The Michael Jackson Factor



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“The Michael Jackson Factor,” by Elizabeth Haiken

Throughout her life, comedienne and actress Fanny Brice insisted that looking Jewish had played no part in her decision to alter her nose, which she did (to great fanfare) in 1923. She had (she claimed) always been proud of being Jewish, and as she had met with “very little” anti-Semitism, she had no reason to want to look less Jewish. Late in life she recalled, “Nothing ever made me angrier than the gossip that I had my nose operated on so I'd look less Jewish. I wanted to look prettier and my nose was a sight in any language, but I wasn't trying to hide my origin.” The explanation Brice offered most often was that she had done it to make herself eligible for a wider variety of roles; she had especially hoped to play Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll's House.


Despite Brice's denial, most of her contemporaries believed that the desire to look less identifiably Jewish played a role in her decision, and biographer Barbara Grossnlan concurs: “She must have hoped that the operation would make her look less Jewish." Ethnicity was definitely not fashionable in the 19205.'J On a personal level, Brice 111ay in fact have been comfortable with her looks. She publicly proclaimed her pride in her religion and her heritage and indeed built her career on playing Jewish characters to Jewish audiences. On a professional level however, Brice evidently realized that a successful career depended on beauty, and that beauty meant the absence of the clear signs of race or ethnicity that could be damaging, if not fatal, to an entertainment career.
The first group of Americans to undertake surgical alteration of ethnic features in any number were, like Brice, Jews who did not like their noses. Inspired by the work of New York's John Orlando Roe and Berlin's Jacques Joseph, American surgeons had begun to experiment with nasal plastic surgery in the late nineteenth century. While most early reports of nasal operations employed general terms like "overlarge," “humped,” or “too-prominent" when describing the kinds of noses that were desirable of improvement, Dr. John B. Roberts's 1892 reference to the Roman nose, the Jewish nose, and the nose with an angular prolninence on its “dorsum" suggests that, even before the turn of the century, the «Jewish nose" required no further description. Certainly by the 1920’s most Americans were aware that noses that fit these categories most often hailed originally from southern or eastern Europe and that many of their bearers were Jewish. Thus, when Brice's nose job became public, Americans were already familiar, in general terms, with the “science” of race and ethnicity, as well as with the negative connotations that attached specifically to the “Jewish nose."
Some Americans fought against the growing surgical trend. In her popular 1927 advice book, Girl Scout advisor Hazel Rawson Cades endorsed the camouflage that clever hat and hair arrangements might provide, but warned young women, “noses may not be cut off, either to satisfy or spite one's type.” Surgeons, however, had already recognized that Jews and other ethnic Americans represented a large potential market for nasal plastic surgery and were making a move to claim it. In 1930 William Wesley Carter noted that the “Modification of accentuated family or racial characteristics, such as are sometimes observable especially in Semitic subjects, is not only a legitimate procedure, but it is frequently of great importance to the individual.... in the moving picture field, the possession of a shapely nose is frequently the deciding factor.” While he had originally opposed such surgery, by 1936 Vilray Blair had come to believe that a “Jewish nose was as deserving of correction as any other type of nasal deformity.” “Change in the shape of the pronounced Jewish nose may be sought for either social or business reasons,” he noted. 1
Surgeons and -Americans who by the 1930’s had defined the Semitic or Mediterranean nose as undesirable had probably become acquainted with the scientific theories that had influenced American ideas about beauty in the previous decades, as well as with the new disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. As we have seen, in the years between the two world wars, the conviction that plastic surgery could be of particular benefit in helping to heal an inferiority complex was widely held. Family members, potential employers, and the general public who revealed their distaste for a physical feature might, surgeons believed, engender an inferiority complex. From this understanding, it was natural that they should begin to believe that a feature commonly defined as ugly-for example, a Jewish nose-might be just as likely to cause an inferiority complex as a congenital abnormality or a traumatically induced defect.
World War II gave new impetus to the link surgeons had forged between outer appearance and inner peace or lack of it. The war was crucial to the growth of the psychiatric profession: for the first time, the U.S. Army officially recognized psychiatry as an important branch of military medicine, and the military endorsement meant that psychiatry and psychology continued to receive wide coverage in the popular press. At the same time, the extent of American anti-Semitism was revealed in sharp relief. Laura Delano's response to the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have relaxed quotas to allow the entrance of twenty thousand German refugee children-that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults"-was in many ways typical of American opinion in 1939. Even watching the 933 refugee passengers on the St. Louis head back to Europe in despair after being refused entrance did not significantly alter the widely shared conviction that Jews were the least desirable addition to the melting pot.
After the war, as mental health practitioners joined surgeons in exploring the psychological indications for and implications of cosmetic surgery, a spate of articles that tied the inferiority complex to ethnicity appeared in a variety of medical journals. For prospective patients who carried the facial “stigmata” that identified them as members of minority groups and had inferiority complexes because of this, surgeons asserted, surgery was a positive step. By altering the feature or aspect of a feature that gave offense, surgery could eliminate the reaction it inspired in others and the inferiority complex this interaction had caused. A nose job, in other words, could mitigate the damaging psychological effects of prejudice.

The image of hundreds of ethnic Americans undergoing cosmetic surgery to mask their ethnicity recalls the stereotype of people of mixed race “passing" as white, which has been well established in literature and film. Plastic surgeons and their patients, however, often explicitly disavowed any connection with this tradition. Surgeons justified their work in medical terms: as responsible and responsive practitioners) they insisted, they were trying to fulfill their patients' requests for a more attractive appearance, as well as a healthier mental outlook. In general, patients too claimed to have limited goals. They had no desire to deny their religion or their ethnic heritage, they asserted; they merely hoped to blend in better, to become indistinguishable and thus to reap the benefits that were generally available to those not perceived as different.


This oft-expressed desire for ethnic anonymity suggests the extent to which the stereotypes evoked by the nineteenth-century "sciences" of race-which, by the 1930S, had been largely discredited-continued to permeate popular culture and consciousness. This desire was sparked by the knowledge that in the United States the face, or particular features, often led others to attribute to the bearer particular personality or character traits. Facial features that might lead to the attribution of criminality, drug addiction, or disease were and continue to be of concern. A high forehead was often taken as a sign of superior intelligence, while a low forehead or receding chin (immortalized in the popular cartoon figure Andy Cap) was taken to indicate poor intelligence, weak character, and, in men, lack of strength, masculinity, and resolve. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, too, were widely recognized. In her path breaking studies of plastic surgery patients, sociologist Frances Cooke Macgregor found that the so-called Jewish nose-(characterized by considerable length and height, convexity of profile, a depressed tip, and thick, flared “wings"-was of primary concern to Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Iranians, and Lebanese (who feared being mistaken as Jewish) as well as to Jews. Individuals in all of these groups, she wrote, wanted to alter the noses that they believed offered visible clues to an ethnic or religious group that they perceived as having unfavorable connotations.

The process of Americanization through surgery is difficult to decipher because no statistics were kept. Generally, patients did not discuss their motivations publicly; when they did, as in the pages of women’s magazines, they seldom discussed issues of race and ethnicity openly. Several studies that were completed in New York using data collected between 1946 and 1954 provide clues. One of these found that of seventeen potential patients, fourteen were children of immigrant parents and most of these were from Mediterranean or eastern European countries: six were eastern European Jews, five were Italian, one was Armenian, and one Greek; only one was Irish. Individual surgeons often published their own conclusions, drawn from anecdotal evidence collected in their practices. A unique window onto this world is offered by the patient records kept by New York plastic surgeon Jerome Pierce Webster. Covering primarily the years from 1930 to 1950, these records allow us access to the motivations and desires of patients who came in requesting surgery during these years.22



Of almost 400 patients who came to see Jerome Webster about their noses in these years, almost three-quarters were female. Most of the women were single; 73 were married, 12 widowed, 7 divorced or separated; the marital status of the rest was not given. Of the men, 56 were single, 33 married, 2 divorced or separated.
Given the fact that a nose job is a cosmetic operation-by definition, elective and expensive-the socioeconomic status of these patients is surprisingly broad. For both men and women, student was the occupation most commonly given (54 women, 23 men). Many in this group were already self-supporting (in general, those in college or postgraduate programs such as law school); for minors, parental occupation (not recorded consistently) generally identified the family as middle class (a few, clearly, were wealthy; more often, the family was poor). The two next largest occupational categories for women were clerical (45, ranging from bookkeeper to receptionist to telephone operator) and “at home” (38, mostly housewives). Performing arts came next (23), then beauty and fashion (19). The men, in general, described themselves as white collar (15) or professional (12). A surprising number of men and women noted occupations that were clearly either blue collar or working class in nature and in income: Webster's patients included florists, laundry managers, farmers, produce and dairy workers) piano teachers, firemen and policemen, laboratory technicians, electricians, and factory workers as well as aspiring movie stars. The nature of their complaints varied considerably: disease, trauma, sinus problems, and infections brought some patients in. By far the largest number, however 251 of 376, or two-thirds were motivated solely by cosmetic concerns. Of these, 17 specifically cited career reasons; an additional 26 cited cosmetic concerns as one of two or more factors.
Only a few prospective patients specifically cited ethnic concerns. But the terms they used to describe their noses suggest that many at these patients were aware of racial and ethnic stereotypes and reveal the extent to which “normative" standards had permeated their consciousness. Thus, while only 14 described their noses as “Jewish” and only 1 said “Italian,” the terms prospective patients used to justify seeking cosmetic correction clearly describe noses that were stereotypically un-American. In descending order: 84 described their noses simply as 'bad"; 58 used the word “deformed"; 23 complained of a bump, hump, or lump; 12 thought their noses “large,” the same number complained that the nose tip was unattractive; 7 said it was “long,” 4 said long with a hump; 2 said “crooked"; 1 used the term “broad"; another, long and thick. Those with what they considered abnormally small noses used similarly coded terms: only one said “negroid," but seven more said “saddle-nose”.
Anecdotal evidence from these patient records allows us to take a closer look at the complex ways in which ethnic and racial stereotypes, self-image, and aesthetic standards intertwined with the perceived demands of consumer culture. First, let us consider those patients whose primary stated concern was to advance their careers. Their stories are predictable, their words generally innocuous. In 1939 Alicia Martin was promised a screen test contingent on a nose job. Stage actress Audrey Banks carne in two years later because she wanted to make the jump to screen; she had passed the screen test, but her nose needed “touching up.” In 1943 one of singer Alice Hansen's agents suggested, that an improved nose might enable her to cross over to film. In 1957 secretary Christina Skouras and model Janet Calneron saw new profiles as stepping stones: Skouras had been invited to Hollywood but cautioned to change her nose before going west; Cameron had enjoyed some success making commercials but experts said she was held back by her nose, especially her profile.

As these cases suggest, many Americans believed that occupational mobility and opportunity were contingent on a particular facial configuration. Unemployed or underemployed at the time they sought Webster's help, they believed that surgery would enable them to move up within their chosen field or make the jump to a more lucrative and more interesting occupation. Clearly, all of them aspired to careers that would place them (if in some cases peripherally) in the public eye. But as the next group of cases demonstrates, many other Americans subscribed to these same standards. Robin Shapiro, Hope Steinberg, Cindy Ross, Rachel Frank, and Marcy Goldberg all young, single, and Jewish-came to see Webster between 1933 and 1953. Over a two-decade span, their concerns were remarkably similar. Shapiro had inherited her father's nose; it had not bothered her until friends started referring to her "beak" and asking why she didn't have something done. Steinberg-whose mother, Webster noted, had a “racial” nose-was “absolutely determined" to have hers altered. Ross was “extremely self-conscious" about her Jewish nose" and was particularly distressed by the "bulbous tip." Frank, too, had been unlucky: her sister had inherited their father's straight nose, but she had inherited the nose her mother had altered years ago. Goldberg, Webster observed, came by her large nose “honestly" as "father has large nose and mother's is definitely racial."


Americans of other ethnicities shared these young women's perception that less noticeable noses were desirable. Ida Davis, born in Lithuania and employed as a maid when she saw Webster in 1941, complained of the “prominent tip” of her nose. Reza Hakim, an Iraqi immigrant, had begun to feel while living in Chicago “that the normal hump of the near East people's nose was not satisfactory.” Susan Harjanian's schoolmates teased her about the large nose she had inherited from her Armenian parents, while Michael Baglione and Rita Cacciotti were both dissatisfied with large Italian noses.
Many of these patients cited the explicit or implicit goal of ethnic anonymity. They did not want to become something other than what they were-none cited a desire to pass, none changed their names, none planned to move away. But they did not want others to be able to identify them on sight as something other than generic American. They' wanted to be seen as individuals rather than as members of a group and to be able to control what they revealed about themselves to others. The fact that so many prospective patients from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds cited the issue of “difference" suggests that this concept clearly had as its reference point a standard of appearance that derived from a particular definition of ”whiteness"-not just Caucasian, but Anglo

Saxon. Americans, as Italians and others told sociologist Frances Cooke



Macgregor, were quick to categorize people they met, and they often mistook Italians for Jews, or Greeks for Italians, but rarely, if ever, did they mistake “ethnics” for WASPs.
Potential plastic surgery patients often claimed to hold no prejudices themselves: rather, they asserted, they were simply responding to twentieth-century American social conditions. Rita Cacciotti, for example, told Webster that while she had always disliked her nose, reading magazine articles had increased her dissatisfaction. On this point, however, no words are more revealing than those of non-Jews who feared and resented being mistaken for Jews.
Eleven prospective patients-seven women, four men-came to see Webster with this specific complaint between 1929 and 1957; the following stories are representative. Gretchen Algren, a thirty-five-year old housewife, was married to an army officer stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She had always been teased about her large nose, she explained and had learned not to mind. Recently, however, several people had revealed in chance remarks that they had mistakenly assumed she was Jewish, and she feared that she was holding her husband's career back. Webster's notes on Vivian Wolf's 1938 appointment read, “She is frequently mistaken for a person of Jewish heritage, although she is Catholic. At the New Haven Hospital the Jewish interns ask her to make dates.” The twenty-six-year-old medical technician had been engaged to an Irish medical student, but he broke it off-in large part, she suspected, because his friends kept asking him why he was marrying a Jewess. Jane Hatch arrived from England in 1941 to find that her nose-which in England was acceptably British-was, in the United States, assumed to be Jewish. She believed an operation would enable her to find a job that would better support her two children.
William Gordon was the most plainspoken of this group. In 1957 he was twenty-four; he had recently moved from New York's West Side because “every Jewish rabbi would talk to him in Yiddish." Gordon had been horrified by being “taken for a Jew," because (Webster recorded) “his great hero is Hitler!” Gordon's attitude was extreme among this group, but the sentiment was not unusual. Several complained that they had developed inferiority complexes because of these experiences. In all cases, patients were insulted that others had mistaken them for Jewish and were convinced that a nose job would eliminate the “social handicap” under which they labored.
Like their fellow\v immigrants who made a point of losing their accents, learning English and wearing typically American clothes, most of those who sought the more drastic solution of surgery wanted to blend in with people around them; they wanted to look “American." This desire was complicated by the fact that the face of America differed from region to region and had changed considerably due to successive waves of immigration and migration. But many Semitic and Mediterranean patients were not at all confused about what constituted the American face. The nose that looked most American, they believed, was the one that a few generations earlier had been widely caricatured as decidedly foreign. It was Irish.

The story of twenty-eight-year-old “Arthur Steelman;' originally ''Arthur Schulberger,” who participated in one of the studies documented by sociologist Frances Cooke Macgregor, is illustrative. Steelman had been conscious of anti-Semitism throughout much of his life. He was particularly sensitive to Jewish stereotypes and resented the extent to which Americans subscribed to them. “They try to put me in a category," he explained, “and Lord help me if I did anything vulgar or loud, or if I cheated…socially and economically I could be strangulated by this [his nose]." In the army, Steelman's ideal had been “any good-looking Irishman with a turned-up nose;” and he had a “burning desire to be accepted" by gentiles. He did not want to “pass” however, but to subvert the stereotype he was sure others held: “If my nose is changed, then I can show [gentiles] by my behavior that there are nice Jews. I'll be a goodwill ambassador. I can prove to people that I'm not only a 'white man' but a 'white Jew.'"


Like many Jews of his generation, Steelman left the operating room with the turned-up nose he had requested. Adjusting to a new self-image was at least initially, more difficult than he had anticipated: he was badly shaken by his first look in the mirror. “It’s like having someone else look back at you," he recalled. “A Jew has tremendous pride. That's why it's so difficult to get other Jews to admit their reasons for wanting a nasal plastic. I wanted a Jew to know I was a Jew.... At the same time I didn't want others to know I was a Jew. At first I was horrified when I looked like an Irishman. I was a man without a country. Now I'm beginning to get used to it." Once accustomed, however, Steelman claimed that not looking identifiably Jewish had enabled him to accept-even to enjoy-being Jewish, in his own way. “I think rd prefer to marry a Jewish girl ... we'd be the kind of Jews they'd like," he noted. “I can afford to be generous and accept Jews now because I know I don't look like one. Before, I identified myself with them and resisted them." Steelman's family also had to adjust. In front of Steelmlan, his brother told the interviewer that he had no problem with the surgery. Alone, however, he revealed the complexity of his own feelings about the operation. “Now I’ll tell you how I really feel,” he confided. “You see, I'm a Jew and I'm not ashamed of it, but it's a shock to have your brother look like an Irishman-not that I have anything against the Irish."
Some were more analytical and thoughtful about their motives than others, but most patients were aware that their desire for surgery had to do with what they perceived as the social realities of the United States. In other words, they were responding to standards of appearance and beauty peculiar to their adopted culture rather than to objective “aesthetic” norms. As surgeon Adolph Abraham Apton put it in his 1951 book on the psychological importance of plastic surgery, "I have operated on many persons of different ethnic groups who doubtless would never have considered surgical correction… if they had remained within their native borders. A nurse, of Lithuanian origin, confessed as much. She was anxious to be rid of her broad “Slavic” nose and to have one in conformity to that of the average American. A similar expression was that of an Armenian whose dominating desire was a nose along what he considered American citizen lines-a nose that would not be “too different.' In their belief that a clear norm existed, that deviation from it had costs, and that surgery was the best solution, patients were encouraged by the surgeons who offered correction. “What is considered a shapely nose in one culture might be considered a handicap in another," Oklahoma City surgeon Gilbert L. Hyroop observed in 1965. “There are certain persons who feel their racial characteristics are a hindrance to them, that they set them somewhat apart." In America, Hyroop contended, the outcome was obvious; big noses-even classical Greek or Roman noses, long considered the height of artistic beauty were simply no longer fashionable.
Again, Jerome Webster's case files offer an illuminating view of how the aesthetic standards and ethnic prejudices to which surgeons and patients subscribed intertwined with the propensity of medical practitioners to view requests as purely medical challenges to create powerful incentives toward homogenization. Audrey Scott came to see Webster in 1941. She was twenty-nine and single; she worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She had been “conscious of her nose all her life," but this consciousness did not keep her from accepting invitations, and (Webster noted with relief) she was not neurotic. She was “occasionally told that she is Jewish, or asked if she was Jewish." Webster then described the complaint in clinical terms. “Nose is fairly long, has a very slight hump, is somewhat broad near the tip and the tip bends down, giving somewhat the appearance of a Jewish nose." In words that reveal his own aesthetic prejudices, he concluded, “I think there is sufficient deformity to warrant changing the nose."
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