My nose has always been the biggest reason I struggle with self-esteem. I have my parents to thank — and theirs. The nose is basically a staple of my extended family. My sister lucked out and got a “non-denominational” nose: perfect slope, proportional to the rest of her face and everything. I did not. My nose is as “Jewish” as they come.
But what does that even mean? It’s important to unpack the baggage behind the concept of a “Jewish nose” because it is undeniably a stereotype with a dark and troubling past. There’s no proof that suggests Jews actually have larger noses. The popular image most people are familiar with today was invented by non-Jewish people to spread antisemitism and marginalize Jews for centuries. So how do I reconcile using this term when I’m aware of its oppressive history and scientific inaccuracy?
I like to recall the words of my favorite writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” She explains that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Here lies the truth: The stereotype of a “Jewish nose” is an incomplete story that ignores the incredible diversity of the Jewish community. Being Jewish does not mean having a big nose — the same way having a big nose does not mean being Jewish. The simple truth is that despite what people would like to believe, “Jewish” isn’t an appearance. “Jewish” doesn’t look any one way.
However, as is always the case with stereotypes, it doesn’t necessarily matter what any individual person thinks. All my life, other people looked at my nose and decided that it was Jewish for me. I grew up thinking I was born with an inherently ugly nose, and that it had something to do with my Judaism. And this is what I truly believed for most of my life.
When my sister and I were younger, my nose was the first thing she would criticize when we would get into one of our merciless verbal takedowns intended to emotionally destroy the other. She did it because she knew that blow would hurt the most. I would spend hours in front of the mirror crying and hating my nose.
Everywhere I looked, my insecurities were only reaffirmed to me by my family and friends. My aunt has never been able to give me an unconditional compliment. It was always, “You look great, sweetie — don’t worry, we’ll get your nose fixed when you turn 16,” or, “You have so much potential to be pretty, you just need to get that nose job.” She still tries to convince me, claiming it’s the one thing holding me back. My aunt got her own nose done decades ago and never looked back. I know that she only pushes it because she genuinely believes it will make me happier, but these are simply awful things to say to a teenage girl.
The not-so-gentle critiques of my nose didn’t just come from my aunt.
A boy I liked in my art class drew a portrait of me with a grossly exaggerated “schnoz,” as he so eloquently labeled it. As he showed it to me, I never felt so humiliated or self-conscious in my life, but I laughed because I knew that’s what he expected from me. Yet again, my nose was the punchline to a careless joke. At dinner with a close friend, she told me she would get the procedure done if she was in my place. Even people I barely know will just casually ask me why I haven’t considered the operation. They assume that since my nose is big, I must hate it.
Yet, that assumption — from family, friends, and strangers — has only made me want to learn to love my nose.
It hasn’t been easy. Weirdly enough, watching Lea Michele as Rachel Berry on Glee was actually crucial to my realization that I didn’t have to get a nose job. More importantly, I didn’t have to hate my nose. This is not to say that I don’t still struggle — I still can’t see side profiles of myself without cringing — but I’ve realized that there is a reality where I have this nose and still feel beautiful. And I am slowly becoming comfortable in that reality.
At 17 years old, I decided that I wanted to get a nose piercing. It was something that I had always wanted but never felt confident enough to even express out loud. The first time I brought it up, my dad’s immediate reply was, “Are you sure you want to bring any more attention to your nose?”
But that was the point. The point was that I finally felt good enough about myself to embrace my nose and decorate it instead of trying to hide or “fix” it. So, I dragged my mom and my aunt to the piercing parlor and did the bravest thing I’ve ever done in my life: I got my nose pierced.
Nevermind that six months later, the piercing got horribly infected, and I had to get it surgically removed (yikes). I regret the $2,000 hospital bill, but I don’t regret getting my nose pierced. Going through with it proved my self-worth to myself.
I know so many girls in my immediate Jewish community who have undergone rhinoplasty — or want to. Some have gone as far as calling it a “rite of passage.” And to be clear, I don’t think that my friends, my aunt, or my cousins got nose jobs because they hated themselves. I think they loved themselves enough to change something about their appearance in order to be happier. There is nothing wrong with that, and none of them would ever tell you that they regret it.
But getting a nose job was never something I wanted. It was always other people’s opinions clouding how I saw myself.
Right now, most days, I’m happy with what I see in the mirror. I’m proud of how hard I’ve worked to love myself. All of myself — brown skin, arm hair, and “Jewish nose” included. I don’t have a problem with that description anymore — I’m happily reclaiming it. My nose is Jewish. It has literally been shaped by my family’s race and religion. It’s a part of my Jewish identity and legacy. It’s also just a fucking nose. And I’m sick of letting other people’s ideas and expectations of beauty define me.