My hooked nose has been my biggest insecurity for as long as I can remember. As a tween, I dreamed of correcting it with rhinoplasty and fitting in with the other girls in my class, trading my “exotic” or “striking” appearance for a “pretty” one. This aspiration is one I shared with countless other Jewish girls.
The myth of the “Jewish nose” is not scientifically based but was created as a way to identify Jews as an inferior race to Aryans. Robert Knox, the racist anthropologist who officially coined the term “Jewish nose” in 1850, concluded that “the Jewish face never can [be], and never is, perfectly beautiful." The stereotype of the Jewish “look” gained prominence through popular media, turning up in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Henry James’ The American Scene, and other influential pieces of American literature.
The consequences of this categorization came to a head during the second World War, showing up in Nazi propaganda posters and manifesting in the measurement of facial features of Aryans and Jews to support the Nazis’ unfounded racial ideology. Despite the well-supported conclusion that only 20 to 30% of the Jewish population is born with a hooked nose (considerably less of a rate than non-Jewish Mediterranean populations like Greeks, North Africans, and West Asians), this stereotype has survived over centuries and continued to affect the lives of many.
Like many Ashkenazi Jewish men altered their names to anglicized versions to evade rampant antisemitism in their immigration to the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries, rhinoplasty began as an avenue for Ashkenazi Jewish women to be more aesthetically acceptable and unassuming in their new surroundings. The pressure to be ultra-feminine and classically beautiful and find a husband culminated in rhinoplasty. It was seen as crucial to continue Jewish families and give young Jewish women a secure way of life amid rampant antisemitism. It became the norm for affluent Jewish families to gift their teenage daughters with rhinoplasties in preparation for successful lives as part of larger American society.
Rhinoplasty remained a rite of passage for thousands of Jewish girls until about 2011, when country-wide rates declined by almost 40% according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. This decline can be attributed to the rise in ethnic pride among young Jewish people. According to a 2021 survey by Pew Research, 75% of Jews find being Jewish is either very important (42%) or somewhat important (34%) to them, a high compared to previous years. As our culture continues to progress in its acknowledgment of ethnic disparities and reckon with the ways people are still affected by them, marginalized ethnic groups are experiencing a resurgence of pride in their features, including Jews sporting the stereotypical beak. Growing representation on screens and in print has also played a part in this shift.
When I started seeing Jewish figures who owned their “Jewish noses,” being told by classmates I “did look Jewish (no offense),” began to sting less. Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice wasn’t beautiful despite her Jewishness but because of it. Interestingly, the real Fanny Brice is recognized as the first modern rhinoplasty patient. Brice believed so strongly that the 1923 procedure was necessary to further her comedic career that she underwent it in her motel room.
Now, Jewish women are finding the freedom to reject the push to assimilate into Western norms: Streisand famously refused to get her nose “fixed” despite immense pressure to do so. Now, Maya Rudolph graces the screens of Saturday Night Live! viewers weekly, Gal Gadot is our Wonder Woman, and Carole King remains regarded as one of the most significant and successful musicians of our time. I look to all of these women as examples of the resilience of Jewish women and the unconditional beauty of Levantine features.
Research also indicates the majority of Jews see their ancestry as significant to their Jewish identity. Expressing our ancestry through radical acceptance of our characteristics is a way for Jewish Americans to defy the historical demonization of them, especially young Jewish women who are pushed to conform to the culture around them. I remember being in my 7th grade history class and recognizing my profile in the Nazi propaganda posters in my textbook. The idea of being recognized for a part of myself I didn’t often share was terrifying.
For a while, I disliked wearing my personal background on my face, inviting invasive and out-of-pocket questions from classmates about my ethnicity, but now I see it as a beautiful gift. Carrying on the features of my ancestors who pushed through horrendous prejudice while continuing to provide for themselves and their loved ones inspires me to be a stronger person and reminds me I am a representative of my family and community, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world, much less for a ski-slope profile.
I’ve never been more proud of my Jewish identity than when I realized my “Jewish” features not only didn’t take away from my beauty, but also my physical appearance doesn’t have to have a bearing on my validity as a member of society or any community.
Taking back the narrative around a demonized facial feature is extremely gratifying on a personal level, but community-wide acceptance of Jews of all races and looks is necessary to preserve our status. We sometimes find ourselves so pushed to combat stereotypes, we end up perpetuating them. Focusing too intently on lifting up Jews with hooked noses or other stereotypical Ashkenazi features (like dark, curly hair, which I get from my mother’s non-Jewish side of the family) is alienating to converts to Judaism and other Jews who don’t “look Jewish.” When communities begin to rehabilitate their relationships with the features that worked to other them: Jews’ hooked noses, the “gay lisp,” etcetera, we will then be able to successfully implement the idea that physical features don’t bar us from experiencing all we’re called to.