MissRepresentation and the Women Rabbis’ Pledge

Originally posted on Thisiswhatarabbilookslike.wordpress.com.

A few weeks ago, our Women’s Group teamed up with several other local Jewish institutions to bring a screening of MissRepresentation to the Triangle area. MissRepresentation is a documentary film about how women are portrayed in the media, and the detrimental affects this portrayal can have on women and girls, and the public’s treatment of women and girls. Sexualization and objectification of women, impossible standards of beauty, reluctance to show women as complex characters or potential leaders, and the pitting of women against one another—all of it contributes to an epidemic of eating disorders, body issues, depression and low self-esteem, and makes it more difficult for women and girls to imagine themselves in positions of leadership.

This film is a must-see and a must-discuss. Host or find a screening in your community. Bring your daughters. Bring your colleagues. Bring your youth groups and religious schools. I can’t cover all of the issues the movie addresses, so you’ll have to see it for yourself. I can only speak to how it felt to watch it as a young female rabbi.

I want to begin by saying that no one ever told me that I couldn’t be a rabbi, and the issues I struggle with are a gift given to me by the generation of women who made it possible for me to pursue this profession in the first place. I am so grateful to them, and I can’t even imagine how my struggles compare to theirs.

Watching this film, I kept coming back to a moment, over a decade ago, when a group of my college classmates and I were gathered at a URJ Biennial convention. Many of us were considering the rabbinate or other Jewish professional work, and one young woman commented that a friend of hers had rejected the prospect because, “Women rabbis are frumpy.” (I think there was something about mustaches in there too but I will have to ask my colleague if she remembers).

We took it upon ourselves to break that stereotype, taking what we called the “Women Rabbis’ Pledge”: we would dress stylishly, wearing clothes that fit. We would put on makeup, style our hair and, this part I remember exactly, “we will wax what needs to be waxed, and pluck what needs to be plucked.”

This wasn’t a serious thing. We didn’t swear on Bibles or sign a contract. I joke about it all the time. But watching the movie today, I realized what had happened in that moment: there were women in that group who could not consider pursuing a path to the rabbinate, until they could break down the stereotype of women rabbis as unattractive. And that is something many of us have come to take very seriously.

This pledge followed me all through seminary and beyond: I remember long talks during placement my senior year about suit color and nail polish, skirt lengths and heel height. At another campus, colleagues of mine–all women–were brought into an administrator’s office, where they were told that their weight would be an obstacle to getting a job.

Although I have never been one to closely follow trends or spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror, I take my appearance very seriously. I struggle with my weight. I blow out my hair and put on makeup every day. And while you may see me in workout clothes at the JCC, you will never see me in jeans or sweats at the synagogue.

Part of this is a simple desire to look professional, whatever that means. Part of this is because of all those media messages I get about how I need to look good to be listened to. Part of it is because I believe in the motto of Beauty Tips for Ministers, “Because you’re in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.” (BTFM is great, by the way, because there is an emphasis on looking and feeling your best, whatever your natural size and shape, with an eye towards beauty and modesty instead of focusing on “cuteness” and sexual attractiveness).

But there is another layer to this for me. I want to be a role model to our young girls and women. I want them to see the rabbinate–and other high-status professions–as a possibility for themselves. And sometimes, I get to see that lightbulb go off, that look in their eyes when they realize a new possibility for themselves. But I know that, in order to be a role model for women, I need not only to be perceived as intelligent and capable, but also as attractive. As much as women and girls want to see themselves as successful, intelligent, creative, and powerful–our media and our society tells them that none of that is worth anything if they aren’t also perfectly proportioned, conventionally beautiful, well-dressed and well-made-up, and appealing to the opposite sex. Even the most self-confident, critically-thinking young girl is taking that into account when she imagines her future and chooses her path and her mentors.

The pioneers in professions like mine had to, as Charlotte Whitton said, “do twice as well as men to be though of as half as good”. We now face a different challenge. We might be perceived as intelligent and capable, but as women, we walk a thin line between being attractive and being perceived as sexually provocative, between being assertive and being perceived as “bitchy,” being compassionate, thoughtful (and sometimes even vulnerable) and being perceived as weak. Appearance is only the tip of the iceberg of how women are still treated differently than men, and how these discrepancies have an undue influence on the careers we choose to pursue and the success we have in pursuing them.

When I first applied for a job as a senior rabbi, it was important for the congregation to know what I looked like. They didn’t tell me this: they just googled me, and proceeded to tell my supervisor, “She’s adorable!”

That comment just about tore me apart. I’ve never been called adorable in my life, and part of me was flattered. However, long before I even interviewed for the position, I knew one thing for sure: No one ever says, “our new senior rabbi” and “adorable” in the same sentence.

Go to MissRepresentation.org: see the film, sign the pledge. As local radio personality Frank Stasio said today in the panel: they’ll stop making this stuff if we stop buying it.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is the associate rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC. Check out her blog for updates on the #tzitzitchallenge.


2 thoughts on “MissRepresentation and the Women Rabbis’ Pledge

  1. Sorry, am I the only person who finds this offensive?

    We are Rabbis, not ‘dolls’ and heaven forbid being ‘Adorable.’ Some of us are well groomed, others prefer to focus on what they say rather than how they look – and there are plenty of people out there who will find a ‘stylish’ Rabbi quite terrifying.

    We are who we are, and looks are part of that, for sure, but to artificially make a decision to change your appearance sounds to me like the worst form of post feminisim, pandering to the ‘babe’ culture and adding even further to the lack of confidence and self hatred of many a young woman unhappy with their body image.


  2. Thank you Sybil, for your honesty. I’m so sorry if I offended you or anyone else who was reading today. I did not mean to say it was a good thing that I think a lot about my appearance, just that it is a part of my reality. I wish I were above it. However, I am very aware that I am judged by my appearance, and that I can get hit from both sides: I feel that need to look a certain way for people to take me seriously, but that the same attention to appearance can also make people take me less seriously. I meant to articulate a struggle, not to impose that struggle on others.

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