As I’ve talked about, I am moderating a panel at BlogHer on Kids and Body Image. It’s started my thinking about a piece of my own youth.
From the time I was little, I got high praise for not looking like who I was. In my 1950’s Jewish world of NYC, “You don’t look Jewish” coming from Jews was a compliment. I have a small straight nose. My mother, who was a stunningly beautiful woman, and knew it, was beaming at my nose from the time I was small. I remember lots of comments on my nose and don’t recall any about my other features til I was in my teens. The message was that you look wonderful because you don’t look like me.
It certainly felt like praise but it was also confusing. There was also a strong element of class in this, because looking like a gentile was perceived as looking like a “better” class of person.
In my neighborhood of mostly Jewish intelligentsia who were (mostly) proud of being Jewish, my style of looks were often too appreciated. “You don’t look like us” shouldn’t feel like a compliment from one’s people, but when you’re a kid it does.
And in my high school lots of girls I knew got “nose jobs” as a graduation present. It really bothered me. When I think about it, my objection to people’s “correcting” their looks may have some beginnings there.
As soon as I left NY “you don’t look Jewish” stopped feeling like a compliment. It was coming from people who knew that Jews had kinky black hair and big noses and olive skin. Not to mention the silver horns we kept in the box under the bed. So of course I heard a lot more anti-Semitism, since no one was watching their mouth.
It gave me a lot of unearned privilege (above and beyond the primary privilege of whiteness) and I was aware of it. Although at 20 I didn’t have the language to discuss it clearly. It made me feel like my outsides and my insides didn’t match. It’s a different experience of internalized anti-Semitism if it comes from praise and not criticism.
I tended to introduce my Jewishness early in the conversation. Even though the next remark was frequently “Really, you don’t look like one.”
It certainly didn’t seem like a big thing then, in part because I had some modest sense of how privileged I was. And partly because I lived in a world where assimilatory anti-Semitism was like air. And the existentialism that was my lens for viewing the world at that time was useless.
I’m talking about things that happened between 60 and 40 years ago and I’ve dealt with them in lots of different ways over the years
I’m not sure what this brings up for the panel. Writing about “Not looking like one” is the first time I’ve considered this considered in quite a while. I’m not sure where this is going in terms of children and the panel. But I think I’ll probably have some concrete ideas about that by the conference in July.