Mixed Messages and Body Image: What We Tell Ourselves and Our Daughters

Photo by Donna Waxman

I feel the need to speak up about a topic inspired by a recent discussion on Instagram amongst religious women.

It’s meant to be food for thought (pun intended) and to get women and girls talking about this openly and honestly.

To quote one of my favorite musicians, “The truth don’t always come out nice.”

So here it is.

We are getting and giving a lot of mixed messages about body image and wellness in our community.

…if we aren’t clear for ourselves about what truly matters, how can we pass a healthy message on to our children?

Here is what we Preach:

  • A woman’s/girl’s beauty is on the inside.
  • It is a positive commandment to take care of your body.
  • Self-esteem is so important.
  • Do for others first.
  • Concern about looks is not a Jewish value.
  • The “Outside World” objectifies women’s bodies.
  • A woman/girl should act/look like a queen.
  • For modesty reasons, it isn’t appropriate for women/girls to run outside or do martial arts or participate in outdoor sports or ride bikes (or fill in the blank with any number of other healthy outlets). 

Yes, people have said all of these to me…

BUT here is what we Teach:

  • We go on crash diets and we yo-yo diet.
  • We are high stress, low energy, and increasingly being diagnosed with any number of lifestyle diseases.
  • We sit all day.
  • Our kids sit all day.
  • We hide poor health behind modest dress.
  • We comment about people’s weight, followed by a value judgment (good or bad).
  • We eat our stress.
  • We eat our happiness.
  • We eat our boredom.
  • We eat our feelings.
  • We worry about our kid who is overweight.
  • We worry about our kid who is underweight.
  • We worry about ourselves.

Let’s be REAL.

Looks matter.

Health matters.

Self-esteem matters.

So what should our message really be?

Because what we are saying and how we are living as a community don’t add up. And if we aren’t clear for ourselves about what truly matters, how can we pass a healthy message on to our children?

So, now what?

It starts with changing our mindset:

  1. Be real with yourself about where you are with your own health and wellness and where you need to make changes.
  2. Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. If the captain of the ship goes down, then what?
  3. Choose small, incremental goals that you can stick to and manage, like walking 15 minutes a day or drinking a glass of water before you eat a snack. Small change over time equals big benefit.
  4. Walk the talk. If you can’t teach it in action, don’t preach it.
  5. Don’t make weight or diets or someone else’s figure (good or bad) a conversation in your house. Make health the conversation. For real. Then follow up with action.
  6. You don’t need a lot of time or money to make healthier choices. You don’t need gym membership, and you don’t need to spend a fortune on food. If you don’t know healthy, budget-friendly options, contact your local health coach or nutritionist.
  7. Encourage local schools to get kids moving more and to give non-food incentives. Research is clear: Kids who exercise regularly do better in school, have higher self-esteem, learn better, behave better and have fewer health issues and lower rates of anxiety and depression.
  8. Explore healthy, non-food outlets for stress relief and pleasure, and encourage your kids to do the same. These outlets can be active, creative, relaxing, intellectual, meditative, solitary or social.
  9. Thanks to the One Above, food is a pleasurable necessity. It is not a solution.
  10. Partner with a friend to brainstorm small goals and to support each other in making positive health changes.
  11. Get your kids, friends and schools to talk about what is really a healthy and consistent message.

The Chovos HaLevavos, in Sha’ar Cheshbon HaNefesh 3:25, summarizes beautifully how to understand the seeming dichotomy between spiritual and physical pursuits:

“Both your body and soul need care. You strengthen your soul by training it through ethics and wisdom…You strengthen your body by providing it with nutritious foods and drinks…If you attend to the body alone, you neglect the purpose of your soul. If you focus on the soul alone, you neglect the needs of your body…Don’t neglect your body’s necessities, overwork or weaken it, because this will lead to the weakening of both your body and soul.”

May we use this G-dly wisdom as a guide as we look at our own health and wellness…in mind, body and spirit.


  1. Concern about looks ins’t a Jewish value? You would never know that going into some shuls. Some o f the people there are wonderful and full of chesed. But crazy makeup and sheitals. My new neighbor said “how does one afford a sheital “let alone three or more.
    Please do not misunderstand. These are great people, the Rabbi is great. But their appearance shows they are aesthetically assimilating.
    Its a very personal decision, but people really need to thin about what they’re putting out there. Way too much makeup. long hair, very seductive. Not OK.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here