Here is a fable of a balabusta, Sarah, who lived somewhere very similar to your somewhere, at a time very similar to your time.
Sarah awoke one morning several years after her first morning of being a fresh-faced kallah. Many children and leaky A/C ducts and mortgages had passed over her during those years. Each year, she grew in serenity and wisdom and dress size. One morning, she faced her mirror and asked, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, where is the tzelem Elokim here?”
And the mirror responded, “It’s in you somewhere, Sarahleh, but maybe you should lose some weight so the world can get a good look at it.”
“Well,” Sarah said to herself, “I have put on some weight over the last few years. If that’s what my mirror says, then it must be a true reflection of me.”
With the understanding that she needed to lose weight in the back of her mind, Sarah decided that the responsible thing to do would be to go to the doctor. Weight gain is a serious matter and perhaps she was priming herself for, chas v’shalom, a heart attack or diabetes.
The doctor gave Sarah a full physical and they sat down to discuss the results.
“Well, Sarah, I’ll be honest with you. Everything looks great. Your blood sugar is great, your blood pressure is great, your cholesterol levels look good. Keep up the good work.”
“But, doctor,” Sarah replied. “Don’t you think I need to go on a diet? Wouldn’t it be beneficial for me to lose some of this extra weight?”
“Sure, good eating and exercise are important parts of a healthy lifestyle,” her doctor responded. “But some weight gain at your age is totally normal. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”
Sarah left the doctor’s office and headed home. Her head was swimming. Instead of being comforted by the results, she was more confused than ever. “If the doctor doesn’t think I need to lose weight for my health, why was my mirror so sure of it? I know! It must be because of my husband. I was 20 pounds lighter when we first married. He never signed up for this change!”
Back at home, Sarah’s husband was just sitting down to learn Mishnah Berurah, as he did every night.
“Yanky…” Sarah began.
“Yes, dear,” her husband answered distractedly, his eyes on his sefer.
“Yanky, I know I don’t look exactly the same way I did when we first got married.”
“Hmmm? Maybe not, but that’s fine,” he said. “We all change as we grow older. It’s how the Ribbono Shel Olam created the world.”
“Yes, of course, we change, but maybe we’re not happy with the way we change.”
“Eizehu ashir? Hasameach b’chelko. Eh, chelkah.” His eyes remained fixed on each written word.
“Yes. Absolutely. But what if other people aren’t happy with how we’ve changed?”
“Well, that’s their problem isn’t it?” He flipped the page.
Yanky laid his sefer down and glanced up to see the look of consternation on Sarah’s face. “Everything okay, dear?” he asked with concern.
Sarah braced herself and proclaimed, “I just wanted to let you know that if you’re unhappy with the way I’ve changed, I am ready to go on a major diet and lose all the weight I’ve put on over the last 14 years.”
Yanky tilted his head sideways like a confused puppy. “What? Sarah, please. I don’t care about that. I’m sure you have more to deal with in life than worrying about some extra weight.”
Strike two. Things just kept going downhill.The weight loss was not for her health and not for her husband. So why was Sarah’s mirror so sure she needed to lose weight?
“Aha!” Sara realized. “ I must look like a slob at this weight. People probably find it hard to take me seriously since I look like I can’t get my act together.”
Her new insight carried her all the way to her upcoming N’shei meeting. After a moving shiur on self-confidence, Sarah said to a few of her close friends, “Girls, listen up. I know that over the years I’ve let myself go a little bit. I look like I’m falling apart, but I’m going to pull it together. I’m starting a new diet and I’m going to hit the gym, so I can finally look respectable.”
Silence. She’s become an expert in creating silence.
Finally, a brave soul spoke up. “Sarah,” Dina said, “I think I speak for all of us when I say, ‘What are you talking about?’ You are probably the most put-together person we know. You dress fashionably and tzanuah.”
“Thanks,” Sarah replied. “But doesn’t my weight make me look dumpy?”
“Not really,” Binah responded. “You dress really smart and your clothes fit like they should.” Mina added a final affirming word, “We think you’re perfect just the way you are.”
Strike three. A tough end to a tough week. Sarah was sure she needed to lose weight. Her mirror said so! So why was everyone else disagreeing with her? It was time to confront her mirror.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, I spoke to all the people in this kingdom and none of them believed that I need to lose weight. So why did you tell me that I have to?” Sarah asked.
The mirror smiled. “Sarahleh, of course they didn’t. A mirror only reflects the world as you see it.”
“But mirror!” exclaimed Sarah. “I don’t feel like I have to lose weight.”
And the mirror sagely replied, “Sarahleh, a mirror can’t lie.”
My friends, we all have a “magic mirror” in our lives. Despite the realities before it, it reflects back the way we see ourselves. Oftentimes, we convince ourselves that we must lose weight. We even have several valid reasons: Our health. Our spouse. How we “present” to the world. But oftentimes, those “valid” reasons aren’t a true reflection of the world around us. And still, there is a powerful “urge” within us telling us that we must diet, we must lose weight.
We carry this mirror with us everywhere we go. To every school function, family simchah, shul event, etc. We are sure that everyone is studying how we look and focusing on all the negative details of our appearance. Details, not coincidentally, which correspond to the parts of ourselves that we don’t like.
It should be obvious to everyone that optimal health (physical, emotional, and spiritual) is the ultimate goal of all eating and exercise. Unfortunately, society provides us with many images of what an “ideal” person looks like. These images have seeped deep into every nook of popular culture and spilled over into the frum world as well. Even when our health is good and our spouses are happy and no one else seems to mind, it is not uncommon for anyone who doesn’t match society’s “ideal” to feel a powerful urge to lose weight.
And so we attach eating and exercise to weight loss and get caught in a vicious loop of guilt and shame and stress. Once the loop begins, it is hard for us to focus on keeping ourselves truly healthy, as all of our motivations become tainted and we get jaded from our lack of success. The key to attaining sustained nourishing eating and exercise lies in detaching ourselves from the images in our distressing little “magic mirror.”
We can spend our whole lives chasing “ideal” versions of ourselves. We lose a little weight and we’re still not happy. Every time we draw near to the goal, the target moves further away. We end up chasing goals that we can never attain, because they aren’t attached to anything real. Sometimes, we succeed in losing weight and are happy for a while, but eventually that also wears off. And we can’t manage to maintain our goals because they aren’t realistic for who we are.
The ideal goal
There is only one goal that never conflicts with maintaining true health. It is never hard to achieve or maintain. It stays with you all day and gives you permanent satisfaction. And above all, it protects you from destructive thoughts you have about yourself or that you perceive from others.
That goal is connecting with your tzelem Elokim. It is the realization that you have a guf that is a gift from Hashem with which you can perform mitzvos, parent, teach, and inspire. When you connect to that reality, you have already reached your ideal. The opportunity for this connection starts every morning when you say Modeh Ani. From there, you can begin to keep that guf healthy without all the pitfalls of “magic mirrors.”
Many clients have told me that even after they feel comfortable in their own skin, they still desire to lose weight. I will address this issue in my next column.
(This article originally appeared in The Voice of Lakewood.)