no agreed upon standard, but we live with the assumption that it’s better to weigh less than it is to weigh more.
We are all that man Elazar criticized. I imagine most of us here tonight know the experience of someone’s words causing us to feel ugly. I imagine must of us here tonight know the experience of feeling shame for our body size or body shape, even if the one shaming us was ourselves.
And, we are all Elazar. Who of us has never walked into a room and judged people by their looks? Let’s be honest with ourselves, no matter what size or shape we are, what do we think when we see people who are larger than we expect? What runs through our mind when that is the new doctor who walks into the examination room? Our therapist who we’ve only spoken with over the phone? The trainer assigned to us at the gym? The job candidate we are about to interview? Our child’s partner whose picture we are seeing for the first time?
Now we might never say, “Yikes! You’re so fat!” Well, not literally. But somehow it’s OK, and even considered a compliment, for us to say to each other, “Wow! You look like you’ve lost weight!”
The chart-breaking artist, Lizzo, begins her song, “My Skin,” on her album, “Big Grrrl, Small World,” with an introduction: “Learning to love yourself and learning to love your body is like a whole journey that I feel like every person, but more specifically, women, have to go through. So I feel like doing this song is a good way to kinda break through and seal the last chapter of the ‘learning to love’ and just loving.”
Lizzo loves herself as she is. When body shamed by well-meaning people, she doesn’t let it pass. “When friends say to me, ‘You’re not fat!’ I say, ‘Don’t tell me I’m not fat. I am fat. I am beautiful! I don’t like it when people think it’s hard for me to see myself as beautiful.” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lizzo-i-feel-like-a-master/; https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/culture/story/lizzo-stop-brave-im-sexy-65249458)
Fat is a hard word to say out loud. Why? Why is it different than any other descriptor? Why is it different than saying short or brunette or bearded? The word is neutral. But that’s not how we hear it, because that’s not how we see it. We create all kinds of euphemisms. For example, “overweight.” Ironically, that’s a blatantly judgmental word. Over what weight? Two adults, one who is 6 feet and the other who is 5 feet, see the same number when they step on the scale. We only consider one to be “overweight.” We describe one as “heavy,” but they weigh the same amount. One of them needs to crouch when getting into a car, and pay for extra legroom on airplanes, but it’s the other person we refer to as “large” or “plus-sized.”
We profess that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we know that powerful forces impose artificial standards, determining what we see as beautiful. Rabbi Elazar didn’t live at a time of Instagram and social media, but idealized images of the human body were everywhere—in their full glory! Greek and Roman culture created gods in the image of people. Judaism differs. The first thing the Torah tells us about people, is that we were created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, a god with no body! An emphatic statement, that according to Judaism, there is no ideal figure.
As the Talmud teaches, kal va-chomer, all the more so, our differences are what keeps the world safe. God was intentional in creating us similar, but distinct. When a human mints many coins from one mold, they all look alike. But God fashioned every single human being after the first person. Every one of us is part of the same human family, yet we are marvelously unique, no one more valuable than any other. For this reason, no matter how we look, we each rightfully say, “The world was created for my sake!” (Sanhedrin 37a).
We embody the insight of this legend. Our genetics largely determine our body shape, and that individuality is expressed even within the same immediate family. Venus and Serena Williams, sisters and champion athletes, have entirely different body shapes. Neither shape is more virtuous than the other, neither is healthier than the other, and we need to stop thinking of one as luckier than the other. Body shape is neutral.
The multi-billion dollar diet industry, now disguising itself as the wellness industry, is invested in brainwashing us to believe otherwise. In fact, 95% of the time, diets don’t work. That’s why there are so many of them! (https://www.businessinsider.com/5-things-the-weight-loss-industry-doesnt-want-you-to-know-2018-2)
This industry’s success depends on their product failing; that’s how they make billions. But their propaganda convinces us that we are the ones who are failing. They reinforce the dangerous notion that food has moral value. That certain foods are “good” or “clean” and others “junk” or “garbage.” Of course, that implies that we are more or less virtuous depending on what and how we eat. If the food we eat is “sinfully good,” a “guilty pleasure,” if by eating it we are “being bad” or “cheating,” what are we saying about ourselves? And here, I will take the Torah to task. We were doing great in Eden until we were given one food limitation, and that led us to obsession and shame.
The Torah commands, On Yom Kippur “v’initem nafshoteichem, practice ‘self-denial’” (Leviticus 23:27). Sages and rabbis throughout the generations have debated how and why we use fasting for that purpose, though there is general agreement that it serves us spiritually. But they also teach “Ayn kemach, ayn Torah,” literally, “No flour, no Torah.” Without sustenance, we can’t study. Hunger distracts us from concentrating on anything else, especially significant and spiritual matters. This is why our congregation is so devoted to battling food insecurity. Consider Backpack Buddies, our program providing children who depend on school meals with nourishment over the weekend, so they can think and play and read and dream. But we know, ourselves, how hunger can distract. We miss a meal, our stomachs growl, our irritability spikes. This is the point when my husband tentatively asks me, “Are you hangry?”
There are plenty of traditional and personal reasons to fast on Yom Kippur, and there are plenty of traditional and personal reasons not fast on Yom Kippur. But ironically, fasting, intended to distract us from our physicality so that we concentrate on spirituality, ends up as a focus of this sacred day. You may shock your friends at break fast telling them your rabbi talked about eating on Yom Kippur, but don’t we do that every year? We greet each other with “Have an easy fast,” and by the afternoon we jokingly torture each other with visions of bagel and blintzes awaiting us after the final shofar blast.
Denying ourselves food at any time of the year makes us think about food even more, increasing our hunger, increasing our craving, increasing our eating, increasing our weight. The innate wisdom of our biology and psychology resists our losing weight; our bodies are wired to fight even the threat of malnourishment. The more we lose, the more we gain. That yo-yo’ing is more damaging to our physical and mental health than the pounds we struggled to lose in the first place.
Considering that process to be a cruel joke is the voice of cultural bias, insisting thinner is better. It’s not. The wellness myth is a myth. Thinner does not equal healthier, and healthier does not equal thinner. At times, yes, they are related, but very often this is not the case. And yet, most of us assume they are linked. The wellness industry has duped us into denying what we know from personal experience to be painfully true – health is a deeply complex matter. As much as we wish otherwise, health and mortality are not easily predicted or controlled.
Our bodies are far more protective of us than we are of ourselves. The drive to survive and thrive is not a cruel joke. It’s a miracle! As we will read tomorrow from the Haftarah and Torah, God’s purpose is not for us to starve our bodies. “Is this the fast I want?” (Isaiah 58:5). No, it’s not. God’s purpose is for us to choose life, that we may live! (Deuteronomy 30:19). When we choose otherwise, by limiting when, how much and what we eat, our bodies will kick in and choose for us. Nature will reject what flawed human authorities profess.
A 12 year old girl, battling anorexia, the deadliest mental illness, never registered as underweight on the pediatric growth charts, despite the fact that she was barely eating. Her thinning hair was brittle, dark patches shadowed her eyes, and her body stopped menstruating—all clear indications that she was starving herself. After months of battling voices screaming in her head to do otherwise, she slowly and bravely gained back enough weight to recover her period.
She went to school the next day, rightfully feeling victorious. In the lunchroom, a boy pointed to her lanky friend and said, “You’re leafy” and then pointing to her said, “you’re beefy.” Bad enough. Later that week, after her school’s annual required health assessment, she returned home with a Body Mass Index report warning she was overweight, recommending ways for her to drop pounds.
How can we expect middle schoolers to see bodies without judgement if authorities are instilling it?
Approximately half of American 1st through 3rd grade girls want to be thinner. Half of our 9- and 10-year olds girls are dieting. (https://www.pbs.org/perfectillusions/eatingdisorders/preventing_facts.html). Almost 40% of boys use dangerous behaviors to build a muscular physique (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3507247/).
Here’s the good news. Things are starting to change. A movement is underway. More and more physicians are recognizing weight bias, and are regarding weight and health independently. More health professionals are promoting intuitive eating instead of diets. Our children now have healthier role models. The actress, Jameela Jamil, has launched the “I weigh” campaign, encouraging us to value who we are and what we do, rather than criticize how we look. Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and others are rejecting air-brushing of stretch marks, cellulite and fat. More advertisers are using real size models.
Chris Pine, Robert Pattinson, Elton John, Ashley Hamilton and other male celebrities have begun sharing their struggles with eating disorders and body dysmorphia. Athletes, business people, authors, social media influencers, advertisers, clothing designers — people of all ages, genders, professions, races, sexual orientations, differing abilities—are encouraging body positivity.
It still may feel like fighting a tidal wave, but little by little, it’s making a difference. A few weeks ago, instead of answering a math problem comparing the weight of three girls, a 4th grader circled the question and wrote to the teacher, “Sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but I think that math problem wasn’t very nice. I thought that was judging people’s weight” (https://www.today.com/series/love-your-body/fourth-grader-refuses-answer-math-question-comparing-girls-weight-t164122).
Changing our shape is nearly impossible. Changing deeply embedded norms is difficult. Shifting our gaze to see things a little differently, that’s doable. That’s what I’m asking from all of us.
When Rabbi Elazar realized he hurt the man’s feelings, he expressed genuine remorse for what he said. But the man didn’t forgive him – couldn’t forgive him. He understood that Elazar’s transgression lay far deeper than the words he regretted speaking. Elazar’s transgression wasn’t that he let his thoughts escape from his mouth, hurting someone else’s feelings. Elazar’s transgression what how he saw that person, that vessel of God.
This revered rabbi failed to recognize his own distorted vision of a foundational truth that he not only knew intellectually, but imparted to others. That every single person – every one of us here tonight – is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s divine image. Eleazar didn’t commit the sin of lashon hara, speaking evil. He committed the sin of birkat ha-shem, blasphemy. He gazed upon the beauty of Adonai, and he saw ugliness.
This is how powerful systemic discrimination can be. All of us, no matter how kind, educated, pious, all of us, no matter how woke, are victims of weight bias indoctrination. And all of us, in ways we can’t even recognize, are perpetrators. Shifting our gaze, considering, “What if?” is the first step toward freeing ourselves and our society from this deadly transgression.
We spend Elul, the month preceding the High Holidays, preparing for teshuva. The rabbis teach ELUL is an acronym for the biblical verse, “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). As we hold up proverbial mirrors and see ourselves for who we are, we are taught to do so lovingly. Why should we do anything less when we hold up real mirrors?
My sophomore year of college, I was at a lecture about body image. The auditorium was packed. A women’s studies professor, a feminist icon on campus, shared that when she was pregnant and found out she was having a girl, she didn’t think “I hope she’s healthy, I hope she’s smart, I hope she’s talented.” She immediately thought, “I hope she’s thin.” I was horrified and felt betrayed. But as I thought about this mother’s confession some more, I finally admitted to myself, if I could ask for one thing, I would ask to be thinner. I swore to myself I would do everything I could to reeducate myself—to reprogram myself—so I wouldn’t wish that for my children.
We recite Psalm 27 daily throughout the High Holiday Season. “Achat shaaliti — One thing I ask of you, God, to be with you all of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of Adonai.” I pray that we are with God every day of our lives in the way that we live within ourselves, fully and proudly inhabiting our miraculous bodies. I pray that we are with God every day of our lives in the way that we behold the wonder of creation when we gaze at ourselves and each other.
We are created b’tzelem Elohim! Rabbi Yehoshua explained that this means an entourage of angels walks in front of each one of us – you and you and you and you and you and you and me – and calls out, “Make way for the image of the holy one!” (Deuteronomy Rabbah, Re’eh 4).
What if we wore our bodies like the splendor that they are?
Achat shaalti m’eit Adonai, achalt shaalti otah avakesh
Shivti shivti b’veit Adonai, shivti shivti kol y’mei chayai
L’chazot b’noam Adonai, u’lvaker b’heichalo
To gaze upon the beauty of Adonai!
One thing I ask of you, Adona —to be with you, all of my life.