We dream new maps of ourselves, new landscapes. We inscribe new, more suitable borders on the places we have always lived
The surgeon’s fingers lift and separate. They reach in for a handful, resection, remove. When everything heals, what is left will be smaller, cooler, neater in the way that buds are neater than flowers. The tine white wake of the scalpel will be there forever, a reminder of the trade.
“I don’t know,” I say to a friend who is contemplating her second voluntary foray into plastic surgery. At sixteen she was given a brand new nose, a goyische nose, debumped, retrofitted to go with the rest of her shayna punim, the blonde hair, robin’s-egg eyes, patrician brow. “I’ve been thinking lately that cosmetic surgery seems so Christian, all that pain and self-sacrifice on the theory that everything will be better the closer you can make yourself, or rather, the closer someone else can make you, to God’s image.” She wrinkles her manmade nose. “Though I suppose the image would depend on who you’d decided God was. Or maybe I’m just thinking too much.”
“You’re thinking too much,” she sighs, irritated. Then she grabs her breasts through her shirt, lifting their round heaviness with both hands, showing me, the small breasted friend, the evidence for her discontent. “Look. I’m just tired of looking like my mother, that’s all. I’m only 28.”
We get tired of looking like our mothers. We get tired of the roll, the drape, the weight of our flesh. Our breasts fill us out, round us, but never only where they’re supposed to. They can’t stay there, high, centered, firm, long enough. Gravity wins.
When they are more than a handful they round our backs sometimes, and our shoulders too. They tattle our blood and our hidden parts right through our clothes. Secondary sexual characteristics. Body parts whose purpose is, at least in part, to indicate sex. To make it obvious. Not just male female, but sexual maturity—who is and isn’t biologically ready to go. They stick out because they’re designed to, because knowing the difference between the people who have them and the people who don’t is important.
We’re familiar with this sticking-out business, we are. We’re Jews, and women. Our awareness of our own difference hangs in the air like perfume, the scent of difference, of diaspora, of galut. That state of making yourself at home in someone else’s home is home. But we bloom where we’re planted, within the boundaries and lines imposed by the territory where we land. We try not to stick out too much, remembering that stigma’s sooty veil catches on things that stick out where they’re not supposed to.
Still our curves insist upon fitting space to their own needs, dimpling, rippling the borders we have been assigned. One at a time the ripples are barely noticed, but ripples add to ripples already there, and soon our ripples are swells, even waves, and our waves are scarily real, rooted in mass, in weight, in meat made redder because of our red Jewish blood. Even though now most of us are sanitized, white, middle and upper class, our ethnic bodies still pump that blood, still pass it on. We try, but our bodies have not yet—not all of them, anyway—learned how to be respectable White folk.
It’s embarrassing. The erotics of the ethnic female body are fierce and fleshy, forced there by classism and racism and the way we associate the low and the ample. Abundant flesh, ample breasts, childbearing hips mean the vulgar, the low, the old-world and ignorant, an excessive flouting of the principle of rarefied renunciation whose ascetic aesthetic unites those who have enough privilege to look bounty in the face and turn it down. And so our typical bodies, our Jewish bodies, like African-American bodies, Hispanic bodies, are rarely seen as sexy. But they are definitely seen as sexual, fecund, the bells of all those stereotyped curves clanging a loud primal song, suggestive and raw. Ay mami’. my yiddishe mamma, hey big mama, must be jelly ’cause jam don’t shake like that.
When the wide white world imagines ethnic women’s bodies, there is an overpowering smell of the uncontrollable sea and the rich dark earth, clouds of aroma that seem to block out the sight of Heaven, shatter the crystals of the ideal. The earthy actualities of being sexual are not sexy. Sexiness—the desirability of the idealized sexual—is a fragile confection of longing, yearning to transcend time, flesh, our own frailties. So white, so rich, so endless, so overwhelming in its pleasure, so streamlined, so slender, so graceful, so just-so; in this time and place it is also so young, so angular, so unrelated to reproduction, so gym-toned, so taut, so devoid of the unruly bulges that betray the unaccountable variability of being human.
Something about the map is wrong, we know, but we blame the land, not the map. not those who drew it. We are unable to stop these betrayals of body against ideal, of the land against the map. Bodies do what they will do. And we repent our helplessness over our flesh in bulky garments that hide our torsos and chests, in minimizer bras, in shoulders-forward posture, in gyms, under the surgeon’s knife. We repudiate the parts that protrude, that snag that sooty fabric of difference and carry it helplessly along. We do not show off our breasts. Our mothers and grandmothers would have a fit. They know exactly what it is like to have our bodies. Don’t show it off. Don’t be obvious. That Sweater makes you look so top-heavy, you can’t wear that, you look like a tramp, If you want to be taken seriously, you have to look like it. We subdue, we minimize, we conceal, we rearrange, subtract, slice off, hide. We do it to be safe, to make it more possible to be ogled on our own schedule if it must happen at all. We do it so as not to protrude, not to intrude, not to impose our ellipses and ovals and fine thick curves on the grid of other people’s perceptions. We hide because the less is seen the more is left to imagine as ideal. We hide to shield ourselves from our ethnic bodies, to shield ourselves from the assumptions and comments those bodies collect, snagging on what protrudes, slowing us, threatening like undertow. We hide so that less is known and less is different, because a kippah under a baseball cap is still a kippah but you look much cooler and no one teases you or tries to rip it off your head. Assimilation is creamy with safety, more luscious than our breasts.
I imagine us dreaming new maps of ourselves, new landscapes. Insistently we will ravish the worlds we live in with our lushness, our wit, our capacity, our spirit. We will take lovers and put them gently between our breasts to warm them, to imbue them with our scent and the revelatory memory of our flesh like ramparts around them. We will inscribe our own new borders in the places we have always lived, and they will not be careful, parsimonious, or modest out of fear. We will draw them with the quill the scribe uses for Bereshis bara Elohim. and they will curve with the right, heavy abundance of sure dignity.
Hanne Blank: is the author and editor of several books on sexuality and body image, including Zaftig: Well Rounded Erotica (Cleis Press,. Spring 2001). Current projects include a biography of busty, loudmouthed Jewish singer/comedienne Sophie Tucker, “the lust of the red-hot mamas.”