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In Iran, a hot market for nose jobs

By Elaine Sciolino
The New York Times
September 22, 2000

TEHRAN, Iran - The law in Iran requires women to cover their hair and to conceal the shape of their bodies in loose clothing. So a cool thing to do in Tehran these days is to get a nose job. See feature

So cool that unlike women in many places, who hide the chiseling and sawing and stretching done to their faces, Iranian women wear their postsurgical bandages like badges of honor, or at least indicators of a certain degree of wealth. And when only the face of a woman shows, it is not hard to detect who has been redone. Iranian women tend to have noses on the straight and strong side, so a button nose is likely to be man-made.

"It just like women's clothing - things go in and out of fashion," said Dr. Ali Akbar Jalali, a leading plastic surgeon in Tehran who spent the summer getting laser training in Cleveland. "And what's in fashion right now is getting the nose done. After that come face lifts.

"Only a small percentage of women want body work because there are so few opportunities in Iran to see women's bodies. No seashore, no swimming pools - except for women. So if women do body work, it's for their husbands. The face is really the only part that can be seen."

For centuries, a woman's beauty has been an essential component of Iranian culture. "Kill me, but make me beautiful," one Iranian proverb goes. "The beautiful face soothes the tired heart and opens the closed door," goes another. The poetry of the medieval poets Hafiz and Saadi is filled with deep longing for beautiful women, although the clerics insist that the images of perfumed hair and luminous faces refer to spiritual, not temporal, love.

Lili is typical of the women who believe in artificial enhancement. She has had her nose fixed to make it smaller and straighter - twice. She has had her eyebrows tattooed to darken them. And she has bought nonprescription contact lenses in four different hues - blue, dark green, light green and hazel - to accessorize her clothing and reflect her moods.

Lili, a 30-year-old mother of two, is rail thin, a result of constant dieting and aerobics and swimming classes at a swank women-only gym that doubles as a social club. Her long nails (implants that last for months) are painted pearly white. The Islamically correct coat and matching scarf she wears over a black miniskirt and snug shirt are from Italy.

"Part of the reason for spending so much attention on the way I look is that it's in our culture," Lili said. "It's in the nature of Iranian women to want to look beautiful. Part of the reason is that I don't have anything else to do. It's not like you - who have interesting places to go for work or entertainment. Here, my only job is to cook and take care of my home. So I spend time on myself."

Obviously, many Iranian women are too busy working or studying to concern themselves with their appearances as much as Lili does. But neither do they fit their ubiquitous image in the West: dour creatures swathed from head to toe in black.

Rhinoplasty, in particular, has become so widespread that the feminist magazine Zanan devoted an eight-page article to the subject in its August issue. The cover showed an artificial nose superimposed on the face of a woman. The headline read, "Young Women and Men and the Hot Market in Nose Jobs."

The article included interviews with women who had undergone the surgery. "Unfortunately, in my family, everyone has bad noses," said Haleh, 20, after she had had her nose shrunk. "This is a very, very serious flaw. Their faces change after the operation. They suddenly look beautiful. So all our family members are very sensitive about the shape of our noses, and everywhere we go we make comments about people's noses."

The mother of a 17-year-old whose nose has been changed surgically said: "We did her nose so she could become more beautiful and enjoy her face for the rest of her life. I could see that she had a flaw in her face, and I was very glad we could get rid of it."

Another young woman, named Golnush, spoke of a computer image of herself that her fiance had made for the doctor - with red hair and blue eyes and without the bump on her long nose.

The boom in cosmetic surgery is aided by enthusiastic surgeons, many of whom have trained in the United States. After performing seven cosmetic surgeries one day, for example, Jalali told a visitor that she should consider shortening her forehead a centimeter and having the horizontal and vertical lines on her forehead removed. He even un-Islamically pulled back her head scarf and stretched her skin to show how he would do it.

He told her young Iranian colleague with drop-dead good looks: "You have a delicate nose. It only needs a bit of the hump removed. And when you smile a horizontal line forms on your upper lip and a flare at the tip of your nose that is not very beautiful."

His fees are $1,000 for a nose job, $3,000 for a radical face lift, $1,200 for a breast reduction or an abdominal tuck. They are high by Iranian - but not by American or European - standards, and many of his clients are Iranian expatriates who come to Iran for the summer and go back home "refreshed."

"A few years ago all my friends seemed to be having hysterectomies," said an Iranian woman in her 50s. "You couldn't say hello to a doctor without him suggesting that you have a hysterectomy. Now it's nose jobs and face lifts."

Even if they do not resort to plastic surgery, Iranian women often invest heavily in hairdressers, aerobics classes, makeup, clothes and lingerie. Colored contact lenses, made in America and available without a prescription at pharmacies for about $15 a pair, are best sellers for both women and men. Bookstores stock books like "Face-Lifts Without Surgery" and "The Secrets of Being Young and Beautiful."

Women are rarely stopped on the street any longer by morals policemen for wearing makeup, prompting many young women to apply clownlike colors to their faces.

One of the most important private meeting places for women is the beauty salon, where they can take off their head scarves, relax and socialize. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran's revolution, once tried to ban all beauty parlors, calling them "dens of corruption." In the end, all he did was put male hairdressers - and female barbers - out of business.

Salons offer haircuts, coloring and blow drying; facials, massages and makeup treatment; manicures and pedicures; tattooing of the eyebrows, eyelids and lip lines; and a variety of techniques for bleaching, tweezing and removal of facial and body hair. It takes about five hours to get a bride coifed, painted, depilated, manicured, creamed and perfumed. The cost is equivalent to almost two months of an average government worker's salary.

"Just because women have to cover their heads doesn't mean they don't want to get their hair done or their eyebrows shaped," said Goli, 42, the owner of one of Tehran's fanciest beauty salons, a warren of rooms with the windows covered in a space far from the gaze of men. "In fact, women do it to feel human."

Some women visit their beauty salons as often as once a week. "When so little hair can be revealed in public, there's nothing worse than dark roots," said one customer. Other women cut or color their hair in wild colors as an act of rebellion, allowing the bangs to show. "I saw my stepsister the other day and she had died her hair yellow!" exclaimed Lili. "Not blond, yellow."

And there are accounts in Iranian newspapers from time to time about teen-age girls who cut their hair short and dress like boys to rebel against the restrictive dress code.

As for Lili, she continues her quest to become more and more beautiful.

"I want a smaller nose, like a doll's nose," she said. "I'm willing to pay lots of money to a plastic surgeon to give me a new look. I don't want to have any faults in my face. I'd like to look beautiful, like Marilyn Monroe." See feature


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