Under the shrouds, a nation of nose jobs

Young Iranians love that sculpted look, flashing the flesh they can in prudish culture

September 25, 2006|

By Christine Spolar, Tribune foreign correspondent

TEHRAN — Along this capital's best boulevards, some young women go about their days in distinctive style: They cover their hair with silks, drape their torsos with smartly cut wraps and, with some aplomb, maneuver the streets peering through layers of white gauze on their faces.

They are part of a nose-job nation.

Black-shrouded matrons are still the backbone of Iranian society. But being young, urban and Iranian these days means tinkering with the look of and some less-than-spiritual ideals within the Islamic Republic.

Iranians, in increasing numbers and at surprisingly young ages, are altering flesh in the pursuit of beauty.

"It's very common in our society," said Zahra Kalantar, an 18-year-old swathed in heavy black robes and a face full of gauze whose father paid $1,200 to make her nose new. "I really didn't want to have a nose job, but there was a lot of pressure. My classmates made fun of my nose. So did my cousins. ... My nose was big and wide. And here, appearances matter."

Plastic surgery is commonplace in countries such as Lebanon and Syria, but patients in Iran exude a remarkable enthusiasm about their decision. Bandages are worn openly and youngsters routinely discuss the benefits of looking like Nicole Kidman and Angelina Jolie.

Rhinoplasty has become a common reward for passing college entrance exams. Some even undergo surgery two or three times--at a fraction of the cost of Western procedures--to perfect their profiles framed by the ever-present hijabs, or scarves, they must wear.

The sculpting doesn't stop there. Chins are filled out in outpatient procedures. Older women are flocking in for eye-, breast- and face-lifts, surgeons say, and even men are being persuaded to make a few changes. Some doctors estimate teenage boys make up 10 percent of all nose-job patients.

"When I was studying this in college, I wasn't even thinking about this kind of future," said plastic surgeon Dabeer Zadeh, 57, whose practice has doubled in the last eight years. "Before the revolution, there were maybe 10 or 20 plastic surgeons in Iran. Now there are many times that."

Beauty has always been highly valued in Persian culture. "Kill me, but make me beautiful" is a proverb here as well as a refrain groaned in beauty salons where body waxing is a monthly ritual. But Zadeh surmises, from conversations with patients, that the Islamic revolution has played an ironic role in the surge of surgeries.

Iran's Islamic law demands women keep their hair, arms and legs covered in public. The 1979 revolution, however, also allowed girls better and more extensive higher education. These girls are more open to cultural change even if they are somewhat restricted--by the scarves and cover-ups they must wear--from the hippest street fashion.

L.A. beams in the fads

So, many of them focus on whatever bit of flesh they can flash. Satellite television beamed in from Farsi-language stations in Los Angeles often suggests some eye-popping makeup styles from the West; syndicated shows such as "Friends" and "Oprah" are on-screen galleries for nose, cheek and chin possibilities.

"I think it all comes down to the hijab and satellite TV," said Zadeh, whose waiting room was packed this month. "The girls focus on what can be seen. Satellite TV shows them what they could be."

Tehran is the plastic surgery capital of Iran. But other major cities, such as Esfahan and Shiraz, also are seeing the number of patients spiral.

It is difficult to assess the scope of the trend--no government agency appears to track the frequency of the operations--but some doctors estimate that tens of thousands of people in this country of 68 million had nose jobs last year. Iran's Ministry of Health, citing the popularity of such surgery, recently initiated a campaign to warn patients to rely only on physicians certified to do the work.

It is common to stroll along avenues of tony, northern Tehran and see someone bearing a telltale nose bandage. Documentary filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei explored the phenomenon.

He found that girls and boys, no matter the class or family background, saw nose jobs as necessary. There was nothing un-Islamic about changing their looks, they said. They wanted to fit an image of beauty that appealed to them and seemed beyond the borders of Iran.

His latest film, "Nose, Iranian Style," wonders what drives the young and the restless in Iranian society. Oskouei, after a showing in his home in Tehran, said he was still baffled why girls cheerily referred to nose jobs as "an epidemic" for the young.

Filmmaker: `It's not normal'

"It's not normal," the 37-year-old filmmaker said about the proliferation of plastic surgery, and nose jobs in particular.

"I'm from the war generation. In the Iran-Iraq war, people lost an arm or a leg and it was considered an honor. They were losing something for their country. They were attractive for their beliefs.