I liked being Jewish. I just hated my face. I wanted desperately to like my face better. I’d spent too many years laughing with my hand over my nose because I thought it looked even bigger when my face was happy. Stupid, right? It’s amazing, in retrospect, the things we are tormented by.
When I was a little girl, I thought I’d grow up to look like a queen—exotic, powerful, with a strong, regal profile. Queen Thayet, in Tamora Pierce’s The Immortals series, had a hawk nose and she was the most beautiful woman in the world! Why not me? I had a hawk nose! I figured I would be decent at ruling a kingdom, too.
But then when I was fourteen a girl told me I needed to get my face fixed. She said she had a friend whose daddy could do it because he was a rich plastic surgeon. She said that if I went to him he’d make me pretty.
The things kids say!
Years later, in college, when I decided to get a nose job, I didn’t think that I was ugly because I didn’t have the right kind of looks and never would because I didn’t have the Nordic features that show up in movies and on Top 100 lists of hot women. I didn’t think I was a modern-day footnote on the familiar, well-documented ritual of Jewish assimilation. I just thought I looked bad and should make the badness stop. No one really remembers now, but here in America, back when my dad was a kid, Jews couldn’t play at the country club where he worked summers as a caddy. Slide back a few decades before that, and Jewish men were sometimes killed for sleeping with white women. Sometimes now, I get hate comments reminding me that I should’ve been burned in the ovens. And it’s shocking, because being Jewish doesn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore. Not a big enough deal to bother anyone. Not a big enough deal to try to hide, certainly.
I looked away uncomfortably from the propaganda sketches when I learned about WWII. Everyone was cringing, I think, but I saw my nose in those images. The big, wicked, curving nose of the sly, conniving Jew. I pretended not to. It was coincidence. Disney used that nose, too, on villainesses and fools. An evil nose. Arbitrary. Cleopatra! Queen Thayet!
“You look really Jewish,” a girl told me at a slumber party when I was 12. “It’s your nose,” she explained. I told myself she was just making an observation, but her voice was unfriendly.
I got the nose job, and something went wrong and my nose ended up crooked, as well as bumpy. It was just as big. The surgeon didn’t quite apologize, but he said this had only happened to him one other time. Most of the time, things were fine. And before you get cosmetic surgery you have to sign like a hundred forms that say “even if he messes up, it’s totally cool!!” I had signed without even reading most of them. I was on my way to a better face!
My great-grandmother had a big, bumpy nose. She was really cool. She made cookies with cream cheese in the recipe, and jam filled thumbprints pressed into their surfaces. She spoke softly, with an Austrian accent. She would listen to the Shabbat service on the radio when she was too old to go, and she knew the Hebrew.
I decided not to get my nose fixed, after the surgeon made it crooked. It was a weird decision, maybe. I don’t think I fully understand it myself. But it had something to do with figuring that there’d always be something I could try to fix about myself, to make me look more acceptable or pretty, and that it might make more sense to just learn how to be OK with how I looked in the first place. I think a part of my brain gave up. I was done trying to look beautiful in the way that models look beautiful and movie stars and even just the girls who everyone agrees are really pretty. I have a big, stereotypical Jewish nose, and I don’t cover it when I laugh anymore. Well, sometimes I do, honestly, but that’s just because it’s a habit and they’re hard to break. Like my nose. Like Queen Thayet. Her will is definitely unbreakable.
And if I’m gonna get all noble and statement-y about the whole thing, I have to say that we should stop pretending that we don’t want everyone to look like the same kind of pretty. Hell, Michelle Obama would cause riots if she didn’t straighten her hair. What’s the deal with that? We might tell ourselves that we’re just trying to look more beautiful, but sometimes, too often, “beautiful” means “white” or “white with a specifically Scandinavian flavor” or “really thin, but with some fat in the boobs anyway” or “whatever some other people who have nothing to do with you decided.” And I think we should be careful. Because even if your ethnic beauty doesn’t fit in, it is powerful and meaningful, and sometimes, actually, it’s just hot.
Do you have ethnic beauty of some kind? What is it? What’s your background? Share your answers in the comments section below!