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Beauty as a Prison and a Path to Freedom

Two new books, Looking Jewish: Visual Culture & Modern Diaspora by Carol Zemel and Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln, address the disruption created by a visual culture that prioritizes primarily Western, white, and gentile beauty relegating all those who do not fit into this category to the nebulous, always subordinate “other.”

In Looking Jewish, with a purposeful ambivalence and an attention to detail that prevents generalization, Zemel examines the art that has arisen from diaspora in its various stages. First, she discusses photography by Alter Kacyzne and Moshe Vorobeichic, which document the transient period during the 1920s and 30s when shtetl culture was dissolving into widespread Jewish migration and modernization was taking hold. Second, Bruno Schulz’s modern depictions of himself and fellow exiles as grotesque pariahs. Third, Roman Vishniac’s nostalgic portrayals of a lost pre-Holocaust world.

The fourth section addresses stereotypes like the Yiddishe Mama, who became distorted into the Jewish mother trope, along with her Jewish Princess daughter. These stereotypes, argues Zemel, function as both markers of difference and passages to assimilation in societies that make assimilation possible only when one submits to existing as a stereotype. Essentially, one is allowed “in” only as someone “out.” The Jewish Princess, Zemel writes, “eager to straighten her hair and nose, unable to celebrate her own dark, aquiline features,” becomes acceptable only “as a Princess grotesque.”

This dissociation becomes a kind of diaspora often mutating into a consuming obsession, with weight in particular, that can prevent women from living out their lives in full.

Beauty Sick is full of testimonies by women caught up in a world that sees the “other” as the “monster.” Engeln declares that the female obsession with body weight and appearance is a “sickness.” Yet she spends the first three quarters of the book telling stories of women with various body image issues, running into a tenuous hypocrisy as she admonishes women for spending so much time talking with each other about body image while doing just that. Because of this, Beauty Sick is less a healing manual for women struggling with body image issues than a blunt, visceral portrayal of beauty sickness as it manifests itself in lived experience.

 In the book’s final section, which is unfortunately brief, Engeln proposes potential solutions to these problems. A few gems of advice: turn away from destructive media, watch what you say to other women, stop thinking about your body as something visual and think of it rather as something that does something. Engeln emphasizes by telling the story of a young Jewish girl whose teacher helped her learn to manage her dark hair. This was an act of kindness, not a forced imposition of beauty standards: her teacher helped her avoid hours of painful straightening, instead showing her how to care for her curls, teaching her that self-care does not have to confine itself to the Western beauty manual.

Ways of seeing, and being seen, constantly influence feelings of self-worth. As both Looking Jewish and Beauty Sick reveal, visual culture can extend far deeper than skin—but both offer opportunities for redemption, as seen in the powerful feminist art cited by Zemel. Eleanor Antin’s “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture,” features images of a woman’s body at different stages of weight loss. Instead of idealizing the female body, Antin’s images resemble a medical record or a mug shot rather than a photoshoot, and this works to subvert efforts to commodify the body. Hannah Wilke’s “Venus Pareve,” a series of female busts all in various colors, including green, black, and lavender. The different colors serve to expand racial limitations, expanding ideas of what constitutes the goddess figure. Then there’s Rhonda Lieberman and Cary Leibowitz’s “Chanel Chanukah,” which features a menorah made of a Chanel bag with lipstick candles and Chanukah gelt. The piece plays on the Jewish Princess stereotype, subverting it by claiming ownership of it.

 Engeln, like Zemel, advises women to learn to adjust their focus, to stop portraying “other” as something negative, to stop believing that beauty can look only one way; and to elevate and care for each others’ unique forms and traits.

 Both these books address the complexity of beauty, and offer much-needed representation for women and peoples whose displaced identities are written on their flesh.


Eden. A. Gordon

 

© 2011 Lilith Magazine