Monday, March 04, 2013

Today in schnozzery

Via Refinery29, a Guardian story on how Iran has the highest per-capita rate of nose jobs. Interest in international primping trends is maybe on the rise, what with the "This American Life" bit on Korea and the not uncontroversial Jezebel post on the same. And Iranian nose-alteration is apparently not a new story, but the degree of this surgery's popularity might be. And it appears to extend to some Iranian-Americans as well.

Now, hopefully no one's coming to WWPD for cutting-edge reporting on Iran. (On a good day I make it all the way to Wegmans.) But re: noses, I have some thoughts, coming as I do from the people most stereotyped as schnozztastic. With Jews and noses, my sense is that once the thinking is that Jews have big noses, even if no more Jews have 'em (Western Europe not being the sea of button noses one might imagine from Great Neck), those who do will feel this is a Jewish trait, and be more inclined to do something about it. As in, white non-Jews would get them as well, but only if they actually had (or, via a mental illness, mistakenly believed they had) remarkable noses. And - permit the digression - it's worth remembering that the definitive "Jewish" features vary by time and place. In the 19th C French documents I know so well, it's all about how Jews have "Oriental"-looking eyes. I'm not even sure what that entailed - not East Asian-looking, presumably. Point being, it hardly matters if the features in question are more common among whichever minority, if the main issue is what's associated with the group in question.

Although... do Jews still get nose jobs, outside the entertainment industry where seemingly everyone does? From what I can tell, and apparently the evidence agrees, the era of the Jewish teen nose-job has ended. No one, to my knowledge, showed up at my high school with a new nose, and what were we if not Jewish and Korean? And yet, in Iran, the de-schnozzification lives on. Why? 

Again, it could be that there's some obvious answer, albeit one someone as Iran-ignorant as I am would never come up with, but if there is, it's not in the Guardian piece. We do get a few clues, such as that if only one's face is revealed, one's nose is particularly key, and there are some hints that this is a desire to look more Western, as if in protest against a not-so-Western regime. (No reference to the possibility that what with Ahmadinejad, it's frowned upon to look Jewish, likely because that's not what this is about.) But in general, reasons given are not nation-or ethnicity-specific. In which part of the world do women not want to look beautiful, do women not think being beautiful will help them on the marriage market? Why noses?

My best guess would be that there's this sense, for Jews, and perhaps for Iranians as well, that one is this close to looking white, to 'passing.' If your ancestors are from China or Kenya, you on some level realize that even if you'd like to look Swedish, it's not gonna happen. But this still doesn't quite explain it - for postwar American Jews, the idea was to blend in with the non-Jews around you. And there were of course the unstated anxieties about what it meant to look Jewish not so many years prior, not so far away. Presumably there's no stigma in Iran on looking identifiably Iranian. Is there even a stereotype about Iranians and noses? (This is what I would have wanted from the Guardian piece.) There's at any rate no concern, as far as I know, that one will be rounded up and murdered if one has a big nose, but not if one does not.


Miss Self-Important said...

Isn't it possible that big noses look bad on everyone, regardless of ethnicity? Even Aristotle, w/o any white paradigm of beauty around to compare against, commented on the problem of the disproportionate nose: "Just as there can be a nose that although deviating from the most handsome straightness towards being hooked or snub nevertheless is still beautiful and agreeable to look at, yet all the same, if a sculptor carries it still further in the direction of excess, he will first lose the symmetry of the feature and finally will make it not even look like a nose at all, because of its excess and deficiency in the two opposite qualities."

I'd think if the aspiration to whiteness were what was at stake here, then you could say of the "before" surgery photos in the Jezebel post that they depict women who look more authentically Korean than the after photos. But I don't think anyone is more likely to confuse the faces in the "after" photos with European women than those in the before photos. So I doubt that is really the goal of these surgeries.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I think out-of-proportion noses, or asymmetrical ones, might look bad on everybody, but there's no objective standard by which lo and behold, a Nordic-looking nose is objectively the most attractive (as opposed to odd-looking on those with other features otherwise). Not that unfortunate noses would need to be equally distributed across all ethnicities, but whether it is or is not desirable to have a tiny, upturned nose (esp for a man) isn't so clear - a 'white' nose isn't necessarily straight and proportional. Yet my guess would be that a large but otherwise fine nose is more likely to be operated on than a pug-type but otherwise fine one.

In terms of where race/whiteness enters into it, what I probably should have added is that of course there are procedures/products that may be on some level intended to make the never-going-to-look-white look somewhat whiter. Skin-lightening, hair-straightening, and yes, eyelid surgery. Maybe it's like a short woman wearing heels - this is in part for the overall effect of heels (the effort they show, the change in how one walks), but also in part to add height, even though any heels that would make a short woman tall would be stilts.

Point being, even when 'passing' isn't plausible, efforts in whichever direction may take place. And what's considered attractive is quite tied up with race, such that even if on an individual level, cosmetic-surgery purchasers are not articulating it as such, or even vehemently denying it.

What confuses me, I guess, is why it would be desirable to look other than the ethnicity of everyone else around you - why an entire culture would decide some trait was a problem. One possible answer would be to suggest, as you have, that certain appearances are just more pleasing than others, independent of ethnicity, but I don't think that's quite it.

Miss Self-Important said...

But "desiring to look other than the ethnicity of everyone else around you" is precisely what I don't think is happening. Korean and Iranian women don't actually want to look Swedish, b/c then they'd look foreign rather than good, and it's very unpleasant to look like an outsider in a closed culture. They want to look like pretty Koreans and Iranians, which means possessing traits that are natural in some women in these countries, but not to very many women.

Roman noses (Jewish noses) are very common in the Near East, and they have some charm on the faces of pleasant people we like when they're not too big, as Aristotle says, but it's a fine line b/w acceptable and too big, especially when the best of all is the rare straight nose. It's not about being Nordic, but achieving the rare and desirable within one's own image culture. So I imagine with big eyes and v-shaped chins in Korea. Some Korean women are born with these features, most aren't, and now there is a means to achieve them for those lacking. The girls who want these surgeries claim to want to look like Kpop stars, not like Taylor Swift.

It's possible that Nordic ideals have somehow permeated the archetypes of beauty in these cultures at a higher level than the girls who seek surgery can recognize. That is, they think they want to look like Hyuna, when actually both they and Hyuna are being sucked into an invisible vortex of Nordic standards, but that seems unlikely to me. The Nordic presence in global image culture is very recent, probably not older than a century. But you can look at classical and Renaissance and early modern European art - as yet untainted by the barbarian Swedes - and see the same ideals of small nose-ness and big eye-ness that modern women seek. (I don't know anything about Korean art, so couldn't say where they stood 200 years ago on beauty.) That doesn't mean that standards of beauty are universal exactly, although there is probably some convergence, just that the constituent elements of beauty are always rare inside every group, and that rarity might make it easier to assume that women are importing some other culture's standards b/c those desirable elements are common in that culture instead of just seeking the uncommon in their own.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

This is an interesting take, but I wonder then how you account for the features just happening to line up with 'white' as it's currently defined. (My knowledge of the ancient world isn't so amazing, but weren't there proto-racial ideas back then as well, even if they were less Swedocentric?) Those with larger noses want them narrower, yet those with smaller noses get them built up, as is apparently the case in Korea. As for how this would come to be, globalization and the media - both quite present in this age of available cosmetic surgery - would seem to enter into it.

Anyway, re: Jews and noses specifically, as much as I like to argue that there is such a thing as Jewish-looking, and that denying this is a nice gesture to diversity but ends up screwing over the people (the women, mostly) who fit that description... I really don't think noses much enter into it. Mine's straight (I think? from pictures of myself in profile? unless iPhoto secretly retouches them?) and unremarkable, and I look like half the Ashkenazi woman my age, to the point that I thought I saw my own photo in the local paper (the person I showed the photo to thought the same), but it was someone volunteering at a synagogue I'd never heard of.

Miss Self-Important said...

I wonder then how you account for the features just happening to line up with 'white' as it's currently defined.
I'm not sure that they do, or that where they do it's not coincidental. Iranians are close in appearance to many southern and southeastern Europeans, and all these women, like Jews, are wont to suffer from the burden of the too-Roman nose. Is it whiteness that they're pursuing if they wish to shrink and straighten their noses, or an old Mediterranean standard of beauty? Maybe if they were also dying their hair platinum blond in large numbers or lightening their skin somehow, we could say it's the former. (Though problematically for that thesis, pale skin has long been idealized in the Mediterranean for reasons not connected to Swedish-ness.) But otherwise, it would be hard to easily distinguish the imposition of white standards of beauty from the pursuit of more local standards. There are many references to beautiful Greek and Persian women in ancient texts, but I didn't pay enough attention to that to remember the details - tall was good, pale skin also good, curly hair seemed to be good judging by the depictions in reliefs. I'm sure this could be looked up. Plump was also good for a while, but that's seen a well-known global drop in favor.

I know nothing about Korea and what its standard of female beauty was before globalization, so I couldn't really say in that case. Are all Koreans born without an eyelid crease, and did they discover the existence of such a thing through exposure to white women? That would suggest that they are pursuing whiteness rather than simply their own rarities. But if it is an occasional feature of Korean women, or of women of otherwise similar appearance and cultural exchange (Chinese or Japanese, like the Greek-Persian convergence case), then it could be a more native ideal that is only now widely attainable b/c plastic surgery is a modern option. The latter would just be a coincidence b/w the visibility of white women and the availability of plastic surgery to make you look like anything you want, white or not.

Jews are just one group among many to be afflicted by the Roman nose. All I meant was that a Roman nose is what you're thinking of as a Jewish nose, not that it's specific or exclusive to Jews.

Britta said...

I'm not sure Iranians don't see themselves already as white (to the extent that means anything outside the US), or don't in fact see being Persian as equally if not more desirable than being European. I agree with MSI in that I'm pretty sure that Iranians get nose jobs to make their noses look like an Iranian ideal of nose beauty, which is still very far from a Swedish one. My guess is that the reason why some people get lots of plastic surgery (Iranians, Koreans) while similar people don't (Indians/Azeris (I'm assuming), Japanese) has to do with norms and expectations which develop. If everyone is getting plastic surgery, the stigma of getting it disappears and the stigma of not fixing a problem grows. I would say braces in the US is a good example: once it's an expectation, any minor imperfection is expected to be fixed.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

MSI, Britta,

You both make good points, and in light of those, let me rethink this somewhat:

1) If whiteness/Western-ness/race influence beauty standards, this doesn't mean a) that those trying to achieve whichever features aren't themselves Western/white, or b) that there's self-hatred operating on a level such that women of all races would press a button and look Swedish if they could. Re: the latter, I think it's quite the opposite - people tend to want to go on looking the ethnicity they are. For pride, for fitting in in their communities, or simply because few among us would want to look like an entirely different person, which is what that would entail. And re: the former, it seems clear enough that plenty of groups that consider themselves Western and white have beauty rituals that round up, as it were, to Scandinavian.

The only real caveat here would be the obsession (not global, but widespread) with tanning. The 'ideal' skin color in the West these days might well be darker than the typical skin color in Iran - certainly than the typical skin color of Ashkenazi Jews (not all of whom are quite as pale as I am, but still.)

2) This for MSI, re: Roman noses - I'm not sure, again, whether the issue is that these more often "afflict" Jews, or whether The Nose is such an entrenched part of anti-Semitic cliché that Jews who have these noses - even Jews who don't have these noses - would get them altered. I haven't traveled the world with calipers, but I have spent a lot of time in Western Europe, and around people from that area here in the States, and my sense is, these noses are plenty widespread over there, but if the person who has one isn't a Jew, they wouldn't even think to worry about it.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I am told that in such alien cultures as Texas, the sweet-16 nose job remains a Jewish rite of passage.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'll accept that what motivates Iranian girls (and women, and boys, and men) to deschozzify might be more about this just being what's done, and only tangentially/subconsciously about a desire to look Western/white. But I'd find it incredibly hard to believe that the American Jewish nose job is not about trying to look less Jewish. Anecdotal/cultural evidence points to this having been the motivating factor.

As for why men don't go in for it, well, plenty have, but the most obvious reason is that male appearance matters a whole lot less in our society than female. A big nose might stop a woman from marrying, but not a man.

Miss Self-Important said...

But then in your account of these motivations, isn't the driving force concern with prettiness/marriage chances, and not w/ looking Jewish? B/c a political fear or aversion to looking Jewish should animate both sexes equally, right? Or, perhaps there is a strong motivation for Jewish women but not Jewish men to marry non-Jews, so they and not the men wish to look more Gentile, but I don't really think that's borne out by any demographic data.

Jacob T. Levy said...

[I completely agree with Phoebe about the gender/ ethnicity interactions here.]

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

1) Who? Well, American Jews of Roth's generation, give or take. This is not just something I've read about. Jews who came to the States more recently may not have seen it in their milieus/families, so maybe that could be why to me, this is the obvious, and to you, something bizarre? Because it doesn't seem to be much of a thing these days.

2) The way Paula Hyman put it, and the way I see it as well, it's about internalized anti-Semitism. Non-Jews are absent insofar as this is about dynamics within the Jewish community (although there's the implicit threat that if a Jewish woman is too Jewy, Jewish men will prefer non-Jewish women, and will have that option, whereas Jewish women, so tied to the community and religion, would not). But it does come out of anti-Semitic caricature and such from the mainstream community. The cliché of the rich, grotesque Jewish heiress marrying the penniless decadent (Christian) aristocrat was all over the place in eras prior to the "JAP." The two are not unrelated. (And with that, back to reading over the chapter on grotesque Jewish heiresses marrying decadent aristocrats, a chapter I must, by self-imposed deadline, send to one of my profs by the end of the day...)