My son is in shidduchim, and he’s very hung up on looks. He keeps turning down girls because of their appearance. I've tried many times to explain to him that looks are not that important, and will not secure him happiness in marriage. Others have spoken to him about it as well, but it hasn't made a difference.
He wants to see a picture of each girl before he goes out with her, but I'm embarrassed to even ask people for a picture. I'm also embarrassed to ask the questions he wants me to ask, such as the girl’s dress size. This goes against my deepest values, and seems to be the antithesis of Torahdig shidduchim.
Is there any way to help him get past this fixation with externalities? And should I do something I feel is wrong if that’s how he wants to conduct himself in shidduchim?
Rabbi Ilan Feldman is the Rav of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta, Georgia. The families who are part of his vibrant, dynamic community regularly turn to R’ Feldman to receive his wise counsel on both halachic and interpersonal issues.
Mrs. Joanne Dove works for Seed, a London-based adult kiruv organization. In addition she has done extensive pre-marital and marital counseling. She also oversees and advises the volunteers of Made in Heaven, an organization that helps make shidduchim and advises singles.
Mrs. Yitti Bisk is a certified marriage educator who gives relationship-skills workshops to women. She is also a skilled kallah teacher. Mrs. Bisk lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Rabbi Ilan Feldman
There are essentially two issues here: First, how to make sure your son is focused as much as possible on the right aspects of marriage, and second, as his representative in shidduchim, should you accommodate an approach which is inconsistent with your ideals
Let’s assert one thing before we examine the issues: Physical attraction is an important dimension of a shidduch, and people should never be encouraged to ignore the issue, or overlook disturbing physical characteristics. But that is not to say that a person’s main focus in a shidduch should be physical attractiveness.
Your son is not alone in the overemphasis on superficial appearances in shidduchim. It is ironic that we describe ourselves as a community focused on the meaning of life, on eternal values, on human beings as the tzelem Elokim, and yet our process of matching partners to build a home governed by timeless Torah values is so burdened by considerations that come from a different value system. Whether it is money, social status, clothing, trading of expensive gifts that prove nothing, or over-spending on weddings, there are too many signs that our community has become confused about the essential issues in marriage. Your son’s attitude is symptomatic of a failure in our society to internalize the values we claim govern our lives. Too many frum girls develop eating disorders precisely because they are raised — implicitly or overtly—to live in fear of the dreaded question regarding dress size, a term and concept I never heard of 30 years ago. I always encourage parents of girls to move on if they are asked, even before other things, for a picture or about other superficial issues.
Without more information, it’s difficult to know which of the following two possibilities we are dealing with. It could very well be that your son is in possession of values and standards that reflect an appreciation of inner beauty in a potential spouse, but he is so concerned about becoming committed to someone who is physically unappealing that he ends up hyper-focusing on looks, blocking his ability to emphasize other important standards that he indeed possesses. On the other hand, we may be dealing with someone who is profoundly confused about the nature of marriage, and has given little attention to the 98% of marriage which has to do with real relationship and commitment, not with physical attraction.
The danger here is not that your son will marry someone who deserves a more profoundly non-materialistic husband. You can take solace in the likelihood that his shallowness (if indeed that is the case) will emerge during the dating process, and such a girl will move on. The danger is that he will choose someone who is the perfect match for his emphasis on appearance, who values herself for her looks the way he does.
Yet your son deserves the assumption that there is more to him than meets the eye, even though he seems to be concerned only with what meets the eye. We have to find a way to “fool” him into dealing with those more critical and profound aspects of a potential partner for a life of nitzchius (eternity).
I propose to engage him in an exercise. Ask him to imagine that he is faced with two suggested shidduchim, both of whom fully appeal to him in physical appearance. Given that all external details are the same, what criteria will he use to decide which one to meet? This question should help him begin to examine what middos and character traits are important to him. You can help him by listing every middah and trait you can think of, and request he choose his top five.
Once you identify these characteristics, you can use them as the standard through which you filter proposed shidduchim. In your reference work, only after discussing the proposed young lady's personality and finding that it sounds like a good fit, would you then ask about appearance, even about a picture. In such a context, I’d assume, you will not feel it is a violation of your principles to ask about that. Additionally, your son will be able to hear from you about her character, not only about appearance, in the terms that he himself initiated. It will change the entire framework of his internal dialogue regarding the shidduch.
Regarding the dress size question: you will be doing your son a favor to say that you consider this to be a violation of tznius, and you will not be participating in that kind of discussion. He will have to ask her directly on the first date. If she answers with a number, call off the shidduch.
Mrs. Joanne Dove
We’re missing some important details here. How old is your son? If he’s 20 or 21, this may be stemming from immaturity and he’ll get over it in time. Since young people are usually impressionable, you should definitely try to get him help now so he approaches dating differently. If he’s near or above 30, these desires have probably become entrenched into a firm shitah in which case things probably won’t change much. We also don’t know how your son spends his day. Is he learning in the beis medrash all day or is he in a secular office with woman who are flaunting themselves? This can influence who he feels he needs to marry.
Moving on to your next question, no, you should not do something you feel is wrong, even if it’s what you son wants. Stick to your understanding of what is the correct way to conduct oneself in shidduchim. Try to find someone whom your son respects and would listen to, who can help him realize what’s truly important. I know you’ve tried that already, but sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right person who will finally be able to open his eyes. This can be a rav, but it also may be a friend his age who’s happily married — or one who married a beautiful girl and got divorced two years later.
After all this is said, looks are important in marriage. However, it’s important for us to be aware of how strongly we are influenced by society and peers, to the point that we loose sight of what it is we truly like. Several year ago, a boy I know told his friend he was about to get engaged. When he divulged the name of the girl, his friend said, “Oy, with a nose like that?!” The shidduch was off. The only thing the boy could see now was her nose, and that destroyed the relationship.
Is there something specific your son is looking for — a particular look, or external characteristic? In that case, tell the shadchanim what he wants or even give them a picture of the look you want, rather than asking them for pictures. The only time a picture may be warranted is if someone is about to travel a very long distance for a date and this can save them time. But even then, one must be wary since a picture never tells the full story.
A picture is not a live, warm person, and won’t give you any sense of a girl’s personality. Your son needs to be willing to give each girl a chance before seeing a picture, since that will allow him to take in the full person. Sometimes personality can be so captivating that the looks recede.
Try to help your son focus on the other things he wants in a wife. Ask him what else he wants besides for looks. Does he want specific middos? A particular set of hashkafos? In that case, he needs to realize that he may not be able to get everything he wants, and he must prioritize his wants.
One needs a spouse they can grow with. If beauty is only external, it will be fleeting. True beauty is internal, as well as external, and will last through the decades. There are some lucky woman who drop all the pounds right after birth and can wear their sheva brachos outfit at their son’s vort, but most woman aren’t built like that. As long as one has a strong internal connection, a wife will look more and more beautiful the longer they are married. The more one grows to love a person, the less the externals will matter.
Most wives will try to look attractive to their husbands, but that aspect of the marriage has to be built on a relationship — she can’t feel like all he cares about is being married to a fashion plate.
If your son is meeting with girls in person, but finds something wrong with the looks of every girl he meets, he need professional intervention. Find him a mental health professional that specializes in dating. It’s very possible that there’s something troubling him about himself. If one doesn’t like himself, he will have a hard time liking anyone else. He may also have a fear of marriage or a commitment issue, and complaining about looks have become a subconscious way of avoiding marriage. A professional can help him tease the issues apart, and find resolutions which will allow him to move on to a successful marriage.
Mrs. Yitti Bisk
Kudos to you for your solid values and your sensitivity to the essence of marriage, and therefore, shidduchim. As you appreciate, the essence of a good marriage is internal — respect, commitment, openness to sharing, building and growing together — all this connects a couple on the deepest soul levels.
Yet there are other aspects that are also part of the relationship, and one of the glues in marriage is attraction. Its normal for boys to put looks as a high priority. There is nothing un–Torahdig about a man wanting to feel attracted to his wife; that is how Hashem created men. It is the secret of bringing the Shechinah into one’s home. And it is a source of much marital discord when a person does not feel this attraction to his or her spouse.
The Gemara acknowledges this need when it says that a man must see his future bride before marrying her; he must feel attracted to her before taking her as a wife. A woman is encouraged to endeavor to look beautiful for her husband.
What is beautiful is subjective, and how attractive a woman needs to be is also individual. Your son is being honest with himself — and with you — about an important need of his.
Rather than telling him this is not important (when it really is), acknowledge it. But there’s no need to leave it at that. Ask him, “What does good-looking mean to you?” You might be surprised at his answer. Beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder. Allow him to be specific: Facial features? Height? Figure? Take his answers seriously (no eye rolling, please) and write them down.
Now that you have his attention, explain to him that gaining clarity on what he thinks he needs can make it easier to guide shadchanim and to assess a prospective partner. And the next step is to have him gain a deeper understanding of himself, who he is, where he sees himself in five, ten, or fifteen years. Ask him to make a list of his strong qualities. Have him list which qualities he wants to see in his future wife.
All this will help bring out his appreciation of other qualities aside from looks which should play a role in shidduchim. To the degree that he is looking for more internal qualities, he will become more balanced in his focus on the externality.
There are many excellent dating books on the market such as I Only Want To Get Married Once by Chana Levitan (Gefen). You may want to read some of them. Preparing for dating is a crucial step that is all too often neglected.
I don’t think that you have to go out of your comfort zone and ask for a picture or a dress size (and upset the girl’s parents in the process — it is demeaning to be asked one’s dress size). A picture is two dimensional, and a real person is multi-dimensional. You can ask the shadchan, “What does she look like?” or discreetly try and get a glimpse of her when at a chasunah, etc.
Another important point: this is his shidduch. It is important not to push or pull too strongly — only to guide. “Convincing” him of something (that looks aren’t important, or whatever) may get him the chuppah, but it risks having him feel incomplete about the decision. When things get tough — and they invariably do at some point — he could feel that he was “forced” into the marriage and therefore not take responsibility. A person needs to make this life decision for him/herself and not feel pressured by outside opinions.
May you both be zocheh to appreciate the internal — as well as external — beauty of your future kallah!