From the Schnoz to the Slump

Peggy Shinner, You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body

University of Chicago Press, 224pp, £15.50, ISBN 9780226105277

reviewed by Sarah Seltzer

At my fancy New York City high school, appearance modification was all the rage. Curly masses that looked like lion’s manes were pressed between irons and doused with chemicals, emerging glossy and flat. September ushered in evidence of sudden summer weight loss, the sharpening of features and the flattening of noses. Whispers and rumours reached our ears: girls undergoing liposuction, ‘chin jobs’ and other mysterious procedures that went beyond the more routine nose jobs and breast reductions. ‘I hate my nose,’ I once remarked, not really meaning it, in a chorus of female students complaining about their most-loathed features. ‘Okay, so… just get a nose job?’ said one particular classmate, perched on the wall above our baseball field. Her voice was laced with scorn and indifference, as if my complaint — a nose! — were so elementary it was barely worth entertaining.

The ethics of surgery were not in question. Rather, we considered the tactics of revelation: would my schoolmates claim dramatic illness or deviated septums? Would they feign accidents or go the honesty route, shamelessly touting their surgeons’ handiwork?

Wandering the locker-lined halls, I regarded everything that happened in school as existing within a simplified adolescent dichotomy. On the one side was total conformity, a state which I sensed I'd never achieve and thus rejected; on the other, ‘just being yourself’, an equally unachievable goal if any part of you, even suppressed, craved conformity. Also, I was preoccupied with the fact that I didn't know what to do with my hair, which ballooned skywards in humid weather, crowning me with frizz. I sometimes dyed it red, but my locks were so thick that the colour barely ever ‘took’ the way I wanted it to. Only when it gleamed in the sun did people say it looked cool. I was sure everyone else had the secret for taming hair, and I was out in the cold. It turned out, of course, that growing up did the trick, and my hair calmed down as my hormones did.

Existence was so deeply personal, back then; I didn't fully comprehend the broader social ramifications of our choices. I knew all these alterations had to do with womanhood and reaching after ideal, magazine-bred beauty standards. But I didn’t realise that, at my 65% Jewish high school, most of my peers’ body modifications were, at their roots, about ethnic sanding-down, getting rid of curls, kinks and nasal protrusions.

Now, as a woman who writes about gender, race, sexuality and class, I see no body modification — not the slightest shave or pluck, nor the most drastic surgery — in a vacuum. All those hair irons, crash diets and surgeries have ‘patriarchy’ and ‘white supremacy’ stamped on them from the outset. I have to work backwards to find the personal stories behind people’s choices to change themselves.

***

Essayist Peggy Shinner is self-conscious about her flat feet. She slouches. She underwent a rhinoplasty as a teenager in the Midwest, along with every other girl in her neighbourhood — but not from the same doctor as they did. Professional bra fittings cause her anxiety stemming from a desire to please the authoritative fitter. Hair, walk, posture, nose, all of it: Shinner examines her features and reaches the unavoidable conclusion. ‘History has weighed on my body and I have come up… Jewish.’

The aspects of physical form she explores in her collection of ‘essays on the body’ are mostly Jewish ones. She considers the way ethnicity, family and personal history all mark themselves on the body, over time and in daily life. From the schnoz to the slump, Shinner applies her scalpel. She educates us about the long history of various physical signifiers, from racist suspicion of flat-footed Jews and the sexual connotations of women’s hair to the ‘debutante slouch’ that arrived in the flapper era, signalling women who were ‘no longer bound by the old standards of modesty, deference and decorum’. In ‘Elective’, Shinner approaches the nose job with humour. ‘My nose job has made me a snob about nose jobs,’ she writes. When she recognises another nasal surgery veteran, she delights in knowing — nosing out — his or her secret. And yet she wonders, ‘Is my old nose a shadow nose, still lurking, still big and bulbous, asserting its Semitic rights over its pert replacement?’ She feels guilty when people don’t immediately peg her as Jewish, wondering if she’s sinned against her identity by snubbing her original, signifying snout. She consults the wisdom of rabbis. They give her comfort, counselling women who hate their noses that it’s OK to alter the organ if it helps ‘find a mate’.

Yet beyond the often-humorous cultural and personal musings like these, a sadder, more universal mortality pervades the book: the effects of time on bodies, what the sagging and stooping portends. Weaving itself in and out of the essays is the thread of Shinner’s sadness over the loss of her parents, whose physical traits she’s inherited. In ‘Leopold and Shinner’, the author unpacks the letters her mother sent to a convicted prisoner, while in ‘Tax Time’ she spends time with her father’s accountant as a way of conjuring up his spirit. Her parents’ loss becomes a stand-in for all our inevitable losses, and it’s no surprise that the final essays linger on burial, autopsy, the end of the body. In the last few paragraphs of an essay about buying a cemetery plot, Shinner calmly describes her own funeral: ‘The assembled will disperse. The sky will fill with and empty of cloud.’ This swerving-away, rather than summing-up, is characteristic of Shinner’s endings: she finds few neat conclusions.

***

I have accumulated so many thoughts about bodies. I have written short stories about Jews and hair, about women and weight, and the weight of our weight. I read most of Shinner’s book on a series of subway rides through an increasingly sweaty and unbearable summer in New York City, as they all are. That week, I was using a calorie counter on my phone to drop a few pounds. My friend was using a calorie counter to gain weight. I wished I could give her some of mine, and slip more lightly through the soupy air. But here’s the funny thing: even though the body and its discomforts was on my mind as I read, the form that interested me most when reading Shinner’s work was neither her body nor my own, but rather the form of the essay, and how freely her pen wanders within its bounds.

I’m a child of the web. I take the title essay of a collection, save it to my Instapaper app, download it to my phone and read it while waiting in line somewhere. Or more likely, I scroll through long first-person accounts on a popular website, looking for the juicy bits. I most relished You Feel So Mortal as an antidote to a particular brand of click-bait memoir beloved by the internet. These essays can be summed up by the following headline: ‘1,500 words about this unbelievably terrible thing that happened to me.’ I lost all my money. I survived a horrible accident. Such essays exude the power of personal testimony, but often lack the artistry that makes universal meaning out of the specific.

Once, I got recruited by a glossy women’s magazine to write a personal essay. I pitched a series of ideas, all reflections on my twenties. None of them were deemed sordid enough. I had mentioned shopping in one, and the editor wrote back: ‘If you have a shopping addiction, that might be a really interesting topic.’

But I don’t have a shopping addiction, any more than I’m addicted to other things that give me too much pleasure, materially: travel, food, wine. If one’s life is relatively ordinary, which is to say, quietly and inescapably difficult punctuated by moments of joy and tragedy, writing ‘it happened to me’ is inaccessible. Yet You Feel So Mortal is a reminder that life’s contours are worth tracing, even if they aren’t always headline-worthy. It happened to me: I’m human.

Shinner’s subjects arise from her own daily experience as a martial arts trainee, a dutiful niece, a writer trying to make sense of her family history and a daughter labouring under the weight of her parents’ expectations. (On their disapproval of her posture: ‘it could condemn one to social ostracism and worse yet, in the unforgiving economy of the marketplace, render a woman unmarriageable as well.’) The saddest moments — her father never knowing she was gay, her mother never accepting it — are never themselves the subject of essays, but they echo throughout the entire collection.

Sometimes the essays veer far from the personal. The piece ‘Berenice’s Hair’ consists almost entirely of historical anecdote, from the shearing of Spartan virgins to the moment when Yoko Ono cut her locks to mourn John Lennon. This authorial choice to linger in the realm of textbook surprised me, given my own former Jewish hair-related angst. Shinner must not have hated her hair, I thought. Lucky her.

***

Shinner’s family embraced rhinoplasty for their daughter; mine disdained it. Both our mothers worried about our posture. She is Midwestern; I’m so East Coast it’s ridiculous. Flat feet run in both of our families. We share a cultural vocabulary, a tapestry of American Jewish references. But her words didn’t reach me only because of our common Jewishness. I long, now, to write an essay for every part of my body, as she has: to explore my tense shoulders, my ‘sturdy’ legs, my hair that morphed, as I grew, from unbearably frizzy to so admired that whenever I wore it back, my grandmother used to ask in horror if I’d chopped it off. ‘I never will,’ I used to say, thinking of Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March shearing off her hair for the money and her family mourning it as her ‘one beauty’.

When I was a teenager surrounded by hair-ironing, crash-dieting, nose-jobbing classmates, I never thought I’d say this, but it’s true: I go through periods in which I’m content with my body. I ditch the calorie-counting app and wake up in the morning thankful for my body’s curves, its strength and softness. I usually only have the luxury of feeling this way when I am yearning in a different direction: creative fulfilment, a new job, more time to write. Even so, I wish these periods lasted. At least I experience them. If I'm lucky, soon my body will house another body, and feed it, and then I will have to claim it back for myself, and my relationship to it will change and change again.

The years will alter my limbs, skin and hair for the better and worse, and eventually they will diminish me. Until then, Shinner and I are united in our quest. I slouch in my chair and my fingers — too small for my arms, I’ve always thought — reach out across the desk, tapping away.