Sisterhood Blog

Barring Bar Refaeli’s Body: Boon or Bane?

By Elana Sztokman

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There are only two people whose gargantuan faces greet drivers along Tel Aviv’s Ayalon highway. One is the larger-than-life-even-in-death Lubavicher Rebbe. The other is Bar Refaeli, possibly the most recognized Israeli face (and body) among American adult males.

Both billboards – and the glaring absence of any others – are indicative of the frightening and growing imposition of radical ultra-Orthodoxy on public life in Israel and the pressures women face.

Last year, after Israel’s Transportation Ministry declared that the billboards swamping the Ayalon were dangerous for drivers, massive white sheets were draped covering all of the advertisements but one. Chabad mysteriously got itself excused, and only the Rebbe remained, alone but seemingly content in his role staring down at motorists.

Fast forward to last week, when the Fox clothing chain successfully challenged the Rebbe’s monopoly on the Ayalon and received permission to hang its own advertisement. Out came a ten-meter high picture of Bar Refaeli in a provocative pose with a lesser known bloke, who is currently the envy of throngs of gawking Israeli male drivers.

That’s when some vocal members of the ultra-Orthodox community got angry.

“Whether people wish to see this or not is a personal choice…but they cannot be permitted to poison the public environment,” said Rabbi Mordechai Bloi, chairman of the Haredi group Guardians of Sanctity and Education.

The group pressured the Fox company with a threatened boycott, demanding removal of the photo of Ms. Refaeli. Within a day, the billboard came down, replaced by a more innocent-looking head shot of the model.

This entire situation puts women in a dilemma: Which is worse for us, the advertising industry which promotes unrealistic images of young women, or ultra-Orthodox pressure to make women invisible? The answer, of course, is, both.

On the one hand, the advertising industry is notoriously destructive for women and girls. Photoshopped images of women/girls whose hips are narrower than their cheekbones were recently the focus of a top story at the New York Times. The damaging impact of these images on the self-concept of girls and women cannot be overstated. Kudos to Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty and the “Too big for my Skin” campaign for powerfully addressing this issue . I have shown these wonderful videos to the girls and women in my life. We must talk back to this culture.

On the other hand, radical ultra-Orthodoxy, the culture that called for removing the Bar Refaeli ad, is hardly protective of women. Indeed, Bloi’s language of “poison” emphasizes how much women and our bodies are viewed in this world as threatening, dangerous, and “poisonous” to men. The rhetoric that leads to obsessive covering of women’s body has nothing to do with women’s well-being and everything to do with the ultra-Orthodox drive to remove women’s presence from men’s public lives.

Over the past year, this radical ultra-Orthodox removal of women from the public sphere has taken on new and ominous tones, and has been enforced with frightening acts of violence by the self-appointed “Modesty Patrol.”

Members of this group have been responsible for violently attacking women in their homes, on buses, in shops, and on the street, with fists, tear gas and acid, and even kidnapping a baby.

Rabbi Bloi’s insistence on removing the image of Ms. Refaeli legitimizes this violence against women. It encourages the use of force and muscle to remove the female body from the public sphere. No matter how sexualized advertising is, I would rather ensure freedom of expression and maintain Israel as a democratic society than cave in to real, life-threatening pressure on women to be invisible.

Ultimately, though, women’s well being is under threat by both religious and secular culture. We have to find ways to fight both trends in order to protect ourselves. I hope all the smart, strong women and girls out there have the courage and wisdom to fight these two battles at the same time.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Lubavitcher Rebbe, Israeli Models, Bar Refaeli, Advertising

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Comments
Jackie Mon. Nov 2, 2009

Amen...

james Tue. Nov 3, 2009

But one threat is real and legal--the other is reflected by personal expectations.

Better a demon you can face within yourself than hyperothodox oppression by law.

jessica kaz-Hoffman Wed. Nov 4, 2009

OMG this un-real. WHat a crazy and fascinating country and what a great article, thanks Elana keep them coming

Sara Wed. Nov 4, 2009

I agree with James. Fighting expectations is something we all go through in some form or another. It's internal and personal. But to be backed by law? Or bus regulations? Or those edicts that haredi rabbis put out all the time? That's a whole other level of mistreatment. Like writing it in stone.

MKI Thu. Nov 5, 2009

Although some see the billboards as flattering a certain amount of modesty should be targeted for public viewing on a highway. Bar Rafaeli has inner beauty but personally I think the concept of thin models encourages anorexia and it is that which should be targeted by the Haredi community. Derech Eretz should be adhered to and communities in the Haredi world should be more modest in their segregated views which they project on people whom have different expectations. Derech Eretz should be used to carry bill boards of moderate proportions of Bar in a little more modest dress if only to prevent road accidents on our highways and to discourage anorexia and intolerance of those whom object to is to Bar ladies and show hostile attitudes to ladies.

John Sun. Nov 8, 2009

Charedim should keep their eyes on the road and not on billboards!




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