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Did You Know the Venus of Willendorf was Jewish?

The uneasiness that many Jewish women feel about their breasts did not spring up overnight, nor is it the result of an indigenous Jewish anxiety. Historically, the discourse on the Jewish women’s body was marked by sexist and anti-Semitic ideas about science, culture, and female beauty. In his book Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery (Princeton University Press, 1999), University of Chicago professor of liberal arts in human biology” Sander Oilman examines some of the insulting history:

One of the most evident visual stereotypes of the Jewish woman was that of the heavy-set female — The expansive image of the Jewish woman’s body had become a commonplace at the turn of the century. Hugo Obermaler (1877-1946), the Viennese archeologist who in 1908 discovered the “primitive” statue he labeled the “Venus of Willendorf,” entered the following note into his diary about it: “A schematically degenerate figure — No face, only fat and feminine, prosperity, fertility, compare today’s lazy/rotten [faule] Jewesses.” This image served as the basis for the anxiety about the “primitive” Jewish woman’s body.

To examine the origins of aesthetic breast reduction, one must understand that, like many of the other aesthetic procedures, the reduction of the pendulous breast came to have meaning within another system of representation, that of race. In the 1890’s Ernst Brucke wrote about the specifically racial nature of the breast. For him, the “German” breast was a youthful, underdeveloped breast, smaller and more juvenile than the “Italian” breast. Thus breast form, as one can see in the almost fetishized popular and semi popular cultural histories of the breast published by Brucke’s contemporaries, came to represent Images of idealized racial body types. Smaller breasts represented “Germanness,” as opposed to large, pendulous breasts which were read as a sign of the primitive…

The breast functions as a racial sign even in the basic aesthetic surgical guides to breast reduction [c. 1930] “[which focused on] the difference between the breasts of Europeans and other racial types, including the pendulous breasts of Jewish women.”

The cultural reading of breast reduction stressed the modernization (read: deracialization) of the woman’s body. Big breasts are signs of the primitive. The advocates of surgical breast reduction in Weimar, Germany stressed that pendulous breasts are unaesthetic and encumbering. “Sporty women” do not want to have pendulous, lopsided breasts. Women who are “full of life, undertake sport, swim, and dance” want breast reductions so that they can “pass” as “modern.” Truly elegant women with pendulous breasts suffer from “inferiority complexes.” Sport and the sporty female body become an icon of the modern woman….