From a young age I was conscious that my unconventional looks distinguished me from the other children in my class, but I was content with the differences I noticed in my appearance. My curiosity — and nose — grew though until, craning my neck to examine my profile in the mirror one day, I was horrified to discover that, instead of following a clean geometric line ending in a neat point, my nose curved downwards in a hook shape.
Alarmed by my reflection, I spent hours with my finger pressed against the bottom of my nose pushing it up into an exaggerated pig snout, before I had the enterprising idea of sellotaping it into place in the hope that it would set permanently in this position.
My appearance elicits a spectrum of reactions from strangers, ranging from compliments such as, “you look like a Persian princess” to shocking antisemitic abuse: “your ancestors should have been turned into soap, Jew.”
“Striking”, “exotic”, “unique” — these are the kinds of adjectives friends, family and boyfriends have used to describe my looks. To me though, these words were just polite synonyms for “strange”, “foreign” and “ugly”. I didn’t want to be unique, I wanted to be pretty and if I couldn’t be pretty, then I would settle for ordinary.
Perhaps it is no surprise I had come to feel this way since such an outlook has been deeply embedded within the collective Western psyche for centuries. In 1850, the surgeon and anthropologist Robert Knox declared, “the Jewish face can never [be] perfectly beautiful.”
It was this line of thinking that led me to book an appointment at a Harley Street clinic last year to explore the possibility of corrective rhinoplasty.
The bubbly nurse I met seemed to think I had made the right decision and reassured me that it was a common procedure, perfectly suited to people such as myself with distinctively “ethnic” features. It would be simple, not particularly painful and the results would be “life-changing”, she promised.
One of the clinic’s top surgeons, Mr S, had some availability the following month she told me. “He did a brilliant job on my boobs!” she trilled.
I had only intended to go along for a chat at this stage but, getting caught up in the nurse’s excitement, I agreed to meet with Mr S to discuss the procedure in depth with him. After appraising my nose, he advised me gravely that my problems were threefold: I had a dorsal hump, droopy tip and deviation to the left — in layman’s terms I had a long, wonky, bumpy nose or, as he disparagingly put it, a “typical Jewish nose”.
In order to correct these “abnormalities” he would perform an open rhinoplasty, breaking my nose, before eliminating the bump, reducing the cartilage to shorten the tip and straightening it out. So, not quite the simple, relatively painless procedure the nurse had described then.
I asked him a number of questions regarding pain, scarring and surgical complications, all of which he dismissed with a casual wave of his hand.
“How long will it take for the bruising to go down?” I finally inquired. “Oh, a couple of weeks”, he replied breezily, “and if people ask you what’s happened, just tell them you were in a car crash.”
I stared at Mr S in disbelief until, realising he may have said something slightly remiss, he attempted to smooth things over adding, “Don’t worry, you’ll see a vast improvement. I can absolutely make your nose more beautiful, less Jewish and unattractive.”
I stormed out, furious. Shattered ego aside, I was appalled that Mr S so clearly equated Jewishness with ugliness – it didn’t strike me until later that he had in fact articulated my own worries.
The uncomfortable truth was, like Mr S, I had been guilty of perpetuating a negative and outdated stereotype too.
Somewhere along the line I had begun to use my Jewishness as a mask to hide behind and, even worse, as a way to excuse what I thought of as my below-par appearance. When did I start condoning and subscribing to this dangerous idea myself?
Over the years, the phrase “Jewish nose” has become shorthand among medical practitioners to denote a race-based physical deformity. At the start of the 20th century, physicians were noting that the modification to a conspicuous nose, typically considered “Jewish-looking”, could promote the wellbeing of a patient and, in the lead up to the Second World War, as prejudice intensified, it became increasingly commonplace for Jews to undergo such surgery to escape further alienation.
In her essay The Jewish Nose and Plastic Surgery: Origins and Implications, Beth Preminger argues, “by incorporating this term into their clinical vocabulary, early plastic surgeons unwittingly lent scientific credibility to popular stereotypes about beauty and ethnicity”. Consequently, the “Jewish nose” was transformed into a “pathological condition for which there existed a medical protocol for correction.”
Four years ago, Sarah, 32, (not her real name) underwent similar surgery to that which I was contemplating in order to remove the bump from her hooked nose and reduce the tip, resulting in a straighter, subtler shape. It was a decision she spent some time grappling with.
“I think part of the problem was that there were no women in the public eye who looked like me to act as role models. I didn’t see my appearance reflected in that of contemporary British or American celebrities, or the women I worked or socialised with; I felt almost disfigured by comparison.
“The funny thing is though, when I visited Germany with my partner a couple of years ago, I lost count of the number of people I saw with noses practically identical to my old one. I realised that I hadn’t been ugly or disfigured, just different from the women I was surrounded by in Britain.”
Unlike Sarah, I couldn’t go through with the surgery. While I finally understood that there was no single “Jewish” face, I was acutely aware that so many others are not conscious of this fact.
For me, allowing Mr S to operate would have involved validating this damaging outlook and sacrificing my cultural identity. I would have been cutting my nose off to spite my – and every other – Jewish face. Why should I feel pressurised to distance myself from my Jewish roots in order to be considered beautiful?
My fear that a face like mine can never be considered beautiful still persists, but not because it is “Jewish”. It would be a lie to say I would never be tempted to undergo surgery in the future. For the time being though, mine is the only nose I pick.