When I was a college student, I remember, I wrote a paper on passivity in the Romantic poets—the passivity of men, not women. I can’t recall the poems that triggered my thoughts on the subject, but I still remember the chill it gave me to scrutinize the behaviors of people stifled and unable to act strongly for themselves, to be the agents of their own lives and destinies.
Tutored by the women’s liberation movement, we have become old hands at understanding passivity bred of silence. The silence of the abused woman or girl who thinks she won’t be believed if she names her abuser, the woman who fears retribution if she speaks the truth. We have learned to see the oppressive dynamics in families where women and children stifle their speech—and sometimes their dreams and desires as well—when they know that these will put them into conflict with a powerful male in the household.
All this “understanding” notwithstanding, I was shocked by two situations that leapt out at me as we were editing this issue of LILITH—a kind of silencing I would not have predicted we’d be experiencing this far along in the struggle. LILITH has always been a safe space for women to speak out. Yet two articles here are written by authors using pseudonyms, a situation I don’t love as an editor. I bring their circumstances into the foreground here because it is urgent that we not deny to ourselves how difficult it still is for women to speak their truths.
Each author chooses for her own reasons not to write under her own name, but both women are driven by oppression. Neither could be persuaded to relinquish her anonymity. A mother writing about her gay teenage son regrets the need to hide her identity; she’s doing it because her son does not feels safe enough in his public high school to be “out” in that community (though his buddies at Jewish summer camp have known for years). Haunted by news reports of hate crimes against homosexuals, she, understandably, honors his decision to remain closeted, at least for now. And a woman in her twenties, revisiting her bold choice at the age of 17 to defy her mother and have her breasts surgically reduced, finds herself unable to take that courage into her work life. She’s a writer in the first years of her career, and her ambitions keep her from revealing her identity in print when she’s writing about the change she has inscribed on her own body.
About breasts, a little background. Early adolescents dishing about their bodies talk about “getting your period.” Among middle-aged women the body-talk is all about hormone replacement therapy, osteoporosis and reading glasses. Breast cancer and its looming fears are a part of the subtext of any conversations among women, but unexplored until now has been another part of our breast consciousness. A dominant theme for many women in their twenties and thirties is how to have a buff form, a worked-out, tight taut body. This ideal is at odds with having large breasts (large in this case being relative, but perhaps meaning anything that jiggles when you run). And so the pleasures of breasts have been replaced, for some women, by a new breast-size anxiety.
Unlike menarche or menopause, the symptoms of which can be alleviated with Advil or yoga or estrogen, big breasts are likely to become smaller breasts only through surgery. And breast reduction surgery, if we can judge from how frequently the subject comes up in conversation these days, is a new rite of passage for women. While no breast surgeon would confirm for LILITH that Jewish women are more likely to seek out this surgery than other women, or that Jewish women are more likely to have breasts larger than some elusive “norm,” LILITH’s informal data suggests that this operation is on the possibility list of many young Jewish women. One says she is going to wait until she has a child, another says that she is interviewing all her friends who have had the surgery. A third says her friend’s older sister had her breasts reduced in high school, but no one in the family talked about it. “Oh yeah,” said a one-time LILITH writer. “I had my breasts reduced years ago. Didn’t I tell you?” Well, as usual, the current articles in LILITH do more than give you the first-person accounts, and include an analysis of why minority women are more likely to view their bodies as too fleshy and too “primitive.”
The shape of women’s bodies is changing, and so, less dramatically, is LILITH’s masthead. Sarah Blustain, an award-winning writer who has been on the staff for four and a half years, most recently as Senior Editor, joins our Contributing Editors now that she has moved from New York to Washington to become Managing Editor at The New Republic. Sarah’s best-remembered features at LILITH include a cover story on Black/Jewish young adults and features on right-wing women, patriarchal wedding practices, a trenchant profile of the hate mongering talk-jock Dr. Laura, and a groundbreaking report on the sexual misconduct of the late Rabbi Shlomo Cariebach. LILITH has for years been a fertile and nurturing workplace for writers and editors, so at the same time that we’re sorry not to have Sarah’s regular presence in the office, we are happy to continue to feature her writing and to benefit from her continued editorial input. Other changes: Yona Zeldis McDonough, a novelist and essayist, takes over as Book Editor in addition to her responsibilities for fiction in LILITH. Alice Sparberg Alexiou, whose byline has appeared several times in the magazine, comes on board as News Editor, and we welcome and we have invited two women in their midtwenties into the process of creating LILITH: Assistant Editor Rachel Kranson and Contributing Editor Danya Ruttenberg. We welcome all the new and enriching presences into the LILITH office and to these pages.