Despite all the gains women have made in education and careers, there is still the perception that smart women can’t be very beautiful and beautiful women are not that smart. Furthermore, smart women aren’t supposed to worry about how they look. We’re supposed to be above such silly insecurities. We should not obsess about our physical flaws. We should be confident enough to shrug off criticism about our appearance. Well, no, it doesn’t work like that, because cerebral women are still human. We are not different creatures. We just so happen to have the same insecurities as everybody else.
Mine? Mine deal with my hair. I have long hated my hair. When you think of the typical Jewish woman, chances are your mental image includes the blessing of plenty of thick, dark hair. My grandmother on my Jewish side got it. My brother got loads of thick straight hair, and he doesn’t appreciate it AT ALL. But me? Nah, I got my hair from the non-Jewish Polish side. It’s thin, it’s lank, it’s so greasy that there is no way I can go without washing it every day. And, inexplicably, so many Jewish women I know with typical “Jewish” hair hate it! I don’t understand. What’s not to like? Volume, texture, everything I don’t have and never will without dropping a few grand on extensions, which I never will because that’s an entire other ethical can of worms. I see other Jewish women, and I think: IF YOU HATE IT SO MUCH, GIVE ME HALF YOUR HAIR. I will put it to good use. When I was younger, it felt unfair to me, in a way: I’m as Jewish as all those other girls (well, if you go by blood I’m not, but that’s the tricky thing about “Jewish” being both an ethnicity and a religion, and I have a big problem with people who hold fast to the definition of Jewish as being solely through matrilineal descent; specifically, they can tell it to my product-of-intermarriage tuchas), so why can’t I have a yard of glossy tresses like they do? Big upset in that battle in the gene pool, bro.
Eventually, I had to learn how to make my hair work for me. When I was 14 I got my first pixie cut, and with the exception of a few hopeful but ultimately fruitless experiments since then, I haven’t looked back. I’ve learned to embrace having hair short enough to ruffle up, spike, and spray into anti-gravity loveliness. In San Francisco, a Polish man who knew what to do with the little I have on my head cut my hair in ways that made it look as big as possible. So I’ll never have that long, luxurious hair that magazines tell us men prefer – and yes, like every other woman, I have days when I feel ugly and unfeminine, and there are people out there who do think my hair looks ugly and unfeminine – but over the years, I’ve become more and more comfortable like that, because I made the choice to keep it short. Yes, as a teenager it did bother me when I would be referred to as “her with the lesbian haircut,” but quite frankly I don’t care about that anymore. Anybody who thinks they know anything about my sexual orientation because of what I do with some dead cells atop my head is too stupid to be worthy of my time – that’s all there is to it. Funny enough, having lived in both countries, I have found there to be a huge divide between the US and the UK with regard to women having short hair; specifically, more women in the latter embrace it and love it and are confident enough to make it theirs. In America, it’s strange that when Jennifer Lawrence or Lena Dunham chop their hair short, it’s cute and stylish, but when a regular girl does it, it’s butch. Now, I’m never going to be a movie or TV star, but I am happy with hair that’s a little different. I can do so much more with my hair when it’s short, and it’s simply more flattering than long hair on me. Seriously, if it grows down my shoulders, my ears poke through and it hangs in strings. Why would I deliberately look worse than I do now just because women are “supposed” to have long hair? Get out of here.
Hair is relatively easy. Specifically, it grows. If you hate one cut, you wait a few months so that you have something to work with and then you change it up. But your bone structure doesn’t change unless you take more drastic action. And that’s where we get to my nose. It definitely comes from my Jewish side. It’s big. I know it’s big. You don’t need to tell me it’s big – but for some reason, people do. I guess they think I don’t own a mirror, and that I have somehow gone through nearly three decades of life without noticing that I’m probably close to two standard deviations above the mean in that department. How very kind of them to inform me.
Yes, there’s a solution plenty of Jewish women have turned to: cosmetic surgery. And the thought of it turns my stomach, not just because I’ve seen how it is done and the idea of someone going up through my nostrils to shave away bone makes me want to never, ever stand within ten feet of a scalpel ever again. The way I see it, if I got a nose job, it would be a betrayal. It would be a total denial of my background, of my ancestry. It would be an acknowledgement that all the people who say that ethnic is ugly are somehow right. My nose functions perfectly well the way it is. I mean, I can breathe through it. That’s its purpose. And if it works fine, if there’s nothing wrong with it, then why would it need surgery? It doesn’t.
There are some people who think a perfectly healthy nose is wrong. Those people have put countless children of plastic surgeons through very expensive educations. For some reason, plenty of otherwise intelligent women think that beauty has to involve pain, and, as if they’re saints suffering righteously for a higher cause, voluntarily put themselves into situations where they are cut and stitched and left bruised and bloody. This is madness. Anything involving anesthesia is A Big Deal. Any procedure where you have permanent alterations made to the one body you have should be done for a hell of a good reason, and I don’t consider “I don’t like my ethnic-looking facial features” to be a good reason. Every Jewish girl who gets rhinoplasty is playing right into the idea that we’re not good-looking just the way we are, and that we need to spend big money being “fixed” because we are somehow wrong by default. I refuse to play into that way of thinking. I will not be a pawn for people who think Jewish women are a target market for permanent alteration and that we need such alteration to be truly comfortable in our own skins.
Perhaps it makes me a horrible traitor to the current definition of feminism, but I am anti-boob job (and trust me, I’ve had plenty of people make fun of my small chest by insinuating there’s something deeply unfeminine about it) for the same reason I’m anti-most-cosmetic-surgery: performing major surgery on a perfectly healthy body makes no sense to me. I don’t think you’re a bad person if you get implants, and if your nose is stressing you out so badly that your mental health truly suffers then you have every right to do what you want with your body. But there is something very, very sinister to me about how perfectly normal body parts get pathologized, especially when there are ethnic implications to your nose or eyes or body type. At Columbia, I took a sociology of gender course that just so happened to be held at the all-women college counterpart, Barnard. That course was a barrel of laughs for a variety of reasons, but one particular episode I remember involved how the professor seemed to think that state-sponsored rhinoplasty for North African girls in the Netherlands (I think it was the Netherlands, don’t quote me on that) who were upset about their noses looking too “ethnic” was a wonderful thing. Yeah, forgive me for killing the new empowerment buzz, but how about focusing on racism being the problem, not the ethnic facial features themselves? Isn’t there a huge societal problem if these girls feel their noses are so wrong in European society that permanently altering them is the only way forward? I am not drinking the Kool-Aid if it means believing that woman are empowered because we can pay thousands of dollars to have somebody permanently alter perfectly healthy body parts. (None of this applies to plastic surgery to restore what your appearance used to be – like reconstructive surgery after cancer or an accident.)
I won’t criticise her for it, because I don’t have to live in the public eye the way she does, but I was disappointed to hear that Rebecca Adlington, double gold medalist and arguably the greatest British swimmer of all time (but not Jewish, I should mention), may have had a nose job. It means that people bothered her about her nose so much that she couldn’t shrug it off anymore. And now, of course, the press has to talk about her cosmetic surgery, making her nose into an issue again. Shame on Matthew Norman, who, in commenting, “Good for her” for having “the sense to buy a little artifice,” reinforces the idea that the problem is what’s on Becky’s face and not how people treat her. He asks, “Who wouldn’t do the same if they could?” Stupid question, Matthew. Barbra Streisand, that’s who. She’s got a big nose and she can afford the best plastic surgery money can buy, but she hasn’t gotten a nose job because it could change her singing voice. And that voice is her livelihood. She lives on camera, but without her voice, she has no career.
“When I was young, everyone would say, “You gonna have your nose done?” It was like a fad, all the Jewish girls having their noses done every week at Erasmus Hall High School, taking perfectly good noses and whittling them down to nothing. The first thing someone would have done would be to cut my bump off. But I love my bump, I wouldn’t cut my bump off.”
And you can add me to the list of people who wouldn’t do it, either. I don’t care if I won the lottery and pretty much had a guarantee that nothing would go wrong in the process – I would not do it. I’d feel fake. Who the hell would I be trying to impress? Anybody who’d judge me on nothing but my nose isn’t worth my time anyway. Love me, love how nature made me. Apparently it’s not enough that Becky Adlington is one of the world’s fastest women in the water – she has to look like a supermodel as well in order to get a little peace. The problem is not with her nose, it’s with what people expect of her. And while I understand wanting all that constant criticism to just go away already, I think the only way those people are going to shut up is if we love what we look like and OWN what we look like. And step one of owning it is refusing to hand it over to a surgeon to shave part of it off. So if Becky is happy with a new nose, that’s her prerogative, but I wish people hadn’t bullied her so much so that her nose even attracted that much attention in the first place. I wish it could have been a non-issue. When we own our big noses, when we kick away criticism, we push that issue toward the trash bin where it belongs.
My idea of a real, unapologetic Jewish beauty, at least until she wrecked herself on drugs and alcohol, is Amy Winehouse.
She wasn’t ever going to be the gorgeous pin-up blonde English rose, and she knew it, so she made what she had work for her. And while she was undeniably English, a daughter of North London, she was also distinctively Jewish. According to her dad, she loved going to the East End as a child and visiting all the places her grandparents and great-grandparents had lived and worked. Even as a famous adult, she went to her extended family’s Shabbat dinners. Her natural hair was thick, black, and frizzy – so she strapped a massive fake beehive to it and played into that sixties style. She transformed the stereotype of the loud, overbearing Jewish woman into a full-on personality with a soulful voice to back it up. If you’re going to be Amy freakin’ Winehouse, if you’re going to be one of the most outspoken and brutally honest singer-songwriters to come out of your generation, why not wing your thick black eyeliner all the way out? Amy wasn’t conventionally “pretty,” but she was unforgettable, she was unique. And she kicked ass in the long tradition of Jewish women doing what they have to do to make it in the world. In her lyrics, I hear echoes of a long Jewish tradition of blatantly confronting your sorrows and misfortunes and stating them in public, even the ones that are entirely of your own shameful making, because if you don’t, you might as well curl up and give up. Jewish women know they don’t make history being quiet. Can you think of a louder, more in-your-face British Jewish woman than Amy Winehouse? She’s dead, but you won’t forget her voice, or what she looked like, or the life she lived. (By the way, back in college, I had an internship at a magazine that shall remain nameless, and one of my first tasks was to transcribe an interview with Amy Winehouse. The staff in New York couldn’t understand her accent on the low-quality recording, but I could, and so I got to work on the tape. One sentence that ended up on the cutting-room floor was – I’m not joking – “Jewish girls, we’re hairy!” Yes, Amy. Yes, we are. But I don’t think you had to remind us.)
Ditto Justine Frischmann, of 90s band Elastica. Expensively-educated daughter of a Holocaust survivor responsible for Centre Point, she could have all-too-easily been painted as a stereotypical pampered Jewish girl – and, let’s face it, we’ve done pretty well as an ethnic group, so nasty depictions of shallow, airheaded “Jewish Princesses” are still alive and well (most recently bolstered by the most revolting piece of television trash I have ever had the misfortune of watching). Instead, she darted to the opposite side of the spectrum, camped out there, and made it home.
She wrote punkish, throwaway rock songs about topics that “nice Jewish girls” aren’t supposed to broach. I remember that when I read about her in the music press as a teenager, half the time there were snide jibes about her looking like a man, and hidden within them, insinuations that her musician boyfriends were perhaps using her as a stand-in for the men they would rather be with. Been there, had that – but without the fame, of course. I’ve heard the stinging comments about how, because my body more closely resembles a 14-year-old boy’s than the average adult woman’s nowadays, any man who wants it must be covering his desire for the real thing. Justine Frischmann is probably a big reason why, when I was younger, I wasn’t really bothered by such comments. Why? Because Justine was effortlessly cool and comfortable in her own skin. She projected the persona that if you crossed her, she either wouldn’t care at all, or she’d make you regret it. You couldn’t ever say she was “just a pretty face” because she wasn’t a pretty face, she was a bad-ass face, as she was happy being like that. You could call her mannish, you could point out her short hair and leather jacket, but at the end of the day, she was the famous one, and she was the one going home with the men that thousands of girls had pinned up on their bedroom walls. Perhaps she wasn’t the most skilful musician out there, but she made her mark, she captured the mid-nineties, that’s not bad for a nice Jewish girl.
So there. Thanks, Justine.
And as a “ethnic” woman, I try my best to make what I have work for me. If I’m going to say that I’m not ashamed of who I am, and that I’ve proud of what my ancestors had to survive to get me to where I am today, then I have to own the physical manifestations of my background – or at least show that there’s nothing undesirable about them. I have a big nose, so I wear it. It sticks out and so do I, because I don’t fancy hiding away from the world, I feel like confronting it head-on and sticking that nose everywhere I think it belongs. If you end up remembering me as Her With The Big Nose, at least you’re remembering me, at least I’m not anonymous. In my opinion, if my facial features are big and sharp and noticeable, then I have carte blanche to make the rest of my face follow suit – so if I want to wear bright eyeshadow or lipstick, that’s my prerogative. I’m never going to be a blonde bombshell, and I don’t want to be blonde. I think dark hair can be striking, and furthermore, it’s me. Blonde looks great on people who are naturally that way, or who can pull it off, but seriously, how ridiculous would I look with these thick black eyebrows and a bleached-out scalp? To me, looking like you’re trying way too hard is far worse than looking ethnic. My lank hair doesn’t work in a conventionally feminine long style, so I cut it off and make it look big with assorted pastes and hairspray, because it’s fun to try different things that I can wash away with simple shampoo and water if they don’t flatter me. It’s not that easy to change your nose, but hair grows back, hair is made for fun and experimentation. Ain’t it great to be a mammal? Sound.
It works for me, and if other people don’t like it, they can move on to the next woman – and part of shifting from girl to woman is learning that not everybody is going to like you, not everybody has to think you’re fantastic, and it doesn’t matter. Getting the world to like you shouldn’t be your life goal, because it’s utterly unattainable. That’s life.
Drop out or get over it.
By the way, speaking of Rebecca Adlington, a few months ago she participated in a celebrity episode of UK quiz show The Chase. Guess who was a contestant in the new US version of the same show? That’s right, THIS LADY.
…And yes, I can say it, WE WON! We split the winnings equally three ways. The episode aired at the end of January, but we filmed in August of last year, so I had to keep my big mouth shut about the result for quite some time. It was my first time on TV and I had a blast. I’ve always loved trivia and doing pub quizzes – I read everything in sight and so I ended up with loads of useless knowledge floating around; how else do you think I know how nose jobs are done? – and now I finally have something to show for it. I auditioned on a whim shortly after I moved to Boston, and I didn’t expect to make it to the second round…but then I did, and got called back for a third time…and then, OH MY DAYS, THEY’RE FLYING ME TO LOS ANGELES. I didn’t expect to be back in California so soon. My teammates were fantastic guys I got to know while we were waiting in the green room for a few hours beforehand – Louis is hilarious and Miguel is a brilliant lawyer who went to Berkeley for law school, so we had something to talk about. Winning that money feels like it kind of makes up for the earnings I forfeited by going back to grad school for three years. Most of it has gone into savings, because let’s face it, my very own shed-sized flat in far North London won’t come for free.
It was strange seeing myself on television, because – to be completely honest – I didn’t really like how I looked. Cue plenty of moments of, “Holy crap, my nose looks huge, my jaw looks saggy, WHAT.” During every break, the makeup dude had to spray my hair to stop it looking completely flat. Plus, I wasn’t wearing my own clothes, the ones I had brought along because I feel attractive and confident in them – the cameramen said they looked distorted on screen (one was fuschia, one was orange, both had layers of ruffle-y fabric), so the wardrobe department had to rustle up something quick. So if you’re thinking, “Kite, really, that low neck on the dress and that cut of the waistline don’t do you any favors,” yes, I KNOW. And isn’t this the ridiculously silly part of it? That when I’m supposed to be proud of myself for finally being able to cash in on a skill, my attention gets occupied by my physical flaws? Why am I paying more attention to my less-than-perfect appearance and not to the fact that I just did well for myself? It’s natural to think like this, but it’s also ridiculous, it’s such a waste of time, and it’s an example of how we women play in to our own insecurity and hold ourselves back. And if I want to get a move on in life, I have to quit doing that. I have to think far, far more about what I can do than fixate on how I look doing it. That’s what matters. If anybody else has a problem with how I looked, they’re free to make jokes about it on the platform of their choice. And I’m free to enjoy my winnings.