Cutting off their noses to spite their race

Last week, while sitting in my plastic surgeon's waiting room reading brochures extolling the magical properties of mysteriously named "fillers" that can reverse nature's cruel depradations to the face, my thoughts understandably turned to our era's preoccupation with the body.

Having dispensed with the soul here in the West, we are condemned to find fulfilment in the body alone. We are no longer human beings, we are human lookings and feelings. Pleasure, beauty and corporal youthful sexuality are our gods; pain, unsightliness and impotent age are our besetting devils.

I could go on in this lofty philosophical vein, but somehow, given my presence, while musing on this theme, in the very sacristy of this secular church, I feel I lack the credibility to fulminate against the new regime with the necessary conviction.

Cosmetic plastic surgery was invented by Jews. That sounds like a conspiracy theorist's belief, but it is true. The Jewish contribution to what is now a billion-dollar industry is chronicled in a new, lively and informative little book, The Jewish Body, by anthropologist Melvin Konner.

The book takes us on a temporal and thematic sojourn through Jewish history, assessing the impact on Jewish culture of internal prescriptions around the body -- circumcision, dietary laws, sexual purity rituals --as well as the impact on the Jewish psyche of non-Jewish, usually hostile attitudes and behaviours.

Konner devotes a generous portion of the book to physical appearance and the effects of unremitting anti-Semitism on Jews' critical regard of their own bodies. He says that over the centuries Jews' estimation of their appearance became a function of what others thought of them: Jews tend to define their appearance up according to how gentile they look, and down according to how "Jewish" they look.

Until the Nazi era, the Jewish stereotype in non-Jewish literature was constrained to appearance, and looked a lot like Yasser Arafat: "beady (small), closely set eyes; a large hooked nose; big protruding ears; a set of wet, bulbous, protruding lips; dark curly hair; oily or 'greasy' hair and skin; short stature; a round, bulging belly; and a dark ('swarthy') complexion."

The diabolical genius of the Nazis was to medicalize Jewish repulsiveness.

Jews were not only disgusting in appearance; they were actually diseased and could infect the larger population. Exterminating Jews was therefore a public health issue. Horrific propaganda with this message constantly bombarding the public took its toll on Jews' self-image, to say the least.

A full 60% of Berlin's physicians in the 1930s were Jews, and they succumbed to the brainwashing like everyone else. Jewish doctors came to believe that Jewish bodies were flawed, more prone than others to nervous system diseases, diabetes, tuberculosis, syphilis, weak voices and excessive body odour.

But the Nazi era was only a culmination of a long process. The general idea had been percolating well before Hitler came along. Jacques Joseph was a 19th-century Jewish orthopedic surgeon who went into private practice after having been dismissed from his medical order for pinning Jewish ears back. A young man "suffering" from his Jewish nose asked Joseph for help. After operating on him in 1898, Joseph reported to the Berlin Medical Society, "The depressed attitude [of the patient] ... subsided completely." Joseph had internalized the disease paradigm. Rhinoplasty -- nose jobs to you and me-- was invented to provide a medical solution to a medical problem.

Nose jobs have been called a "circumcision into the gentile world." When comedienne Fanny Brice got one in 1923, celebrity wit Dorothy Parker (born a New Jersey Rothschild, but luckily inheriting her mother's Scottish nose), quipped, "[Brice] cut off her nose to spite her race."

So it is no exaggeration to say that Jews not only popularized the nose job, they became the mainstay of the nose job's consumer base. And the nose job then morphed into the cosmetic plastic surgery industry. In a choicely ironical twist, Konner cites an observation from a medical journal article on the history of the nose job: "Jews, who have always had a love/hate relationship with plastic surgery -- and their own appearance -- have helped create a trend that has now exploded into the mainstream... Jews, out of their very desire to appear less Jewish, made plastic surgery acceptable to the very people whom they were trying to look like."

Plastic surgery in general is trending upward today, but interestingly nose jobs are trending downward. I imagine multiculturalism, and the influx of other ethnic groups who think their big noses are totally cool, has tempered Jews' self-consciousness, but credit must also be given to Barbra Streisand (shown right), whose big shnozz, which her advisors urged her to gentilify, accompanied her to super-stardom, and allowed Jewish noses everywhere to breathe more freely.

And what was I doing in a plastic surgeon's office? If you really want to know, you must write to me and ask. I may or may not tell you.

bkay@videotron.ca