Two Halloweens ago, after spending months among a community of newly emigrated Iranians, I decided to dress up as a modern Tehrani woman. My new friends -actual modern Tehrani women - served as my consultants. My costume required a mix of obvious elements and unexpected ones: a headscarf pushed back like Jackie Kennedy's, layers of makeup (the screaming vanity of Tehrani women and all that), a skintight black dress (Iranian women love pushing the limits of the Islamic Republic's rules), extra-tall Bumpits (big hair is a bit of cultural lunacy much like tight pants among European men. In Iran, a huge bulge under the headscarf is considered a major turn-on). Finally, my team of experts suggested a subtle but crucial detail to make my character a truly authentic upper-class Tehrani. Taking a last look at me, one of them said, "You need a Band-Aid across your nose".
"And I already have the nose," I said, pointing to my only purchased body part, dainty and upward-pointing since I was 18. I may be American, but I'm Persian too, I wanted to say. Of course I've had my nose done.
Walking around Tehran, one will see glamorous women in hijab and expensive glasses, "bandages of honor" prominently displayed across their noses, sometimes long after healing, unafraid of offending the authorities. The nose-job women of Tehran are nothing to marvel at anymore; they're the standard, and Western media love to watch them saunter about in all their brazen glory. In November 2008, Oprah ran a story on Iranian cosmetic surgery: "Women see the bandage as a status symbol. 'I had a friend who had a nose job, and she kept the bandage… after two years on her nose just to show everybody that she had nose job,' [a young woman from Iran] says." To many young Persian women, such displays make perfect sense, especially given the cultural focus on finding good husbands. The bandage signals that you come from a family who cares and provides for you - even if you don't need a nose job, having a family that can afford to give you one is preferable to having the genetics for a petite nose.
The author dressed as an urbane Iranian woman, complete with Bumpit and a bandage from a nose job. Photo by Michael Marcelle
Iran has the highest rate of nose surgery in the world per capita. According to most estimates, Iranians get four times the amount of nose jobs that Americans do. This is staggering for an Islamic country, and according to a March 2013 story in the Guardian, it's not limited to the rich, as clothing sellers, office workers, university students, and even teenagers opt to spend their savings or go into debt for the procedure. Though cosmetic surgery has permeated the culture, the Islamic Republic has made only the slightest gestures of disapproval. Ayatollah Khomeini sanctioned rhinoplasty in the 1980s, referencing the Hadith: "God is beautiful and loves beauty." And yet, in June 2014, the BBC reported that a state-run television station, Tehran Channel, banned from its programming any actors or actresses who had undergone plastic surgery.
It was only after 1979 - and the revolution that ousted the shah and brought in the Islamic Republic - that people considered Tehran the nose-job capital of the world. Why would this strange trend occur in an Islamic country? There's no question that Iranian culture influences the behavior of the people more than Islam does, and for centuries that culture has placed a deep focus on physical beauty in all its forms. Given that, one explanation seems to have caught on: Because the mandatory hijab leaves nothing but the small circle of the face as a canvas for beauty and self-expression, Iranian women have become obsessed with their faces. They want their features to be delicate, symmetrical, and European. Given many young women's willingness to go under the knife and into debt for beauty, nose jobs have become an Iranian rite of passage.
After several decades the trend has spread throughout the Iranian diaspora, who also value their Persianness and are influenced by the culture back home. For Persian women and some men, the operation is a marker not just of physical beauty but also of wealth and social priorities. It's not so much about vanity as about the desire to join a class of Iranians who look European, read American books, travel, and live Western lives. Ironically, removing the Persian bump, that distinctly Iranian hooked nose, contributes to one's sense of cultural identity. The standard for an Iranian face has changed, and while the operation alters a distinctly Middle Eastern part of the face, it is ultimately a very Iranian decision.
But if the trend is fueled in part by the Islamic Republic's restrictive dress codes, why is it so prevalent among the Iranian diaspora too? And why did it happen before 1979? My mother, grandmother, and aunt altered their noses at a young age, and all three are conservative women. My grandmother, who had the surgery in Tehran in the late 60s, had suffered from a fall that damaged her nose - though this is a common tale. As the story goes, before her doctor fixed the break, he said, "While we're there, why not make your nose smaller?" My aunt and mother followed their mother in the early 70s. "Only a few other girls had it back then," said my mother, who has a nose I've envied since I was a kid. "It was a luxury. But I was in medical school, so I could get it for free." Rare as it was back then, the decision was still a by-product of Iranian standards in marriage and courtship. "After her nose job, everybody wanted to marry your aunt," my mother said. "Her old nose… it was very najoor." There isn't a perfect translation for this exquisite word. It connotes something tragically arranged.
Dr. Benjamin Rafii, a Persian ear, nose, and throat surgeon practicing in Los Angeles, explained that the phenomenon isn't a reaction to Islam. "Iranians over the last 50 years have had a strong cultural relationship with Europe," he said. "Applying the European ideals of beauty, Persian women are considered to have many desirable facial features - almond-shaped eyes, full high-arched eyebrows, strong cheekbones, but the nose stands out as big and misshapen, often with a prominent dorsal hump. It's an easy target for cosmetic 'optimisation'."
In my mother's time, before the revolution and the mandatory headscarf, this European influence drove famous people to the operating table. "In those days many Iranian celebrities had been altered," my mother said. "You can tell actresses like Forouzan and Homeyra had done it. And Ramesh [a singer] and Jamileh [a dancer]." After a moment, she added the simple explanation that Dr. Rafii had also given. "We're Persian," she said. "We just have bad noses."
In the early 70s, the procedure wasn't sophisticated. Instead of a modern splint, my mother had to endure three yards of gauze "tampons," as they were called, stuffed all the way up her nostrils and down her throat. The most skilled plastic surgeons were elevated to the level of artists and sought after by the wealthiest Iranians - "They call them golden paws," my mother said. In the 60s and 70s each doctor had a personal rhinoplasty style. "Everyone that used my sister's doctor came out with the same nose as her, flatter, with less of a point. Everyone that used mine came out with my nose, thin and pointed. And all three of us [mother and two daughters] ended up with a totally different nose. Now doctors let you choose. Back then, they each had one."
I too was afflicted with the "Persian nose." When I was a 17-year-old sporty book nerd in Oklahoma, I started to think about how I would look when I arrived at Princeton. My mother had discouraged me from dating, wearing makeup, and all other vanities, but she drove me unprompted to the surgeon's office. She said, "You can have this if you want." I happily accepted the offer.
Now, I have one remaining aunt who still has our original nose, and sometimes I look at her and her children with envy. A part of me wants to know what I would have looked like, as an adult, if I had my natural nose. Of course, on most days I don't even want to imagine it - I've become accustomed to a certain level of perceived beauty, and I like to pretend that it's mine by right, by Iranian tradition. I wouldn't give back the confidence I have now, though I wonder if I would have gained it over the years regardless, even without the procedure. Sometimes I tell myself that I'm more Iranian because of the surgery. It is a rite of passage that I share with my mother, aunt, grandmother, and thousands of other women from my home country. So which version of me is more Persian? It's a complicated question. I have my arguments and my data, but the psychology is a mess. Every time I've had an Iranian boyfriend or lover with my former nose, I've fallen a little too much in love. Does that mean I long for my original face? Do they have authentic, untainted Persian bodies?
There was something uncomfortable about that Halloween, about wearing a bandage on my nose in such a farcical way. Had I chosen this costume because I had something to prove? Look at me - I'm Iranian! Did I want to return to the days of my own surgical decision? All night I kept touching the plaster, and now and then I found myself preemptively explaining it. Finally, I ripped it off. I looked Iranian enough without it - I have the almond-shaped eyes, the eyebrows, the language, the scarf rebelliously askew. It's been 15 years, I thought. My face is my face.
Dina Nayeri is the author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (Riverhead Books 2013).