Since its emergence at the turn of the twentieth century, cosmetic surgery has grown in popularity and acceptance. Though it once “appeared to contradict both the traditional American injunction against vanity and the Hippocratic injunction against doing harm,” by the 1960’s, cosmetic surgery practices like the nose job were considered “safe, sterile, predictable, even routine” to the point where it was “simply one of the many wonders of postwar medicine” (Haiken 1). Yet, the nose job had also become a highly popularized form of ethnic cosmetic surgery. In this case, cosmetic surgery is more than enhancing one’s appearance, it also allows people to “minimize or eradicate physical signs that they believe mark them as ‘Other’” (Davis 89).
Ethnic cosmetic surgery became “a way to achieve upward mobility and assimilation in a culture that defined people as different…and inferior, by virtue of their appearance” (Davis 90). In the early history of cosmetic surgery, Jewish people were part of this “Other” group. Since cosmetic surgery became popular in the United States during large-scale immigration, the stereotypical images that “mark[ed] the Jewish body as different, deformed, and pathological” were brought to America (Davis 89). Thus, cosmetic surgeons “developed surgical procedures that allowed Jewish patients to become ‘ethnically invisible,’” including rhinoplasty (the nose job) which they performed on European immigrants and “white Americans who were anxious that they ‘looked Jewish’” (Davis 89).
Societal pressure to remove Semitic features manifested in opinions towards celebrities like Barbra Streisand. Though people in 1923 criticized Fanny Brice for “bobb[ing] her nose,” by the time Barbra Streisand came into the celebrity spotlight in the 1960’s, American society was quick to ask why she had not gotten a nose job (Haiken 1). In the beginning of her career, her Jewishness “was a scrim for everyone, including other Jews, to project many anxieties” (Senior). Yet, Streisand would not change her nose. Her explanation: “Well, first of all I didn’t have the money to have my nose fixed – even if I had thought about it, which I did think about it. The real reason is I didn’t trust the doctors to make my nose right…I thought my nose went with my face, ya know, it’s all rather odd” (Howe). She also worried that having a nose job might affect her voice because what made her voice so special was her deviated septum (Howe).
Barbra Streisand’s nose was a part of her identity. She was “the pioneer who succeeded because of her Jewishness, not in spite of it” (Senior). Different was her look and what helped her be famous, despite all the people in Hollywood who told her a nose job would make her prettier and more successful. Streisand “became such a powerful gravitational force that the world curved to her:” Vogue magazine “declared that she’d ushered in ‘a whole new taste in beauty’” and Playboy put her on its cover (Senior). As she herself said in an interview with Time magazine in 1964, “I’m too whatever-I-am to end up in the middle” (Senior). And as a Streisand biographer writes, “she had become so much a part of our consciousness that we accepted her for who she was. The assimilation wasn’t hers. It was ours” (Senior).
Yet, every ‘acceptance of otherness’ comes with it the question of whether this is true acceptance. It is no doubt important to keep in mind bell hooks’ understanding of the commodification of Otherness as we think about why American society eventually grew to accept Barbra Streisand’s difference after originally shaming her for it: “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (21). Incorporating this perspective complicates the narrative of “acceptance for who she was” and forces us to think about the context for Barbra Streisand’s popularity and fame in the 1960’s.
Davis, Kathy. Dubious equalities and embodied differences: Cultural studies on cosmetic surgery. Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Haiken, Elizabeth. “Venus envy: A history of cosmetic surgery.” (1997).
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Howe, Matt. “The Streisand Profile: The Nose.” Barbra Streisand Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 June 2017. <http://barbra-archives.com/bjs_library/stories/nose_streisand.html>.
Senior, Jennifer. “Review: How Streisand Became a Symbol, by Neal Gabler.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Apr. 2016. Web. 02 June 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/21/books/review-how-streisand-became-a-symbolby-neal-gabler.html>.