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Looking at Elena Kagan, and Seeing Myself

It has been an incredible week for Jewish women. The confirmation of Elena Kagan as the next Supreme Court justice, bringing the total number of women to three and the total number of Jewish women to two, has the effect on me of lighting fireworks in my soul. Despite all the rubbish women have to put up with in society and in Judaism, this is a moment when I can put that all aside and think, “Yes, Jewish women can!”

One of the greatest moments for me in the process that began with President Obama’s May 10 announcement of her nomination, was watching law professor and former prosecutor Paul Butler on PBS NewsHour analyze the significance of her appointment. After coolly describing some of her many strengths — pragmatism, moderation, swift negotiation, mental agility, and wit — he diverted from his dispassion, smiled and said, “She’s brilliant and she’s charming!” Wow, I thought. Really smart people love and appreciate her. That is just so wonderful.

This was quite a comforting experience for me for deeper reasons as well. When she first entered the public scene, it was inevitable that her appearance, her sexuality and her personal life would take center stage — and it did, as my Sisterhood colleagues noted. We’ve all heard stories about how appearance matters in professional advancement — how traditionally attractive people are not only more likely to get the job but are more likely to be considered smart and competent, regardless of what their resumes or performance indicate.

So of course there are people in this world that looked at Elena Kagan and saw what some men I know see: double chin. What can I say? I look at Elena Kagan and see myself. (I love that we almost share at least a first name). I’m short, I have gray hair and a zillion wrinkles, and lots of extra flesh where it shouldn’t be, and I’ve had a double chin ever since I was a teenager. I, like so many other women I know, look at myself in the mirror and think, ich. Sure, I write about feminism and body image and I can talk the talk. But at the end of the day, all I see on myself, really, is the double chin.

But now that Elena Kagan is up there, I think to myself: It’s time for me to get past my own chin. When Paul Butler said “She’s brilliant and she’s charming,” I thought, he doesn’t even notice her chin! That made me just cry. To be loved, double chin and all, for her wonderful skills and personality, well, that is just a gift. To be seen and appreciated for all her wonderful qualities, for her mind and heart and terrific wit, well, that is the dream of all women, isn’t it?

Even those of us who are trying so hard to speak out on behalf of other women still struggle with our own inner demons. I guess it’s time. It’s time for me to admit the truth about how I feel about my own body. And it’s time for me to let it go, to love my chin and my own flesh, and to dance for joy at the possibilities for women in this world. Thank you, Elena Kagan, for being brilliant and charming, and for reminding us that we deserve love and respect and the admiration of good people. Justice Elena Kagan is my new hero.

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