Faces are as malleable as notion of beauty

by Rob Kuznia

For some people, happiness can be bought.
Sander Gilman, a professor from the University of Chicago, spoke Wednesday at the Weisman Art Museum about how physiological stereotypes of German Jews in the late 1800s caused many of them to seek aesthetic surgery in order to attain happiness.
More than 50 people attended the lecture to ascertain how the notion of beauty is a societal construction of the times.
“Bear in mind that the story of the Jews is just one of hundreds,” he said. Similar stories about blacks, Japanese, Indians and women today could also be used as evidence for his argument, he said.
English doctoral student Penny Kelsey attended the lecture because she read an article by Gilman in her English and Modern Drama class that focused on race, ethnicity and gender. She said the lecture gave her unique insight on some of the oppressive stereotypes she seldom heard about.
“The thought of the day in late 19th century Germany was that the visible body points toward the invisible,” Gilman said. “Jewish men were thought to be unmanly because many tended to be flatfooted and thus unfit for war. Their clawish’ hands reflected their greedy tendencies,’ and the hooked nose was a sign of their ‘mercantile souls.'”
As a result, many surgeons began to recast and alter Jews’ bodies to make them look more stereotypically German and therefore more acceptable.
So Jews, many of them children, either sought aesthetic surgery themselves or were encouraged to do so by their parents to make them feel more accepted. Unhappy and unemployed Jewish bachelors sought relief through nose jobs. Jewish women felt compelled to undergo breast reductions, thereby conforming to the ideal German female figure.
In the last century, these sentiments have evolved to become less morally judgmental. Today, ethnic appearances are actually fashionable — in small doses, he said.
“Today, Jews have operations not to completely eradicate their Jewish appearance, but to make themselves appear less Jewish,” he said.
Gilman is a professor of Germanic studies, comparative literature and psychiatry. Mary Ellis, associate administrator of the English department and the lecture’s organizer, said Gilman is a positive influence on students because his unusually eclectic background allows him to speak knowledgeably on several topics, like psychiatry, history and cultural studies.