Our Bodies–As We See Them, and As Others Do

This season has seen a crazy explosion of outdated and limiting images of women, often specifically Jewish women. Is it the recession? Does economic anxiety cause people to unleash these thoughts?

In its December issue, Details magazine, that laddie mag for men in a state of arrested development, ran a feature entitled “The Rise of the Hot Jewish Girl.” It touted the joys of Jewish women’s bodies—as if there were one single body type for everyone who identifies as a Jew. “Big natural boobs” were among the lusted-after characteristics all Jewish women are thought to possess, and the Details website (not to drive any traffic there, dear reader) lists Queen Esther, Theda Bara, Betty Boop and La Stresiand as part of our sexual (and embodied) inheritance. In fact, it’s an old trope. In literature, Jewish women for centuries have been viewed the other—seen by non-Jews as exotic, desirable, or dangerous. Sometimes all three at once. You can imagine where this is all going, without even reading the article, which fetishizes Jewish women’s bodies in a way that harks back centuries. Old bias in new clothing. Or no clothing.

Oh…and the illustration for the magazine piece featured the bare back and scantily-pantied bum of a headless, limbless torso, a Jewish star tattooed above the panty line.

I am not making this stuff up, I swear. And there’s more.

The past few months have seen nasty characterizations I thought we’d washed out of the culture 20 years ago. It’s an appropriate time, what with the new decade and all, to take a look at the parallels between then and now.

Then: Jewish women (I’m talking 1980s here) were characterized as JAPs (no insult intended towards Asians; as you’re well aware, reader, the sobriquet Jewish American Princess is the root of this acronym). The JAP was in those days reviled in cartoons, books, greeting cards and everyday teen talk and adult slang. A Jewish female too young to be a Jewish Mother (though she might indeed be a mother) and immature enough to be completely preoccupied with herself, she was characterized as demanding. Materialistic. Spoiled. Never mind that she’s not that different from a lot of other well-educated middle-class females. This stereotypical Jewish woman is blamed for wanting to marry a doctor, blamed if she wants to become a doctor. Too passive, and also too aggressive. Not much room to maneuver there.

Now: the stereotype has been reborn, but in different clothing. Literally. You’ll discover in the Voices section of this issue that “Coasties” are Jewish women from New York or LA, reviled on YouTube and on their Midwestern campus for dressing alike in popular brands and spending too much of “Daddy’s money.” (Please, please make sure to note the assumption that all spending money comes from fathers, not mothers.)

And also now: the New York Observer, an otherwise respected, often reliably hip weekly newspaper, publishes a straightfaced report about “cheetahs”—sexually assertive and desperately marriage-deprived New York women in their late 20s or 30s who are described as taking routine advantage of drunken men, having sex with them and then not even having the decency to leave before morning. Women—Jewish women at least—have in the past been reviled by comedians and disgruntled lovers for being frigid or uninterested in sex. Here, women are reviled for acting too boldly on their desires. Not much room to maneuver here either. The cheetah is posited as the “younger niece” of the cougar, that predatory woman who pursues men younger that she is. Please pause here to note that the animal imagery for women has shifted. Women used to suffer poultrification—we were called chicks, mother hens, old birds. But no one is afraid of poultry. But these big cats, at least in real life and not just as metaphors, are fearsome: cheetahs, cougars, jaguars. What’s coming next?

Lilith offers, as usual, an antidote to these demented and actually rather scary projections about Jewish women’s bodies, motives and desires. Taking you in entirely different directions, in these pages Lilith looks in a nuanced way at what some Jewish women think—and experience—about their bodies and their relationships. From breast cancer and gender dysmorphia and cutting to the holiness of how we feed ourselves, and how we care for the body when life has departed.

As all of us––Lilith readers and writers alike––strive to tell the truth, and hear the truth, about Jewish women’s lives, here’s a toast to a decade of continued development. L’Chaim. Happy 2010.

–Susan Weidman Schneider