In almost every single chick flick, there is a pivotal scene during which the character goes shopping. It is almost always presented as a montage of different stores, outfits, looks, and expressions, and it signals for the character a passage to second chances, redemption, and, ultimately, a resurrection. I would like to be able to roll my eyes and see this as one of the many silly elements of the chick-flick genre. But I can’t, and the reason I can’t is because it has happened to me. More than once.
Just like the tan, blond lead of any given chick flick, I too have felt the transformative power of a new dress. I have witnessed how it can give structure, even if just for a little while, to the messiness of existence and inspire new, superior, personal narratives. This embarrasses me.
I get why I shouldn’t like shopping. I get why it’s dumb, and even at times morally wrong. I get how I am beholden to the profit-driven, constantly changing whims of fashion designers, I get how my affordable garments may have been produced in conditions I would find detestable, and I get how generally lame it is to believe in something so cockeyed as salvation by way of material goods. But then I put on the new dress, and the truth is, I feel a bit more beautiful, and, well, who doesn’t love beauty, fleeting and luscious.
The longing for physical beauty is often painted as a weakness, a shallow pursuit compared to the potentially more fulfilling desire for a deepened intellect and heightened spirituality. But most true admirers of physical beauty know that the feeling of redemption when they experience beauty, whether it be for a painting, landscape, or lovingly adorned person, is hardly shallow. And so the quest for beauty straddles these two sides, sin and goodness, repulsion and appreciation, chaos and order. This schizophrenia can be found in the Torah too, where asceticism and aestheticism commingle, sending mixed messages on physical beauty and the value of something like, say, my new dress.
One one hand, beauty for beauty’s sake is deemed trivial in Judaism. Eshet Chayil, or “A Woman of Valor,” a hymn found at the end of Proverbs and sung on Shabbat, says:
Charm is deceptive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears God shall be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.
But then take a look at the way the matriarchs are described and we get a different message on beauty. Sarah is a woman of beautiful appearance. (Genesis 12:11) Rebecca is very fair to look upon. (Genesis 24:16) And Rachel is beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance. (Genesis 29:17)
Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel are praised in other places for their inner beauty, but the power of their physical beauty is not overlooked, nor is it just casually mentioned. And this is hardly the only time when physical beauty is presented in the Torah, from the Song of Songs to descriptions of Eden. Some argue that they are all metaphors, but the language is too rich, the images too deliberate, too precise, or, in other words, too beautiful to not acknowledge the power of physical beauty.
It is a bit of a shonde to link the matriarchs to a chick-flick shopping montage, but the representations of beauty are not that far apart. These are just two examples, one ancient, the other modern, of the enduring human desire for beauty. The debate about this desire, whether it is a weakness or strength, has also endured and is likely never to be resolved. And even if it was, I am not sure I would be willing to give up the pardes of a new dress, hanging in my closet just waiting for me to step in.
This post first appeared on labalights.com, and was reprinted with permission.