Laleh* is only 18, but she's already had plastic surgery. Last summer the Iranian-American travelled from Minnesota to the city of Karaj, 50 minutes drive from the Iranian capital of Tehran, for her two-hour-long rhinoplasty surgery. It was a graduation present from her mom.
"I wasn't that insecure about my nose," she says. "My mom always said I could have a nose job when I turned 18, as she'd grown up disliking her own nose. I felt I was being offered a chance to make myself look better, with a nose that fitted my face more, so why not take it? I didn't see it as being a big deal."
She's right in saying it's not a big deal. In Iran, having a nose job is extremely common. Laleh is one of an estimated 200,000 people who have rhinoplasty surgery in Iran each year. With seven times the number of nose jobs in the US, the Middle Eastern country has earned the dubious honor of being 'the nose job capital of the world.' It's even a running joke, with various Persian memes making fun of people having the surgery, one of the most well known being a picture of the Mona Lisa before and after spending a week in Tehran.
Read More: Growing Up Muslim in a Post-9/11 World
Unlike in the West, where many celebrities are quick to deny any cosmetic surgery they've had, most Iranians will freely tell you about their rhinoplasty. In fact, in the larger cities there's a trend for women wearing the telltale surgery plaster on your face for longer than you're meant to as a 'bandage of honor,' and some wear the dressings even before they've had work done.
In response to the social pressure to have rhinoplasty, there is a new wave of Iranian women asking others to think more carefully about going for the procedure, while simultaneously embracing their natural noses. One prominent group of Persian feminist activists, who started a Facebook page called Close Up on Iranian Women, began encouraging women to send in selfies showing off their untouched faces in April 2015. These went into an album called My Natural Nose.
Over 300 women's pictures were uploaded on to the page over the month. On the whole, comments were positive, though some of the women on there were trolled by men who told them they needed to have work done.
The group's founder, Mariam*, tells Broadly that their social media campaign was a reaction to "the standardized concept of beauty."
"Nose jobs are widespread and popular in Iranian society, so it was easy for us to work on this issue," she says. "The campaign went viral, showing that we have the potential to develop a discourse over the concept of beauty."
Mariam says their group supports women's freedom of choice about plastic surgery, but they also think the hegemonic approach to beauty in Iran is marginalizing other narratives. "We tried to explain that we are not against plastic surgery, and just want to be a voice for other marginalized narratives aiming to develop the conversation," she says. "At the end of the day, we don't want to tell our audience how to think. We just want to grab their attention to think about the issues more in depth."
I started thinking, does it make you more Persian with or without having your original nose?
So why are nose jobs so popular in Iran? It's been argued that the compulsory wearing of the hijab is to blame, with women in the country having only a small canvas on which to display their looks in the public sphere at all times. As noses become smaller, other desirable Iranian features, such as our almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones, become accentuated, and arguably look better in the hijab.
But this doesn't explain the fact that a lot of women who have rhinoplasty in Iran are of Persian descent, but live in countries where the hijab isn't obligatory. Foreign-born Iranians buy into this cultural norm too. Shahs of Sunset reality TV stars Golnesa 'GG' Gharachedaghi and Lilly Ghalichi have been very open about their nose jobs, with Ghalichi writing a blog post all about her procedure. The popularity of the operation among Iranian men is increasing too — they are believed to make up 10 percent of people having the surgery.
Haley Parsa, 19, is a Dallas-based American-Iranian artist, whose feelings around her nose have inspired much of her work. She has relatives who've had nose jobs and grew up feeling self-conscious about her nose, but accepted it. "I started thinking about what having my big, beautiful and strong nose represented, in terms of my Iranian heritage. I started thinking, does it make you more Persian with or without having your original nose?" she says.
For one of her pieces, False Pride: Can't Smell Fool's Gold, she took measurements of her nose, then made a 2.5ft tall papier-mâché scaled gold leaf model of it masked with gauze, to represent the bandages of honor. In Iranian culture, gold is one of the biggest and gaudiest symbols of pride. Another piece of work she's created is the Persiapom—a silkscreen print from a series of drawings in which a Western nose evolves into an Iranian one by way of a pomegranate, one of the symbols of Ancient Persia.
"It's strange how proud Iranians are of their heritage while also following these more Western standards, and I wanted to explore that. Obviously whether you get a nose job or not is up to you, and it's your own freedom of choice," Parsa says. "I think the problem with it is that it's dominating the culture over there at the moment."
My hope and my message is that they will see themselves as uniquely and beautifully made as I see them and as I choose to see myself.
Broadly asked a Tehran-based plastic surgeon, Dr Farhard Hafezi, to explain the popularity of rhinoplasty among Iranians. "Middle Eastern noses typically have a dorsal hump and are the biggest in the world," he says. "Going from here to Eastern Asia or Western Europe, noses become smaller. To many Persians, that look is more desirable."
Researching for a Farsi-language paper in the history of the nose job in Iran, Dr Hafezi found that the surgery was introduced to the country by a surgeon called Dr Syros Onsalou in the 1960s—well before the 1979 Revolution saw Iran's new Islamic leaders impose rules on women's dress. "Onsalou did many nose operations and trained younger surgeons who followed him. At that time none of the other neighboring countries really had this," Dr Hafezi says. "An early start in this field, big noses and vast medical training made Iran the capital of rhinoplasty."
In the 1960s and 70s plastic surgeons had their own styles, so you could tell which surgeon what woman had been to, before the smaller, thinner Western nose became the most sought-after look.
Unlike other 'Western' trends such as wearing your manteau (the long overcoat commonly worn by Iranian women to protect modesty) tighter or pulling your hijab further back, which can get you into trouble with the 'morality police,' there are no religious rules against nose jobs. In fact, Ayatollah Khomeini sanctioned the procedure in the 80s, after the daughter of one of his officials went under the knife. He famously quoted the Hadith—the Islamic text which collects the Prophet Mohammad's quotes—and said: "God is beautiful and loves beauty."
Being half-Iranian myself, I have had a complicated relationship with my nose. Like Dr Hafezi describes, mine is large, with the classic dorsal hump. Growing up in England, I'd covet my white friends' button noses, spending hours studying my profile in the mirror—and I always dreaded seeing a photo of me taken from side-on. Now in my late 20s, I've accepted my natural Persian nose as being a major part of my heritage and cultural identity. Even then, I occasionally wonder if I'd be more attractive—and happier—if I had a nose job the next time I visit my relatives in Tehran.
I wasn't trying to fit in with Western beauty standards, I just wanted to correct my bump and make myself look better.
But for many, the quest for a smaller and more refined nose comes at a price. Though there are only around 157 licensed cosmetic surgeons practicing in Tehran, the pathology research group of the Arya Strategic Studies Centre, based in the city, recently issued a report saying there were 7,000 surgeons working there, meaning most aren't fully trained. This inevitably leads to botched operations, with an estimated 30 percent of rhinoplasty patients leaving dissatisfied with the results. Dr Hafezi says 10 percent of his clients come to him for revision surgery.
It's not just aesthetically unappealing; operations going wrong can cause a range of health problems, including breathing issues, sinus pain and pressure, and the loss of the sense of smell, and revision surgery can't always fix this. "When the day of the surgery approached, I was really nervous," Laleh admits. "Even though my mom and I did a lot of research, I was scared something would go wrong, because I'd read about that happening. Then I thought 'I'm just going to do this thing.'"
Despite the gamble, many women like Laleh still travel from overseas for the surgery in Iran. Dr Hafezi says many of his clients are women of Iranian heritage from the USA and UK, as well as other countries in the Persian Gulf — Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They are attracted by the cheaper prices of rhinoplasty in Iran, which cost between $1,650 and $3,300 on average. Laleh's own surgery was over $3,000 cheaper than the equivalent procedure in the USA.
Ultimately, it's clear rhinoplasty has become a major part of Iranian culture in its own right – and it seems the trend is here to stay. A 2011 paper from a British-Iranian academic, Sara Lenehan, found that while many people she interviewed for the research said Iranian noses were aesthetically inferior to European noses, their statements were not necessarily tied with a desire to negate their Iranian identity or follow Western beauty standards. Instead they tallied with their feelings around their own image, looks, and self-awareness.
Laleh agrees with Lenehan's findings. "At the end of the day, having my nose job was my choice, and I don't think you can judge other people for their decisions," she says. "I wasn't trying to fit in with Western beauty standards, I just wanted to correct my bump and make myself look better." For many image-conscious Iranians, that's all they want to do too.
However, like Mariam, Haley Parsa is quick to say that isn't criticizing or judging Iranians who have nose jobs through her work, but is instead starting a conversation around the topic of rhinoplasty. "I can't begin to understand the difference of being an Iranian woman living in Iran and the pressures that may carry," she says. "My hope and my message is that they will see themselves as uniquely and beautifully made as I see them and as I choose to see myself. I want to uplift and create awareness through my work—not judgment."
* Name has been changed