What are you looking at? A 'Jewish' face (whatever that means) is more complicated than you think

Our writer was bombarded with responses after writing a provocative piece on her own appearance. Here she explores the difference between religious and aesthetic identities

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I recently wrote a piece for The Independent about the pressure I’ve felt to conform to an unattainable archetype of Western beauty, my perspective being that of a young, Jewish woman in Britain.

There is a common assumption that such a thing as a stereotypically “Jewish” face exists. My intention was to discuss the origins of this idea, question why stereotypically “Jewish” looks have historically been deemed unattractive, and outline the implications this belief has had on my personal identity.

Respondents to the article fell broadly into three camps. There were those who focused entirely on my appearance, rather than the issue at hand. Some kindly reassured me I looked just fine, while others gleefully declared that I had fallen out of the ugly tree and been thwacked good and proper round the face by every branch on the way down. Either way, they missed the point – this wasn’t a vanity piece or a cry for validation: it was an effort to shine a spotlight on preconceived ideas of beauty and ethnicity, and call them into question.

There were also those who accidentally mistook me for David Ben-Gurion, and angrily demanded I return the land I had unjustly appropriated in 1948 to the Palestinian people I had displaced. This was strange, as I never identified myself as being either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine.

Prejudice

Trolls and hijackers aside, I was concerned to discover some people expressing outrage that I’d incorporated issues of culture and ethnicity into a piece apparently centring on aesthetics, and for “promulgating stereotypes of the worst kind”. A kneejerk reaction like this is, on the one hand, entirely understandable – the idea that there is a single “Jewish” face, and that this face is necessarily unattractive is indeed a deeply reductive, prejudiced and dangerous outlook.

Yet it fails to take into account the bigger picture, which is that this outlook does still exist, and that the only way we can successfully combat prejudice is by addressing preconceived ideas of beauty and ethnicity head on, however uncomfortable a prospect this may be. To suggest otherwise – that the very real experiences, attitudes and private anxieties of many simply do not exist, and must be disregarded – is surely a far more reductive, prejudiced and dangerous (not to mention deluded) stance.

For centuries, looks, personal identity, culture and ethnicity have been closely interlinked. As a human being – particularly as a woman – a major part of my identity is  the way I look. Another major part of my identity is my culture and ethnicity. Humans are social creatures, and our identities are, in many ways, socially constructed.

Thus, irrespective of whether or not there actually is such a thing as a “Jewish” face, I’ve grown up being told repeatedly that I am in possession of one, the implication always being that to look “Jewish” is either unfortunate, unappealing or simply unacceptable. Consequentially, for some years, I was under the impression that: a) Yes, a single “Jewish” face does exist; and b) Oh my God, it’s bloody horrendous!

This is by no means a positive or healthy outlook to have developed, but it’s not one I’ve just pulled out of my arsehole: it is a reflection of my experiences, and it mirrors, to some extent, the negative messages embedded within our society.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to actively challenge these attitudes and beliefs. Why not before? Because in 27 years, nobody has ever given me any reason to doubt them – popular culture and the media have in fact served to vigorously reinforce them.

As many faces as people

Sweeping generalisations such as, “All Jews have big noses” are, of course, incorrect; there are as many Jewish faces as there are Jewish people. It is a stereotype which persists though. The notion that looking “Jewish” entails a necessary failure in accomplishing or adhering to Western ideals of beauty is profoundly disturbing. Nevertheless, it is a belief which many people continue to subscribe to, be it explicitly, covertly or subconsciously.

Irrespective of whether or not you are Jewish, articulating anxieties, insecurities or confusion regarding this issue doesn’t make you guilty of anti-Semitic sentiment or of perpetuating damaging, lazy stereotypes: it means you’ve been affected by anti-Semitic sentiment or the prevalence of damaging, lazy stereotypes. How can we progress if we refuse to even acknowledge the existence of a problem?

And I do think part of the problem is that there is so much confusion surrounding what it is to be Jewish. Is Judaism a religion? A race? A culture? An ethnicity? Are all Jews Zionists? (I’ll answer this one for you – No!) Do all Jews hate Muslims? (Again, NO!) These are all questions I’ve been asked. Considering there is so much confusion amongst Jews and non-Jews alike, perhaps it’s not so surprising that people routinely fall back on – and sadly come to believe in – these longstanding and insidious stereotypes.

Women of all cultural backgrounds feel under immense pressure to pursue and conform to a homogenised ideal of Western beauty in order to be considered attractive, successful or of value. The fact that so many Jewish women are made to feel that there is something wanting in the way they look is an issue which desperately needs to be examined, not breezily dismissed as “provocative bullshit”, “anti-Semitic” or – worst of all – “Daily Mail-esque”.

It is a sensitive topic but a worthy one, and it warrants intelligent discussion. These worries and frustrations do exist, and it is only by sharing our experiences and beliefs – however negative or misinformed – and confronting these issues that we can hope to develop discourse, dispel common misconceptions, and truly tackle and overcome prejudice.

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