When Jaclyn Trop was thinking of getting a nose job at age 20, she sought counsel from her college professor. Her women’s studies class at Boston University had just finished a unit on cosmetic surgery — the professor had characterized the practice as “symptomatic of internal loathing,” Trop said — and Trop wondered if she would be breaking feminist ranks to get the rhinoplasty she had wanted since childhood. To her surprise, the professor urged her to go ahead. “She said it would be ridiculous to spend any time debating something if you knew it would make you feel more comfortable with yourself,” Trop said.
As any plastic surgeon will tell you, the nose job isn’t meant to fix a person’s nose so much as to improve his or her self-perception, or as Emory University medical historian Sander Gilman, calls it, the “imaginary face.” For some Jews, the imaginary face was at one time the anti-Semite’s caricature. In prewar Berlin, where the modern nose job was first developed, Jews sought the procedure to hide their ethnic identity. As Jews assimilated into the American mainstream in the 1950s and ’60s, nose jobs became a rite of passage for Jewish teens who wanted a more Aryan look. Fast-forward 50 years, and Jews are one of the most powerful religious minorities in America. Beauty standards, meanwhile, have become more inclusive. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of nose jobs performed annually went down by about 44%. But the procedure is still the second most popular type of plastic surgery, after breast augmentation. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there were 217,124 nose jobs conducted in 2014.
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Jewish women are still undergoing rhinoplasty. But in many cases the procedure has little bearing on their religious identity. Though Trop fretted over her feminist bona fides, she never doubted that she could be a proudly Jewish nose job recipient, calling her heritage a “point of pride.”
The biggest indicator of this new reality is the nose job procedure itself. Gone are the days in which teenage girls got their noses “bobbed” into buttons as did Brenda Patimkin, the Jewish teen from a well-to-do, assimilated New Jersey family in Philip Roth’s 1959 novella “Goodbye, Columbus.” In the book, narrator Neil Klugman, from a working-class neighborhood, becomes fixated on Brenda’s rhinoplasty, as a measure of their class difference. “It was bumpy,” Brenda tells Neil of her former nose on their first date. “A lot?” he asks her. “No,” she replies. “I was pretty. Now I’m prettier.”
Unlike the nose jobs of the ’50s and ’60s, today’s surgeries are a more subtle refinement to balance the face, aided by advancements in technology in the late 1990s that allowed doctors to shape the tip of the nose for a more natural look by using cartilage grafts. In other words, nose jobs have gotten a nose job.
“Most people want a nose that takes out the imperfections and makes them look like they were born with that nose,” said Alan Matarasso, a plastic surgeon in New York City. “The overriding factor is, they don’t want to look ‘done.’” Matarasso often sees this generational shift in tastes when teenage girls come into his office with their mothers and grandmothers for a consultation. “The grandma may think a scooped-out, pinched-up nose looks good, and then the teen says: ‘Are you kidding me? I don’t want that.’”
Yet Trop, now 32, wanted a radically different nose, not a trimmer version of the one she grew up with. Since her parents were unsupportive of the idea, she saved her bat mitzvah money for the procedure. The summer after her sophomore year of college, she went to Arizona to stay with an aunt after the surgery. The surgeon, however, had had a different vision. “He was really into the natural look,” she said. “It looked exactly the same.” Two years later she went back to him for a no-charge touch-up, but she was still unsatisfied. At 29 she sought out another surgeon, who gave her the nose she wanted: not exactly a 1950s ski slope, but shorter than her original. The surgery had the effect of curing her fixation with noses — hers and everyone else’s.
“I never looked at anyone’s nose again,” she said.
From the first recorded nose job onward, surgeons have taken note of the psychological effect of altering the nose. The modern nose job was created by a German Jewish surgeon, Jacques Joseph, in Berlin at the turn of the 20th century. According to Gilman’s book “The Jew’s Body,” after Joseph successfully operated on a child with protruding ears, a young, socially isolated man asked the doctor if he could fix his nose. The young man “was cured of his ‘disease,’ which was his visibility,” Gilman wrote. “Joseph had undertaken a surgical procedure that had cured his patient’s psychological disorder!’”
Though it is unknown whether Joseph’s first patient was Jewish, Joseph would go on to have a large Jewish clientele seeking nose jobs that would allow them to pass as gentiles in Berlin. In his book, Gilman quotes a 16-year-old Adolphine Schwarz who was thrilled to receive a free nose job from Joseph. “Joseph was very charitable,” she said. “And when he felt someone suffered from the ‘Jewish nose,’ he would operate for nothing.”
Across the Atlantic, facial surgeries were being developed to treat soldiers who had returned to America from World War I with disfiguring wounds. The treatments were later offered as cosmetic procedures for civilians. According to Gilman, American Jews sought out rhinoplasty to improve their employment or marriage prospects. But as the decades passed, nose jobs were no longer seen as the key to Jewish social advancement in America. Instead they became typical among teenage girls as, he wrote, a “middle-class sweet 16 gift” in the 1960s.
That was the case at Sharon Drazner’s high school. The 68-year-old retired French teacher grew up in West Rogers Park, a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago, where, she said, teen girls typically got nose jobs after they finished puberty. “At our school it was so prevalent that people could look at a girl who had rhinoplasty and pretty much guess which doctor had done it,” she said. Drazner’s mother made her wait until the summer after her sophomore year of college to get her “hook” straightened out. When Drazner took off the bandages, she realized the surgeon had modeled her nose on his own. But she didn’t mind. “I was really happy, with it,” she said.
What is often thought of as the heyday of Jewish rhinoplasty in America was also a time of intense communal soul-searching about the practice. “Middle-class Jews were no longer completely haunted by the anti-Semitism that manifests itself in Europe and the U.S. through the Holocaust,” Gilman said in an interview. “Starting in the late 1960s, there is a questioning of rhinoplasty as the falsification of the self.”
That debate played out prominently in popular culture. An early 1960s edition of Mad, the satirical magazine with a Jewish sensibility, came with a cardboard record of the song “Nose Job,” about a girl whose social prospects improved as soon as she “overhauled her beak.” The teen girl is the object of ridicule in the song, but so is the culture that instantly deemed her the “prettiest girl in town” post-surgery. Jewish celebrities also factored in. Barbra Streisand, for instance, refused rhinoplasty despite being taunted for her nose by her schoolmates, worried that it would affect her voice. Ironically, she would later go on to play singer Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.” Brice’s 1920s-era nose job was ridiculed by commentator Dorothy Parker, who said she “cut off her nose to spite her race.”
Parallel to the pop culture discourse over rhinoplasty, 1960s psychologists were publishing work about the procedure, using Freudian theory to explain why so many teenage Jewish girls were altering their noses. According to David Sarwer, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center’s Center for the Human Appearance, these explanations sometimes veered into bizarre territory. He recalled one scholarly article claiming that daddy issues motivated teen girls who received nose jobs. In this interpretation, a “prominent nose was a symbolic representation of their father’s penis,” Sarwer said. “They had a conflicted relationship with their father, and the way they got rid of aspects of their father’s personality was to have a rhinoplasty.” He added: “I don’t think you could write that today and get published in the academic literature.”
Today, Sarwer said, psychologists offer a more straightforward explanation for why females — in 2014 they made up 75% of nose job recipients — seek out the procedure. “The more contemporary interpretation of why someone has a rhinoplasty is not that they have an unconscious conflict, but rather it is just as likely that someone is self-conscious about a prominent nose when they are in a classroom or on a date, or when they are being physically intimate with someone.”
Looking back on her nose job, Nina Hoffman, a 63-year-old attorney in Charleston, South Carolina, said that the surgery was a turning point in her adolescence. “To this day I am glad I did it,” she said. Hoffman began to feel self-conscious about her nose as a 12-year-old in Bayside, a Jewish-Italian neighborhood in Queens. The fixation intensified when her high school French class read “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the 1897 play about a French soldier whose oversized nose gets in the way of his love life. Hoffman was sure her classmates were thinking of her as they read about Cyrano’s foibles.
In the summer before Hoffman’s senior year of high school, her mother brought her to a pair of surgeons, brothers, who told her that they would remake her nose, promising not to give her a “pug” look. After her nose healed, she practically shimmied with confidence into Korvettes, the discount department store where she had an after-school job. The year that followed was filled with dates.
Since Hoffman felt her nose job was so transformative, she didn’t think twice about offering it to her eldest daughter, Emily, when she saw her original nose replicated on Emily’s young face. But to her surprise, Emily was perfectly fine with her nose. “I should have been really happy, but I said, ‘No, really, you can have one,’” Hoffman said. “I realized she was confident and happy with herself. That was really weird to me. I couldn’t believe she had that much self-esteem that it didn’t torture her the way it tortured me.”
Leslie Wortzman, a 58-year-old Massachusetts social worker, recalled a similarly awkward conversation with her daughter, Ariel. Wortzman’s own mother offered her a nose job at 16, but didn’t take her up on it until a few years later. “I remember taking my senior pictures and looking at my nose and saying, ‘Wow this is kind of wide,” she said. She got her nose job after her freshman year of college. Home for the summer, she said, the neighbors cooed over her bandaged face: “They would be like: ‘Oh, look at you! I can’t wait to see what it looks like!’”
When her own daughter turned 16, she offered her a nose job several times, but Ariel never showed interest. Then, Wortzman brought it up at a family dinner out with a friend: “I said, ‘Don’t you think Ariel would look great with a nose job?’” Ariel looked at her, incredulous. “Needless to say, she got really mad at me,” Wortzman said. “I don’t blame her, and now we joke about it because it was such an outrageous thing to say. Now I understand this is part of who my child is and she is proud of it and I should relish that even though I don’t always understand it.”
As the daughters of nose job recipients are opting against altering their appearances, others are calling for an outright rebellion against the practice, which sociologist Tobin Belzer called “the Jewish women’s albatross” in the essay collection “Yentl’s Revenge.” In recent years, confessional articles in the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith and in The Independent recall young Jewish women consulting with plastic surgeons and then opting out in a defiant embrace of their features and their religious heritage. In an essay published in Medium in October, 2014, Kristen Hanley Cardozo described her teenage nose job with ambivalence: “My nose was a casualty of the early days of plummeting self-esteem, or it was a victory over that plummeting self-esteem. I may never be sure.”
Nose job ambivalence was the topic of a 2011 episode of Glee, “Born This Way,” in which Rachel Berry, played by Leah Michele, tells the glee club she wants rhinoplasty to look “less Hebraic and more Fabraic.” The club debates the merits of the procedure, ultimately convincing Rachel to go against it with a Barbra Streisand-themed flash mob in the local mall.
“Do you want to disappoint Barbra?” another glee club member asks Rachel, played by actress Leah Michele, who, like Streisand, famously rebuffed her former manager’s suggestion to get a nose job. “Of course not,” Rachel says, “she’s my idol.”
For Trop, on the other hand, her nose job was key to self-acceptance. Once she decided to get it done, she was surprised to find out just how many of her peers had too. She recalled a conversation with a friend in graduate school, before her third and rhinoplasty. “I just wish my nose was like yours, you’re so lucky,” Trop told her. “It’s not natural, of course,” her friend replied. “I got it when I was 16.”
Naomi Zeveloff is a staff writer for the Forward.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.