A Bridge Too Far
How one woman lived to regret her nose job
When I was growing up in the early 1970s, there was my nose—and then there was me hidden behind it. Similar to Wilhelm Fliess—Sigmund Freud’s one-time friend who specialized in “nosology,” the idea that one’s nose was intimately tied to one’s sexuality—I believed that my prominent nose reflected the unshapeliness of my soul. Even though I lived in a New York suburb, home to thousands of Jews, I felt lonely, shy, and troubled. I thought that if I’d fix my nose, I’d fix my self.
So, at 16, I had a nose job. Apparently, it helped; right after, I found friends as well as my first serious boyfriend. Yet in the three decades since my operation, my previous nose has haunted me like the ghost limb of an amputee. I miss my old nose and I regret my decision to alter it. My new nose might be perky and far less noticeable—yet to me, it still stands out. Before, I felt like a stereotypical Jewish girl with a Jewish nose. Now, I feel like a stereotypical Jewish woman with a Jewish nose . . . job.
The connection between Jews, our noses, and our identity is very much on my mind these days because my youngest daughter, Libby Yael, 16, is the same age I was when I had my nose fixed. And—Mother Nature’s revenge—she has my old nose.
I had expected her attitude about her nose to be more positive than mine had been. After all, we live in Israel, where nose jobs are relatively uncommon, while I grew up in Great Neck—aka Rhinoplasty Central. My mother often told me that I’d look much prettier with a smaller nose; I constantly tell my daughter that she is gorgeous just as she is. But Libby doesn’t believe me. And even though I’ve shared my regrets about fixing my own nose, she tells me she’d like to fix hers.
“A man is physically and psychologically what his nose is . . . and a race can be judged and recognized by its nose,” plastic surgeon Dr. Henry J. Schireson wrote in The Jewish Transcript, a Seattle newspaper, in 1924. Even here, in Israel, a place where both Jews and Arabs are genetically prone to hefty noses, the perfect profile is petite. Famous models such as Pnina Rosenblum and Galit Gutman have noses that appear trimmed and tapered, as does the popular television newscaster Miki Haimovich. I sometimes wonder if Ehud Barak and Benyamin Netanyahu traded in their noses for right-angle, camera-friendly profiles. Their noses, oddly enough, resemble mine. While we finally have a Jewish country, we still contend with the unwieldy Jewish proboscis. To my astonishment, the nose job remains a Jewish issue.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed that nose jobs were, like sleep-away camp, just part of American Jewish adolescence. I favored unshaven legs and overalls, and might not have even thought twice about plastic surgery had it not been for my mother. After losing her father when she was five and growing up poor during the Depression, my mother saw beauty as her ticket to marrying well, a guarantee of economic security.
Unable to afford college, she worked as a dental assistant after high school, saving enough for her own rhinoplasty. She felt prettier instantly and landed a more lucrative job selling industrial aluminum to manufacturers like General Electric. (She boasts that in the early 1950s, she was the only aluminum saleswoman in the entire country.) Soon after, she married and promptly quit her job. Why wouldn’t her daughter want to follow a similar path?
Then, when I was in high school, the feminist movement exploded. Inspired by Betty Friedan, my mother went back to work—this time, selling antique jewelry. When it came to choosing a feminist look, however, she followed Gloria Steinem’s example. “We’re living in a world where beauty is very important,” my mother says now (and must have said then), “and if you can do something to make yourself more beautiful, then you should do it.”
My mother never wanted to pass herself off as a gentile. She scoffed at Jews who de-Judaized their names or converted to Christianity. Her wish for me to downsize my profile was, she claimed, purely aesthetic.
Yet rhinoplasty and Jews are linked on a deeper level. The founder of the modern nose job was a late 19th-century German Jewish plastic surgeon, Jacques Joseph. In his book, Making the Body Beautiful, Sander Gilman writes that Dr. Joseph (who was born as Jakob and wed a Christian) assumed that Jews would be better able to assimilate if their noses didn’t make them look “too Jewish.”
Since the medieval era, a big nose has always been the stereotypical feature that has symbolized Jews. A popular children’s book by Julius Streicher (publisher of Der Sturmer), published during the Nazi regime recounts how a boy named Little Karl recognizes Jews. “One can most easily tell a Jew by his nose,” the boy says. “The Jewish nose is bent at its point. It looks like the number six. We call it the Jewish six.” Later in the story, a girl looks at a Jewish man and exclaims that in the middle of his “devil’s face” is “a huge crooked nose.” Even today, caricatures of bloodthirsty Jews with immense noses appear in anti-Israel political cartoons.
Western scientific literature buttressed stereotypes and prejudices and classified the “Jewish nose” as a medical deformity, a pathological condition called “nostrility,” according to a 2001 article by Beth Preminger in the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled “The ‘Jewish Nose’ and Plastic Surgery.” Robert Knox, an anthropologist, stated in his 1850 book, The Races of Men, that the “Jewish nose” is “large, massive, club-shaped [and] hooked . . . three or four times larger than suits the face.” For this reason, he stated, a Jew can never be “perfectly beautiful.” Three decades later, plastic surgeon John Orlando Roe wrote in the journal The Medical Record, that, according to physiognomy, the Jewish nose symbolized the Jews’ “commercialism or desire of gain.”
Meanwhile, according to the account given by Sander Gilman, in Berlin in 1898, a patient presented himself to Dr. Joseph, complaining that his nose was “the source of considerable annoyance. Wherever he went, everybody stared at him.” Although we don’t know if the man was Jewish, Gilman presumes he was: his sense of nose-related social isolation mirrors the Jews’ position in fin-de-siecle Germany. Harry Schireson, a student of Jacques Joseph’s before immigrating to the United States wrote, “Many a Jew, especially if he belongs to the class of social climbers, anxious not to be recognized as a Jew, deplores his racial nose.”
Dr. Joseph performed his first rhinoplasty that year, cutting through the skin of the patient’s nose to whittle down the bone. The operation left a scar, however, but by 1904 he had refined his technique. Using surgical tools similar to those still in use today, Dr. Joseph performed the first intranasal nose job. After this successful operation, Dr. Joseph went on to bestow “gentile contours” to hundreds of Jewish noses. Right before his death in 1934, he performed free nasal surgeries on Jews to help them try to bypass Nazi Germany’s ever-tightening racial laws. Aesthetic rhinoplasty, then, began as a medical procedure to remedy Jewish patients’ noses. Ironically, it parallels the way psychoanalysis—born roughly at the same time and place—first arose as a cure for Jewish patients’ souls.
When I brought torn pages from Vogue with photos of noses I liked to a plastic surgeon in Manhattan in 1973, I had no idea that rhinoplasty was designed to make Jews less conspicuous. All I knew was that I tried not to turn to the side in my high school classes so that boys would not whip out my nickname, “Big Nose Bletter.” At home, I spent hours in front of the mirror, lamenting this thing in the middle of my face.
The surgeon’s office was on Park Avenue. My mother chose him because, as she put it, he “did” the nose of a friend of a friend, a top Jewish model at the time, as well as the nose of her very favorite actor, Paul Newman. After examining me for a few minutes, the doctor asserted that my nose had a bump and a fat tip and that he could reduce them both to suit my face. I was petrified to consider that I would be putting my nose in his hands, yet he seemed so self-assured that I agreed to schedule my operation in a few months’ time.
Despite my mother’s prodding, I remained ambivalent. “My feelings about my nose go back and forth,” I noted in a June 1973 diary entry. “When I look in the mirror, I see how big my nose looks and I can’t imagine living with it all my life, but I can’t imagine such a drastic change.” Then, as I jotted in my diary a few weeks later, after reading an article in Seventeen, which advised emphatically, “If anyone is considering [rhinoplasty], I say, yes, yes, yes!” I was convinced.
I had my nose fixed right before my senior year of high school. Numbed from anesthesia, half-awake and still aware, I could hear the doctor break the bone. The pounding sounded like a pile driver banging steel piles into the earth. But it did not emanate from the outside world: it came from deep within me.
Afterwards, a mummy-like bandage covered most of my face; only my swollen, black-and-blue eyes peered out. When the nurse removed the dressing, I didn’t want to look in the mirror. Instead, I closed one eye and gazed at my profile, thrilled that the bumpy ridge had been leveled.
“For the first time in my life, I feel pretty! I feel free!” I wrote in my diary, transformed. Then I ran into an old friend who hadn’t fixed her nose which was just as large as mine had been. Looking at her, I felt like a coward—and a fake. Society’s buzz had conned me into believing my nose was too big to be beautiful, and my parents had bought me a more attractive look.
I graduated high school, went to college, and then worked in New York City. For a while, I moved to Paris, where I dated a medical student from Senegal. As people stared at us—interracial couples were unusual in those days—I became painfully aware that my boyfriend could never peel off his skin. Obviously, he’d always be black. And although I felt irrevocably Jewish inside, to the outside world, I was white. I had become an invisible Jew.
But I didn’t want to be invisible, especially not among the French who, time and again, revealed their true feelings. One woman told me that Jews caused anti-Semitism because we choose to be different. On another occasion, I mistakenly assumed a man I met a man at Goldenberg’s Restaurant in the Marais was a fellow Jew. When I outed myself to him, he replied, “Aren’t you ashamed?”
Suddenly, I didn’t want to pass any more—I wanted to be in your face. I began to feel that if I couldn’t look Jewish, then at least I could act it. I returned to New York and gradually became more observant, which is another story. Ten years later, I moved to Israel.
This spring, Libby was voted “Tenth Grader of the Year” and “Best Smile” in her high school. She surfs, plays piano and soccer, and is far happier than I ever was at her age. I’ve tried to do all the right things to boost her confidence—but she is still miserable. She tells me that she feels she’s ugly because she has—in her words—a “big, crooked” nose. When I counter that her nose is special, she says that she could be a lot prettier without it.
She was chosen to join a delegation of teenagers who visited Germany this summer—yet was unsure if she wanted to go. When I asked her why, she said she was afraid that Germans would make fun of her Jewish nose. After studying the Holocaust and hearing stories from relatives and friends, she feared that Germans, despite their good intentions, might have internalized anti-Semitism—and might react negatively to Jews. Wary of being conspicuous, she suffers the very same anxiety that preoccupied Jews in Germany 100 years ago.
Nose jobs are not a rite of passage in Israel as they are in certain places in America; however, plastic surgeries (including breast and lip enlargement) are on the rise. Halachic authorities deem a nose job kosher if it can improve a person’s mental health. Still, I’m trying to talk Libby out of it. One reason is financial: With six children to put through college, my husband and I don’t have an extra few thousand to throw at elective surgery.
I’ve shared my regrets; she says she appreciates the way I’m trying to save her from the same mistake. I’ve also recounted how, a few years ago, I made an appointment with another Park Avenue plastic surgeon to see if I could get my old nose back. Unfortunately, he said he wouldn’t be able to re-enlarge my tip or replant the bump. I’m stuck with my before-and-after schnoz, but I don’t want Libby to be. Dorothy Parker quipped, after Fanny Brice’s rhinoplasty, that she’d “cut off her nose to spite her race”; I’d like to convey to my daughter that her unique features trump standardized versions of McBeauty.
Yet I understand all too well how awkward adolescence is and how shaky Libby’s self-esteem might be. As I’ve grown up, though, I realize that beauty—as well as happiness—really is an inside job. And maybe in my rush to fix my self via my nose, I missed out on learning how to stand up for what I believe in, and how to love my whole self despite what others around me say. Those are vital lessons in life—not only of bearing a Jewish nose but, simply put, of being a Jew—and that’s what I’m hoping to teach her.
Illustration by Vanessa Davis.