Beauty and the JAP

Bess Meyerson, the first (and only) Jewish Miss America crowned in 1945. Pic from
This was originally posted in June 2007. Those blog posts are now only accessible in the record you
reach from the link on the sidebar. I decided to revisit this post in light of the question another blogger raised about Jewish women's self-image.

Ironically, the attempt to erase the hated Jewish nose, hair, body type, and dowdiness through surgery, hair processing, dieting, and shopping sprees for makeup and clothes actually is seen as inscribing a Jewish trait. The struggle to look as good as a shiksa results in a woman being labeled a Jewish American Princess, an object of ridicule. As Anne  Roiphe writes in Generation Without Memory: A Jewish Journey in Christian America, “It is hard to hear the world laugh at the Jewish American Princess. It is not her fault if she has been taught that her role in life is to catch a rising man and that she has learned the more money spent on her outside, the more chance she has for success. Her shallowness is not her cultural error” (201-202).

The question then arises, what is the source of such “shallowness” whose “cultural error” is it? The answer is not simply Jewish society. It is rather the Jewish society within an American setting that molds the expectations for its inhabitants. Within the context of American demands, Jews have adjusted their expectations for the female form. Jewish women strive to live up to the paradigm of American beauty and find themselves fettered by undesirable Jewish features.

In The Mind-Body Problem, Rebecca Goldstein attests to the connection that is assumed between beauty and non-Jewish looks. Her narrator says, “His former wife, by the way, was not beautiful. . . . she was no contest as far as looks went: short, dark, stocky, looking much more a daughter of Israel than I, although she’s only half Jewish “ (Goldstein 243). The dowdiness linked to the image of “a daughter of Israel” haunts Jewish women who feel they come up miserably short when compared to the attractions of the shiksa. Goldstein’s narrator enjoys being blessed with the attractive features that don’t trace her heritage. Thus her lover gives her “the highest praise of which the Jewish male is capable: You don’t look at all Jewish. Our brothers always expect us to thrill at the words, because of course in their scheme of things there’s nothing so desirable as a shiksa” (Goldstein 209).

The assumption of natural endowments works against the Jewish woman. With the goal of attaining the type of beauty that attracts their men, Jewish women expend their energies on the attempt to make themselves over. When the amount of time, money, and effort expended on the pursuit of attractiveness is deemed by others to be excessive, the woman falls into the JAP trap. Her artifice earns ridicule rather than devotion. In Portnoy’s Complaint the hero delivers a diatribe on the style of dress and hair that his mother adopts in her attempt to look young and attractive. As Baum, Hyman, and Michel, comment: “If Jewish women dye their hair platinum in an attempt to give themselves what Jewish men are attracted to, why are they being scorned?” (251). This comment encapsulates the scorn that is the lot of the woman who lives under the strain of the JAP stereotype. Men note the monstrous quality of the artificiality on women but fail to realize that they are the ones responsible for the creation of the monster.

While the notion of Jewish ugliness is part and parcel of anti-Semitic propaganda, the experiences of some Jews caused them to succumb to the view that they are physically deficient. In Clara's Story, the author recalls that during her years in hiding as a young girl in Belgium during the Holocaust another young girl’s  said: “’The Nazis say we’re ugly. Am I ugly?’” Clara declares, “’I think you’re beautiful.’” However, her friend persists, “”Then why do they say we’re all ugly? Do you remember the posters and the cartoons in the newspapers before we went into hiding?’” Though she answers that her friend must not be taken in by “Nazi propaganda,” she does not succeed in reassuring her about her own attractiveness (Issacman and Grossman 98).

After surviving Nazi persecution Jews felt that they needed objective corroboration to lay claim to beauty. They found it in Atlantic City in 1945 when Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America. Jew who were still in DP camps rejoiced at the news. Bess’s victory was viewed as proof that Jews are not as ugly people to be distinguished by numbers on their arms. As she recalled about the days of the competition, “we always met up with groups of Jewish people who wanted to hug me and shake my hand, who wished me well and said, ‘You're our beauty queen, Bessie, you’ve got to win.’” It was then that Bess Myerson felt “vindicated” about her refusal to change her name for the competition to conceal her Jewish identity (quoted in Dworkin 109). Her victory was seen as a triumph for all the Jews who saw a positive representative for them in the beauty queen. For Jews who had been dispirited by the horrors of the Holocaust, her win was a vital affirmation that Jewish can be beautiful. However, it was one-time deal, for there were no other Jewish Miss Americas. The crown of beauty now rests on the heads of Gentile women.

Whereas Jewish women in general find themselves pushed out of the running of beauty contests with their Gentile counterparts, Orthodox women who adhere to the directives for modest dress established by Jewish law find themselves at a greater disadvantage. Jewish men who are not acquainted with Orthodox women assume that they are as dowdy and plain as the old world ways they believe them to represent. Consequently, their initial reaction to seeing an attractive Orthodox woman is one of disbelief. Thus Roy Neuberger recalls his thoughts upon seeing Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis for the first time in From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul: “What’s a rebbetzin anyway? Hey, she’s good-looking. I don’t get it. I thought she’s supposed to be Orthodox” (Neuberger 85).

Stephen Bloom is more explicit when he is surprised find an exception to the predictably dowdy cast of women of the Hasidim of Postville. He gets very enthusiastic in describing a prominent Hasid’s wife: “Leah, thirty-four, was different from the ascetic, downcast, almost downtrodden visages that I had come to expect from the Postville Hasidic women I had seen on the sidewalks walking in pairs behind the baby carriages. She was a firecracker, a dynamo. Even with her obvious sheitel, she was a knockout. Given a few minor adjustments, she would look like Demi Moore” (155 ) Her favorable appearance, though much appreciated, is presented as the exception that proves the rule.

Though they do not readily apply the JAP label to themselves, Orthodox women do not find the term as explosive as others might. Thus it was taken as the title for a one-woman show performed by a convert to Judaism whose religious restriction compel her to limit her audience to women only. It was advertised on an online bulletin board as follows:

Performance For Women A young, Japanese American girl from Hawaii
searches the glitzy L.A. dance scene and the gritty Broadway stage
looking for love, looking for fulfillment, looking for herself.
She finds them all…in Judaism? Life is full of surprises and
things are never what they seem when you’re a J.A.P.. . . . Written and performed
by Rachel Factor who appeared on Broadway in “Miss Saigon” ,
“Shogun, the Musical”, at Radio City Music Hall as a World Famous
Rockette and in numerous film & television shows before
discovering Judaism and choosing a Torah way of life.

Rachel Factor defends the title in an interview for an article in the New York Times. She asserts that the acronym that forms the title of her show “’represents where I’ve come in my life, in terms of my self-image.’” She explains: “’I'm Japanese. And Jewish. And American, just as American as anyone else who was born here. I don’t consider myself a princess, but I consider myself worthy for the first time in my life.’”

 That Factor disassociates herself from the full-fledged espousal of princess status would indicate that she is aware of its negative association. Instead, she backpedals on her assertion somewhat by referring to feeling “worthy.” In front of an audience, who, she may believe, will not be critical of the term, Factor validates her title in declaring herself proud to be a Jewish American Princess. Clearly, she does not intend to label herself in a derogatory sense. She does not describe the extent of her wardrobe or other hallmarks people associate with the JAP image. Rather, she points out that what she wears conforms to the guidelines of Orthodoxy. She gestures to her long skirt and long sleeves that are requisite for the frum (observant) set, and draws attention to the fact that what is apparently her hair is really a sheitel.

Rachel Factor’s self-identification as a Jewish princess would be akin to its use by another convert, who, like Factor, made her home in Israel. In her autobiography, My Sister, the Jew, Ahuva Gray recalls the day she finalized her conversion to Judaism: “On that day my childhood fantasy of wanting to be like Princess Grace of Monaco had come true. I had become a Jewish princess” (176). Having no need to pun on the double meaning of JAP invoked by Factor’s show’s title, and living as an Israeli, Gray does not include the term “American” in the phrase. Gray embraces the princess title with no irony, even as she mocks herself as she wears out her hands while cleaning for Passover, because she does not associate it with the JAP stereotype. For her the princess identity is an positive one,  It does not connote a woman defined by her consumerism but one who takes price in her religious heritage. She proclaims herself a Jewish princess as a positive declaration of her uniqueness, not a Jewish American princess who affirms herself through shopping.

Though Factor only discusses  becoming a Jew in the last part of her show, much of her struggle with finding herself as an outsider in the American mainstream parallels the experiences of those growing up as Jews. Factor recalls her teenage years when beauty guides with Caucasian models were her “bibles.” She struggled to achieve the looks they mandated and was frustrated by the failure of her Asian features to meet to their standards. She details her attempt to follow the directions for applying eye shadow that compelled her to create an artificial crease above the lid by applying scotch tape and then eyelash glue. Though the glue caused irritation, she persisted in suffering for the sake of the beauty standard. She practiced pulling her face into a frozen wide-eyed grin to minimize the Asian appearance of her features. As she falls into and out of relationships and experiences successes and failures in her show business career, she is forced to face the truth about her own self-hatred. Ultimately, she comes to realize that her Asian features are beautiful and no longer feels the need to mask them. Ironically, it only once she embraces this identity that she begins the relationship with a Jewish man that ultimately leads to her conversion. Despite accepting herself as an Asian, she only feels that she truly has a place where she belongs in the Jewish rituals and gatherings that she adopts on her road to conversion.

While she does not draw the connection, her story really does relate to the stereotype of the JAP identity. Just as Factor compared herself to the Caucasian image held up by models and actresses, Jewish women measure themselves against the ideal of American beauty embodied by the non-Jewish woman, the invariably alluring shiksa. It is she who sets the standard according to which they will always fall short. The shiksa that Jewish men envision with desire and women with envy is tall, slim, clear-complexioned, a life-size Barbie with silky (preferably blond) hair. In contrast, the physical type associated with Jewish women is that of the figure too fleshy for modern tastes without the height to counterbalance it and the coloring that is not the prized golden one.

What are the origins of the stereotype?

Some argue that the Jewish American Princess does not, in fact, exist. As Riv-Ellen Prell writes, “The JAP representation of Jewish women took on the appearance of reality because ‘she’ appeared in print and because legions of experts suggested that ‘she’ was real” (188). People mistakenly believe in the existence of the JAP, according to this view, due to the propagation of this anti-Semitic stereotype that projects the conspicuous consumption and material obsession of Americans onto Jewish women. The JAP stereotype conveys an image of a female who exhibits specific negative character traits that, though they could be possessed by anyone, are labeled “Jewish.” Attributing the negative character to the person’s Jewish identity suggests an anti-Semitic assumption. Accordingly, Jews who adopt the term JAP, as well as Jewish writers who portray characters that embody the myth have internalized this bias and show themselves to be self-hating. As Sander Gilman explains, “Self-hatred results from the outsiders’ acceptance of the mirage of themselves generated by their reference group – the group in society which they see as defining them – as a reality.” On that basis, an “illusionary definition of the self” that conforms to “the reference group’s mirage of the Other” is formed (Gilman 2). So these writer insist that the JAP does not exist but is a projection of others. Janice L. Booker asserts in her book, The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths: The Many Face of Self-Hatred, that Jewish use of the stereotype is symptomatic of “internalized oppression at its worst” (39).

While such an analysis does make sense, it is not always the case. The fact is that people who invoke the JAP stereotype do not do so in a single, consistent way. The question is: what provokes the label? If a woman shows interest in fashion and her appearance, she is not unique in a culture that sells magazines that direct women what to buy and wear, feeding a multi-billion dollar industry. Women who exhibit such traditional feminine behavior are needed to keep that economy going through their purchases, and they constitute a major market. Why are some stigmatized by the derogatory label of JAP? The answer differs for the anti-Semite, the self-hating Jew, and the Jew whose religious identity is paramount. What’s implicit in the JAP label is that the three terms together are offensive, but which is the key to understanding the insult depends on who is using it.

The anti-Semite who uses it assumes that the Jewish woman, as a member of an inferior class of people, has no right to feel entitled to the trappings of society. Her dressing herself up is a shameless attempt to gold-plate tin. To differentiate the Jewish woman who attempts to dress well from the approved feminine woman who does, the anti-Semitic portrayal of the JAP includes a shrillness and assertiveness that is at odds with proper feminine deportment. She is both demanding and shameless as she negotiates buying her way in to the world of fashionable status. This perspective is upheld by the self-hating Jew who wishes above all to distance himself from all that is associated with other Jews. For such a Jew, the label is used to show that he is worthier of the larger world’s esteem than his fellow Jews because he can look down on them. Another use of the stereotype is a man’s justification for going outside the fold for marriage. As Edward Shapiro observes, the propagation of another possible consequence is a boost for intermarriage. The negative view of the JAP confirms that “Gentile women” are a better choice for marriage, yielding a diminished “number of potential mates for Jewish women” (Shapiro 249). Indeed, intermarriage rates continue to rise, though that phenomenon cannot be traced directly to a single cause.

Among Jews committed to marrying coreligionists, the use of the JAP term is far less sinister. When used by Orthodox Jews, the label does not suggest the unpleasant personality and pushiness anti-Semites ascribe to the Jewish type. Nevertheless, Orthodox Jews rarely seriously apply the term to themselves. This is particularly striking in the Five Towns area. Here it is common to see Jewish women who are stay at home moms dressed in designer outfits, their pedicured feet and waxed legs shown to advantage in high heels, and their sheitels smoothed and waved in a way not usually to be found in one’s natural hair just when doing their grocery shopping.

When my New Jersey neighbors heard I was moving here, they expressed surprise, observing that I would be living in the midst of “a bunch of JAPs.” However, nobody I have spoken with here admits to being a JAP. Even the schools that are known to attract a wealthy clientele indicate that they are not the “Jappy “school, leaving one to wonder, then which is? What is right and what is excessive will always depend on the perspective of the individual and is subject to change. Thus while cell phones for teenagers would have been considered “Jappy” ten years ago, they are now largely the norm, and only the question of at what age it is appropriate to get the cell phone can be open to interpretation. Once something becomes part of the standard expectation, one who has it cannot fairly be called excessively materialistic.

The key difference between Orthodox usage and outsider usage of the JAP label is that those within the Orthodox set are not considered princesses because they are Jewish but because they are too American in their pursuit of conspicuous consumption. The suggestion is that they allow their Jewish identity to be overridden by the American culture of consumption. The women who shop in high fashion outfits with salon styled hair, full makeup, manicured hands, and just the right accessories would likely not declare themselves JAPs because they believe that they are merely maintaining the set standard for appearance. Consequently, they submit to the torture of walking around in stiletto heels because they believe they cannot compromise conformity for comfort.

Works Cited

Bloom, Stephen G. Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America. New York: Harcourt, 2000.

Booker, Janice L. The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths: The Many Faces of Self-Hatred. New York: Shapolsky Publishers, Inc., 1991.

Bronson, Sarah."True to Her Orthodox Beliefs, if Not to Her Roots." New York Times. 15 Feb. 2005.

Dworkin, Susan, Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson and the Year That Changed Our Lives. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

Gilman, Sander. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Maryland: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Goldstein, Rebecca. The Mind-Body Problem. New York: Random House, 1983.

Gray, Ahuva.  My Sister, the Jew. Jerusalem: Targum Press, 2001.

Issacman, Clara, and Joan A. Grossman. Clara's Story. Pennsylvania: Jewish Publication Society, 1994. 

Neuberger, Roy. From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul.  New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 2000.

Prell, Riv-Ellen. Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Roiphe, Anne. Generation Without Memory: A Jewish Journey in Christian America, The Linden Press, 1981.

Shapiro, Edward S. A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II. vol 5 of The Jewish People in America A Series Sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society. Ed. Henry L. Feingold. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.


Ezzie said…
That was really interesting.

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