Ethnic identity and body image through the rearview mirror
There. I said it.
Not that you can really keep something like that a secret. Disengage from a face-to-face conversation, turn at a slight angle, and wham, the curve hits their vision and shatters the flat lines of space. Some appreciate the interruption from monotony. Others shift uncomfortably, unnerved by the sudden disappearance of order and control.
Thanks to two decades of hip-hop and the (literal) overexposure of Jennifer Lopez, big butts have now settled comfortably into public discourse. Yet Jews have not embraced the cultural acceptance of thick chicks with round behinds--despite the fact that there are many among our ranks. Sure, we may dance to hip-hop tracks like 'Back That Thang Up' or 'Baby Got Back.' But is the average Jewish guy reallysincere when he raises a beer and shouts along, 'You's a big fine woman / won't you back that thang up.'Methinks no.
'You're a white girl shaped like a black girl,' my friend Anika put it bluntly. 'And the African American men in my family love a healthy woman.' We devolved into a Jimmy the Greek-style postulation of my booty's origins. Was it courtesy of my Middle Eastern father, a dark-complexioned Israeli with a notable 'bump' himself? Or did it stretch back to ancient days, when, according to some speculators, the original Hebrews were black?
'I mean, look at those tomb paintings of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt,' offered my friend Dyann, a churchy Pentecostal girl who was raised to believe that the Jews were God's chosen people, and was eager to make the connection. 'They're shown as brown and black! And where do you think those full lips, and those springy curls come from? From us, that's who.'
Grateful that somebody supported me for draggin' this wagon, I didn't protest. She had a point. Indeed, my butt has been a cultural ambassador, a passport to insta-credibility in many a multiracial setting. 'Look, it's Heavy Chevy,' I was habitually greeted at the door of my favorite Latin music club. 'How much junk you got in that trunk tonight?'
And, wanting to be down, I again kept quiet. In an age when race can still be the elephant that nobody mentions, people quietly size each other up for nonverbal cues of who's Us and who's Them. I guess you could say I made it in through the back door. My body engenders a level of trust among some black folks--who, for the record, I'm aware come in a variety of sizes, too. And since among Jews, it has regularly marked me an outsider ('You mean you're not on a diet?'), it's a relief to be accepted somewhere.
When it comes to dating, my butt launches me into choppy, racially charged waters. To the average Jewish guy, my body is old world flavor in a new world order. It conjures images, perhaps, of their sturdily built grandmothers, fresh from Ellis Island, stooped over sinks preparing borscht, or wearing babushkas and tilling the barren soil of the Russian steppe. I suspect they're looking for a sleeker model than my reliable old Chevy. Experience has proven: If I wanted to date only Jewish men, I'd be ass out.
But put me in front of a newly minted immigrant, a middle-aged man with Lolita fantasies, or a sizeable number of black or Latino men in America, and I'm the embodiment of fantasy and cultural ideal: 5 feet 2 inches and 155 pounds with back and a rack. A little roundness to the tum, some thickness to the thighs . . . to these fellas, that's good eatin'.
As a result, my dating scorecard includes one Jewish guy, a handful of non-Jewish white guys, and men of color aplenty. It's not based on preference. Just the question, fueled by self-esteem: Why join a club that doesn't want you as a member?
Yet . . . I'm white, for all intents and purposes. I tan to a deep eggshell color and my melanin meter is on E. But I also have enough loyal black and Latina girlfriends to retain a storehouse of their painful experiences. They've all endured rejection by men of color who expected them to be my antithesis: ethnic girls who look white. A bigger body is still cool, for the most part--but longer hair, lighter skin, and green or hazel eyes receive preference.
Possessing all those traits myself, I get a spontaneous surge of sisterly guilt with each new nonwhite boyfriend. Is it a case of take-the-best-and-leave-the-rest, ethnic in body and white by trait? Does this guy have an 'issue' with the women of his culture that he's acting out on me? I've gotten pretty good at filtering out those fools. I once declared a short-lived ban on guys who hadn't dated 'their own' women. Hypocrisy registered swiftly and I lifted the embargo, since my own scorecard was mostly devoid of Jews.
But in many ways, my guilt about hurting women of color by dating interracially is there because I owe black women my life. They gave me a vocabulary that allowed me to rise above an all-consuming body hatred replete with obsessive exercise, calorie-cutting, and self-loathing. My black girlfriends called my thickness 'healthy' and modeled their own girth with a confidence that shattered everything I'd been taught to believe. Thanks to their influence, I fell into step and gradually came to embrace myself the way I was built. So my house was made of bricks, not twigs? Solid, man.
But home is where it all begins. I was raised by amazing, capable Jewish women who consider body fat the complete antithesisof healthy--a no-brainer reason to skip dessert and denounce their bodies publicly. On a recent trip home to Detroit, I found myself shouting at a family Shabbat dinner: Can we have one fucking meal where we don't talk about dieting?
It was almost comical: My aunt was suggesting that my 22-year-old sister try some aging celebrity's diet program. My mom was slicing herself a wafer-thin serving of apple pie, muttering that she'd have to jog an extra mile tomorrow, and handing everyone else gargantuan, ice cream-covered slabs. My uncle was protesting the size of his portion, making arrangements to join my mother's morning jog, and reminding his delightfully chubby 8-year-old daughter that she should only eat half of her pie because she didn't want to be fat like her auntie Rozzie. My Israeli father, never known for his tact, added, 'Quiet you with this nonsense. You will all cry that you are fat and then you will eat all the day. Just eat the pie, then go be fatsos on a diet tomorrow.'
Needless to say, I lost my appetite.
All this posterior postulation leads to a bigger, blunter question: Are Jews white? On one level, the answer is duh, of course not; we exist in many colors and nationalities. My own father is regularly mistaken for Mexican in our provincial hometown. But as American racial politics define whiteness, we are peeps of the paler persuasion.
And, dare I say it, the average American Jew is more than okay with that. Caught like 'Moishe in the Middle' between the extreme stereotypes of 'black' and 'white,' which side do Jewish folks choose? Let's see, there are the darker people on the six o'clock news getting clubbed by police officers (hello, pogroms) and forced to live in impoverished ghettos (hello, Eastern Europe). Then there are the even-toothed WASPs livin' large on yachts, decked in nautical gear the price of a small apartment (hello, assimilation; good-bye persecution, McCarthyism, immigrant poverty, Holocaust). Who wouldn't want to change his name to Blair and move to Connecticut?
I'm being outrageous here. But I believe Jews with white skin have found a buffer zone in assimilation and the somewhat naive belief that we are average Americans, really no different from our German or Irish neighbors. In many cases, there is great truth to this. Other times, Jews mythologize white America, acting out a cartoonish imitation. A Jewish couple invented the Barbie doll--the ultimate icon of Aryanism--in 1959. Even my own father, despite his Sephardic heritage, dark skin, and strong accent, believes himself to be a white man.
I'm not trying to form conspiracy theories against my own people. I just believe we suffer when we deny our unique connections to people of color. American Jews have been part of many multiracial coalitions and movements, from civil rights to hip-hop. Some of us are either mistaken for--or (gasp) literally are--black, biracial, Latino, Mizrahi, Middle Eastern, African, and so on. Jews can and do swing both ways. But that seems to be a well-kept secret, perhaps out of fear that once Jews are 'racialized' it will spawn another Nazi-style conspiracy that will lead to our demise.
Heaven help us if we admit in public that, you know, a lot of Jews do have kinky hair, or full lips, or prominent noses, or big butts. And slap on a gag order if we dare say that these traits triggered our 'Jewdar' (my Semitic equivalent of gaydar) and allowed us to identify someone as a fellow Jew. 'Oh come on, Ophi,' I've been chastised wearily. 'Not all Jews have those features.' No kidding, I say, pointing out my own stick-straight hair. But not all black people can be identified on sight as black, either. Isn't it human nature to seek out reflections of yourself in others, or connections between your group and another?
Well, maybe not. But I imagine that Jews might have a lot less body neurosis and a lot more fun if we took a page from some of our darker brethren and widened the scope of body types we consider beautiful. My God, we might even let ourselves eat the vast amounts of food we prepare. I mean, how many holidays are in a Jewish year, each one requiring an elaborate meal? Likewise, we could teach the rest of the world to make really good matzoh ball soup. It would be a cultural exchange of sorts, our way of saying thank you.
Seems fair enough to me. Perhaps my fellow Jews are, um, a little behind the curve. I guess I'll just have to sit on this one until they come around.
Ophira Edut is the editor of Body Outlaws: Young Women Write About Body Image and Identity (Seal Press 2000). Her Web site, The Jewess Is Loose, is at www.ophira.com.