Maria Penaranda // Arts & Culture Editor
I have a big nose. Its presence—the awareness that it’s inhuman, grotesque, out of place—has lived with me for as long as I can remember.
Our modern disgust of big noses can be traced back to antisemitism in mid 13th century Europe. Hooked, convex noses were singled out and caricatured as an ethnic trait of Jewish people, and became increasingly cemented in the European imagination as subhuman. During the mid 1800s, the “Jewish nose” was believed to be a racial deformity of people with Jewish ancestry— a belief which preserved for a century despite the fact that this type of nose was proven to not be ethnically representative of Jewish people as early as 1911. Interestingly, the modern nose job was developed in early 1900s Berlin by Jacques Joseph, who was Jewish himself. He performed rhinoplasties on members of Berlin’s Jewish community, who sought to conceal their Jewishness and pass as gentiles.
We’re living in a time where traits that were previously considered unattractive by popular culture— fatness, body hair, dark skin— are increasingly being reclaimed and celebrated. The big nose, however, has yet to have its moment. Women with big noses are never portrayed as desirable or beautiful. Our notions of beauty and ugliness are rooted in the pervasive iconography of medieval Christianity, which characterizes big noses as physical indicators of beastliness and evil.
My nose often feels like the last part left of myself that needs fixing. “If you just fixed the bump, you would be perfect,” my Dad often says to me. I want to hate him for it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge here that I secretly think the same thing. It really does feel like if I got a nose job— if I could trade my aquiline nose for a smaller, straighter, cuter one— I’d finally be valid as a woman.
When I was fifteen, I visited a plastic surgeon with my Dad. We had gone after a referral from our doctor— I had some breathing problems, and my Dad was hoping I could somehow get a free nose job because of it. The surgery that would correct my breathing problem, the plastic surgeon informed us, was a small procedure that would not cover any cosmetic changes. And then he methodically explained all the ways my nose was irregular and exactly what he would do to correct it. He said it would cost about $7,000. There was no way my Dad was paying for that. The plastic surgeon confirmed the validity of my insecurities, and his price illustrated how far out of reach fixing them would be.
In the This American Life episode “Tell Me I’m Fat,” Elna Baker describes how differently she was treated after she lost 110 pounds. “It was like going from one human to another,” she said. Suddenly, men were attracted to her. She received job offers. People greeted her on the street. And she felt really, really guilty about it. “It’s just such an unbalanced reward system. It took so much more kindness, hard work and ingenuity to be a person in the world when I was fat. All this took was not eating.” In her journal, she wrote: “I was happy when I was overweight, I had no idea I should be sad. I was free before. I’d trained myself not to care what people thought, and I’d done a good job of it… that’s the person I sold out to become this person.” She continued: “It’s sad that new Elna gets everything that old Elna wanted, because I think old Elna was a better person.”
Sometimes I wonder about the person I would become if I got a nose job. What would it be like to exist as an objectively beautiful woman? Would the world be any easier for me? Would it open opportunities? What would it feel like to exist within the body of a pretty girl—you know, like the ones on TV, in magazines, on Instagram? In a world where women are constantly assessed and valued on appearance, is it so bad to want to conform, to want to be pretty?
I often think of Elna’s story when I think about what life would be like with a nose job. I know that there will likely come a day when I can afford one. It’s not any time soon, and I’ll be much older than I am now, but it will come. And when it comes, what will I choose? Do I get a nose job in favour of psychological peace and in doing so confirm this normative standard of beauty, rooted in antisemitic, racist iconography? Or do I refuse to get one— take the feminist high road, but continue to be plagued by my obsessive thinking, by this persistent and lingering feeling of inadequacy? If I go through with it, will I ever be able to forgive myself? What would feel worse: the everlasting insecurity, or the guilt from knowing I gave up on my values— on believing I’m a whole and worthy human being even with my big nose?
The other day I asked my brother what he thought of my nose, and if I should get a nose job. I was expecting him to say something about how I should change it. “Be honest,” I pushed, bracing for his response. “Ani, it’s your nose! It’s what I know,” he exclaimed. “That’s what I love about your face, is I know your nose. That’s your characteristic.” The sincerity in his voice caught me off guard. “To change it is to conform to what everybody else looks like, or the standard of what you should look like. But this is you, Ani. That’s your nose Ani.”