What is true beauty? By Gevura Davis


Hi Chevra,

What is true beauty? We all desire to feel beautiful, yet believing we are is a struggle for many of us. Western culture controls our brains, emotions and pocket books by selling us a lie that we must be perfect, skinny and unblemished to feel beautiful.

In this week’s Torah portion, the famous commentator Rashi tells us an unbelievable insight into the definition of beauty. He comments on the opening line of Chayei Sarah, that when Sarah was 20, she was like a 7-year-old in regards to beauty. This is a seemingly puzzling comment because most people would say that a 20-year-old is more beautiful than a 7-year-old.

A great 19th century European rabbi known as the Yeshuos Malko offers the following profound explanation: The sages are talking about Sarah’s attitude towards her beauty. Elsewhere we learn that she was, in fact, a very physically aesthetic woman, but her real quality of beauty was that she was oblivious toward her appearance, the same way a child is. She was humble. Normally, when a 20-year-old is beautiful, she knows it, she is proud of it and she may even flaunt it. But Sarah was so modest that when she was 20 years old, her perception of her beauty was such that it was reminiscent of a 7-year-old. Because of their child-like innocence, 7-year-olds are totally unaware of how cute and even beautiful they are. What made Sarah beautiful was that she didn’t focus on trying to show off her appearance to the world. This, the Torah tells us, is true beauty. Sarah didn’t need the world’s approval to feel beautiful. She knew that her essential qualities of truth, kindness, charity, family and love would be outward manifestations of her inner feelings.

When I read this idea, I thought back to my own adolescent and early-adult struggles with self-esteem and self-perception.

Since all of my childhood took place before smart phones, there are lots of “firsts” I really don’t remember too well with accuracy. However one memory I will never forget is the first time I looked in the mirror and felt ugly. And fat. I was in eighth grade. I was standing in the foyer of my childhood home trying on a new cheerleading uniform. I looked in the full-length mirror next to my front door. It was nighttime, so I could see a full-body reflection really clearly, and suddenly I was horrified. My hair wouldn’t sit straight in a high pony, my skin was pale because it was winter and, worst of all, I didn’t like the shape of my legs. I started crying to myself, not a quiet whimper, but a full-body sob. I was crying for my lost beauty. I was crying that growing up was so hard. And I was crying because I couldn’t imagine how I would ever feel better about myself again. The strangest part is that I received tons of positive attention from male and female peers, yet I didn’t believe any of it.

From that sad day forward, the journey toward feeling beautiful again took many years of effort and hard work.

As an adult, I realize now that I wasn’t alone in my thoughts, though my younger self felt isolated with the negative voices inside screaming at me that I was ugly.

Famous Australian internet model Essena Oneil recently broke down and went public to expose the great lengths she and all models go to try to appear naturally beautiful. She explained that the majority of modeling photos are actually fabricated or Photoshopped, or the producers take thousands of shots to create one fake “spur of the moment” photo. Sadly, she explains on social media why she quit modeling: “I was miserable. Stuck. Uninspired. Angry.”

Unfortunately, most young people can’t see past the lies, and the detrimental effects on adolescents’ self-esteem and self-perception are well documented.

Researches for Dove have highlighted a key issue relating to how young women view themselves: that beauty-related pressure increases and body confidence decreases as girls and women grow older, and that this can stop young girls from seeing their real beauty and reaching their full potential. Their research found the following:

  • Nine out of 10 girls want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance
  • Six out of 10 girls are so concerned with the way they look that they are holding back from participating in important life activities
  • Only 4 percent of women around the world consider themselves beautiful
  • 72 percent of girls feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful
  • 80 percent of women agree that every woman has something about her that is beautiful but do not see their own beauty

This sad reality contrasted with the Torah’s explanation of Sarah’s beauty should be a call to action to us mothers. Although we will not be able to quickly change the pervasive culture we find ourselves in, we must adopt the Torah’s view of beauty. We want our daughter to enjoy being young. To know that her value far exceeds their physical features.

I want to bless each one of you to know your true beauty and to try to emulate Sarah’s wise example of humility. When we focus on building our character from the inside, our light will radiate to the outside in the form of real beauty.

Shabbat Shalom!


Gevura Davis is an educator who currently works as the Director of Women, Youth, and Family Division of The Etz Chaim Center in Elkins Park outside of Philadelphia. She recently moved from Kansas City with her husband and five children.

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