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  • Yael Sarig ‘24

My Nose

I’ve been worrying about how my nose looks since long before I was old enough to understand why beauty even mattered so much, far too young to understand the critical importance that would soon be ascribed to my face and body when I grew out of girlhood and into young adolescence.

My earliest memory of thinking about my face, judging it for its aesthetics or lack thereof, involves my grandmother, an Ashkenazi Jewish woman on my mother’s side. I love my grandmother, but I would never describe her as loving. She is a difficult person, always judging those around her, always implicitly setting some bar that you will inevitably feel you’ve failed to reach. My mother, her daughter, grew up facing constant scrutiny for her appearance—for her curly hair, for her lack of desire to put on a full face of makeup every day, for her “chubby” thighs, the latter comment sending her down a lifelong spiral of disordered eating that would later affect me, too.

My parents immigrated to America before I was born, so I never absorbed the full brunt of my grandmother’s critical eye. But when I was growing up, I spent entire summers in Israel, splitting my time between my mother and my father’s families, all of whom have remained in Israel. Beyond the days spent lingering at the beach and the pool, enjoying that sweet childhood innocence that can only come from a life lived without any responsibilities to oneself or others, I remember those summers because of my conversations with my grandmother. They centered around two things: my school performance and my nose.

My grandmother has a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish nose: broad and sloping, its tip slightly pointed and drooping. While she was undeniably a beauty in her youth, constantly having to rebuff her incessant male suitors, she hated her nose. I have always considered myself to have a Jewish nose too; it’s large, slightly crooked, with a bulbous tip that my eyes are immediately drawn to in any photo I see of myself. But compared to my grandmother’s nose, it’s small and dainty. In her words—a surgeon’s dream.

She would obsess over my nose with similar remarks—pinch it, fawn over it while in the same breath cursing her “Jewish nose.” Believing the praise she lavished upon me—at eight years old, I had no reason to believe her perspective could be skewed by her self-hatred—I came to think of my nose as an asset, came to think of its apparent non-Jewish appearance as a great boon. While I wasn’t cognizant of it, our interactions set in motion a process of associating Jewishness with ugliness.

I believed myself, and my nose, to be this perfect encapsulation of white European beauty throughout my early education. It was only when I stopped attending Jewish day school, when I began attending public school, that the mirage was shattered. On multiple occasions, I was teased for my nose. The first few times, I brushed off their comments. Yet they continued unrelentingly. Sometimes I was told outright that I had a big nose; middle schoolers don’t tend to mince their words. Other times, the interactions would be entirely non-verbal. I remember a boy in high school once asking me to list everything about my face and body that I was insecure about. He led me to believe that he was asking me for this list in good faith—because he couldn’t comprehend why I had so many insecurities—and, indeed, proceeded to refute each item on the list I’d sent, describing how beautiful he thought those hated features of mine were. By this point, my nose had made the list. He told me that it was unique—that it was a defining characteristic of my face, that the way it widened when I grinned was something deeply endearing to him. Even his saying that worsened my insecurity—unique? It widens when I smile? But weeks later, feigning playful teasing, he imitated something I’d said and asked: “Am I Yael yet?” Then, correcting himself, he pushed his index finger down onto the tip of his nose so that it would spread out and appear wider, fatter, uglier. “Wait, no, now I’m Yael!”

I hated my nose for years. I hated many of my Jewish features. I hated my Jewish hair. I hated how brushing it only worsened its appearance, turning it into a veritable mess of mousy brown frizz and fluff. I hated how it was constantly in knots. I envied my friends with blonde, pin-straight hair, and took to straightening my own nearly every day in middle school. I took to altering almost any trait I could that I felt made me look visibly Jewish. I bought colored blue contacts to cover up my muddy brown eyes—my grandmother said they made me look like Angelina Jolie. I masked my olive skin with makeup.

Yet of all of the traits I tried to alter, my nose remained the center of my attention. I wonder, sometimes, how many hours of my life I spent contouring my nose to make it look slimmer, to make it look smaller. I painted on large winged eyeliner every day to make my eyes look large enough to balance out my nose. I spent years dreaming of receiving my first adult paycheck and finally getting a nose job. It was constantly reinforced to me that Judaism was ugly, whether this was communicated explicitly in the media or implicitly by the way men would give me more attention when I manipulated myself to appear less Jewish.

I wish I had a moment of reckoning, a powerful anecdote to relay about the moment I realized that my Jewishness is beautiful, that my features have been passed on from generation to generation, that my most hated traits are living proof of my ancestors’ survival even after centuries of attempts to wipe them off of the face of the earth. But I have no such memory to relay. At some point, when I graduated from high school and began attending Brown, the importance of my appearance seemed to fade. I held steady romantic relationships, which gave me something to latch onto: evidently, people found me attractive enough to date. My schoolwork became intense far faster than I could have expected. I was drowning in work every day, staying up late to finish lab reports and study for gen chem and complete problem set after problem set. I just didn’t have that much time to worry about how I looked. And college is much less of a Mean Girls-esque zoo than high school is. I was surrounded by people who seemed to appreciate me far more for my intellect—for my hobbies and passions—than for my sense of fashion and beauty (or lack thereof). At Brown in particular, I was surrounded by individuals with such genuine and deeply-rooted interests in the most niche of subjects. There was, seemingly, no pecking order here, let alone one based on who looked most like a Victoria’s Secret model.

I think today of my Jewish identity, fragmented as it has become on College Hill. I feel a deep sense of loss sometimes. I never fully integrated into Hillel, and never found a community of Jewish friends. My connections to Judaism are tenuous at best; they always have been, even before moving to Rhode Island forcefully uprooted me from the Jewish community I’d built back home. Even when I was attending Jewish day school as a child, and Hebrew school as a teenager, I knew that I was far more an ethnic and cultural Jew than a religious or spiritual one.

But back home with family, the holidays are properly celebrated, Hebrew is spoken exclusively, and I feel a sense of effortless identification. At Brown, I have to strive to remind myself I’m Jewish. I can’t count how many times I’ve realized an essential holiday has passed—some as important as Rosh Hashanah or Passover—well after the fact. I feel a sense of deep shame when this happens, a sense that I’m losing not only an integral part of what makes me me, but also that I’m letting those people who tried to smite the Jews for so many years win. My mother used to tell me that maintaining my Jewish identity was so important because if I didn’t, I was letting Hitler win. A bit harsh for a child to hear, perhaps, but it sent the message home: Judaism is bigger than me.

Yet I remain Jewish, inescapably so. I was reminded of it anytime I walked through campus after October 7th. I spent those first few weeks wearing my hamsa and Star of David necklaces with an urgent desperation, a need to show that we were still here. I was reminded of my Jewishness at a vigil for those who had been murdered in Israel on October 7th, when I wept so hard my body shook and I found myself physically clinging to Jewish acquaintances I hadn’t spoken to in months, if not years. I was reminded of it when my grandparents, and even some kind professors, suggested that I might be better off hiding my Jewish identity, taking the necklaces off, just until things died down. I felt more shame in hiding those necklaces than I ever had before, every forgotten holiday paling in comparison to the tremendous guilt I felt at letting my jewelry rust away in a dark corner of my room. 

I take solace now in the fact that there are parts of me that are Jewish in ways I can never hide. My nose is a marker of my identity, a constant reminder that I was never the girl I pretended to be in middle and high school. It is a reminder that I am a descendant of ancient people who have faced oppression and attempted erasure at every turn. And the fact that these features have survived, that my face still bears that marked imperfection, is a reminder that we are survivors. I’ve come to think of my Judaism now not as a matter of beauty or ugliness, but as a matter of resilience, of the enduring of that which was very nearly eliminated. To alter my nose would be to acquiesce.

My grandmother coped with antisemitism, with societal standards of beauty, by adopting self-loathing. Initially, I found solace in becoming indifferent to my appearance. Yet I’ve now come to believe that neutrality is not the solution. I believe in reclamation: in wearing my Jewish nose, my Jewish hair, my Jewish identity proudly. I believe unapologetically and unconditionally that my big, Jewish nose is perfect—just as my grandmother had told me all those years ago. 

Illustration by Ella Goodman.

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