The sight of my mother striding into our kitchen with bags of shopping is not unusual.
At this point, my dad, sister and I must stop what we’re doing. She has trawled the shops and shlepped back stuff that she wants to show, unwrap and mull over.
Keen to keep her daughters pretty, she’s brought back goods that will ensure we’re presentable when we next go out to work or play.
With the best intentions, she’s picked up a flowy (I say baggy) top that might suit me, to cover up a penchant for arrabiata pasta in cold winter months.
My leaner sister gets a pair of trendy flat boots, to prevent the purchase of high-heels that make her look like a flamingo balancing on stilts.
It’s a less-than-subtle attempt to monitor how we look — but we’ve never complained.
We’re well aware that our mother is tame compared to the Jewish mumzillas who exist across all communities, from secular to strictly Orthodox.
There are women who have put themselves — and their children — through liquid diets ahead of a pap-happy Jewish wedding. Others have travelled far from the glitzy-dress haunts of Mill Hill and Temple Fortune to Paris, New York and Tel Aviv in search of a frock that won’t be worn by another guest. Some spend months searching for matching shoes that will be kicked off four hours into the evening. That’s not to mention the body-scrub, nail-polish and hair-roller regime that starts five hours before the 3pm chuppah.
They’ll do almost anything to avoid the bashing that befell Liza Minnelli at the Oscars last Sunday. Minnelli, whose team surely spent months sourcing her red-carpet, royal blue dress, was compared to a Smurf by cruel commentators on social media, and to a drag-queen by show host Ellen DeGeneres.
Most young women admit that they have come under similar scrutiny at simchas. Aunts talk about your dress before your job, grandmas suggest you search for a man instead of the dessert tray and “please God by you” is echoed throughout the room while well-wishers judge how high or low the neckline of your dress is — and should be.
It’s too easy to blame glossy magazines or celebrity snaps for the beauty demands on young Jewish women. The pressure also comes from within the community.
That’s why a specialised market for beauty-conscious Jewish women is thriving. Kosher weight-loss supplements are available by the box. Kosher weight-loss boot camps are popular. I know a girl who used her student loan to pay for a £1,000 human-hair glossy sheitl. Another Orthodox friend bought an £80 box of “Shabbes make-up” — its long-lasting effects ensure that users will not have to worry about smudging on the walk to the man-filled synagogue. Every Friday, she would delicately apply the make-up, rest her blow-dried hair on a silk sheet and sleep with a pillow on either side so she was less likely to move at night. Now that’s commitment.
It seems appropriate to raise the ongoing, but unspoken, pressures placed on Jewish women ahead of International Women’s Day this weekend. I’ve never seen myself as a billboard-holding individual, championing my rights à la Emmeline Pankhurst, but too often the stories of everyday Jewish women are ignored.
While UK groups such as United Synagogue Women and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance are set for some hair-raising activities this weekend on the role of women in religion and communal leadership, it seems odd that the obvious things, such as the constant pressure to be beautiful, are ignored.
Jewish mumzillas are far kinder to their precious Jewish princes when it comes to looks. They’re happy for them to recycle a barmitzvah suit for a wedding, as long as it still fits. They wouldn’t dream of serving up a lo-cal meal to their handsome Yiddishe boy. All they ask is that their son has a wash, shaves and makes a monthly trip to the barber — and many men struggle even with that.
I’d rather be judged by my achievements, my qualifications, and education, than my looks and my glitzy dress.
Truly, a vain hope.