When I was growing up in the 1950s, girdles were the unseen uniform of girls and women. The devolution of Victorian corsets and bustles, girdles were the equivalent of society’s machinations to redefine feminine beauty. Body image anxieties were nothing new! Moreover, if your derrière was in need of more, not less, you could wear a padded girdle to round out your bottom and a padded bra to give you more cleavage. I myself received instructions from my older brothers to put Kleenex in my bras to make myself more attractive. The Miracle Bra was a national best seller. Eventually, Queen came out with the hit song “Fat Bottomed Girls” in 1978, and the societal requirement to wear a girdle began to fade away.
I drank the Kool-Aid. I wore the undergarments. I had bouts of anorexia. I was so concerned about saggy skin that I wore panty hose with my bathing suit. Crepey skin wasn’t my greatest concern. That anxiety was reserved for my Jewish nose and piano-stick calves. There were no padded nylons to give you shapely calves—the kind that my cheerleader girlfriends had in abundance. My mother and father, who had noses similar to mine, thought that I was just perfect “as is.” My mother was fond of saying that she married the man she loved and was happy, even with the same-shaped nose I inherited from her. But my younger sister, whose large nose bore no resemblance to theirs, had it bobbed at the initial surge of cosmetic surgery in the early 1960s. I was permanently pissed over the obvious preference they displayed toward my sister’s body image angst, even though my mother said that the surgery was required to assist her in finding a husband. They called it a “Shiksa preference”—the preference of Jewish men for blonde women with small noses. (I wonder if that is why I was attracted to blond men. For me, it was “Shkutzim preference.”)
I was spared worrying about growing horns until college. While visiting a friend in her dorm room, I met a young woman from Delaware who inquired about the origin of my maiden name, Gozansky. I explained that my ancestors were Eastern European Jews. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I’ve never met a Jewish person before. How do you hide your tail and horns?” Dumbstruck, I went home and looked up the anti-Semitic notion that Jews have tails and horns. According to Ophir Yarden, the current director of education of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and a senior lecturer in Jewish and Israel studies at Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, “Folk beliefs about horns and big noses have served to demonize Jews—and even Jews themselves have not been exempt from distorted images of their bodies.” After that college incident, I laughed until I cried. I had no horns or tail, and I didn’t believe that other Jews did, either. However, I certainly had a big nose. There was a demeaning joke attached to that body part, too: Jews had big noses because the air was free. Unfortunately, there is no song glamorizing big noses.
Now I wear minimizer bras to flatten my chest. A vacation is no holiday if I have to wear a bra at all. There is no more Spandex in my closet, and my legs have been liberated from nylons (and pointy high-heeled shoes) for decades. My nose was bobbed at age fifty, and my neck was tightened and my eyebrows lifted for good measure. I occasionally still pinch my jaw to pull up the skin on my neck while looking in the mirror. I happily remind myself that, at my stage in life, I have sworn off more surgery. What’s the lesson here? Body image issues—whether influenced by ignorance and bias or by societal norms of beauty—are destructive to the soul, confining to the spirit, and downright uncomfortable.