Illustration by Julia Kuo

I Feel Bad About My Nose

For colored girls who have considered getting a nose job when contouring isn't enough.

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Aug 9 2015, 5:00pm

Illustration by Julia Kuo

As early as age 11 or 12, I couldn't look at my face without seeing my nose. It was always there, but then it was there. Too wide and apt to be described as "meaty," my nose innocently ruined the rest of me, which was otherwise decent-ish. When I went to my mom with this, all adolescent tears and flaring nostrils, she probably tried to talk me out of worrying or assured me of my beauty. She definitely suggested that I could get a nose job, somewhere down the line, and all hope would be restored.

In the meantime she taught me a trick. When I was an infant, my mom explained, she would patiently use her fingers to stroke my nose upward and pinch it to a ski-jump point. The subtext of this story was "I tried!" and the fact that she had tried made it seem possible to keep trying. I took up the torch, massaging my nose during particular bouts of obsession. Soon I had collected a confused bag of skills in an attempt to outwit my own face, including contouring (before Kim Kardashian made it a phenomenon) and simply thinking that my wide, bulbous nose was a ticket to be redeemed for a new one, at a later date. It wasn't my nose, not my true nose, which was out there waiting, I thought, though it never came for me.

Some weekends growing up, while other girls would finally make time to idly paint their nails or sit with a pore-purifying face mask on, I would sit on my parents' couch with clothespins, up to three at a time, clipped to my nose, waiting. It was my "treatment"; after ten or 15 minutes spent repositioning the clothespins when one spot became too tender, I would emerge feeling like the painful wooden prongs digging into my skin had done...something. The placebo effect was wonderful for me. I would attempt to measure my progress and delude myself into thinking that the logic in this was as sound as braces for bucked teeth. (I needed those, too.)

For the most part, I attempted to partake in the rituals of girlhood like there was nothing different between me and the white girls who lined the bathroom between classes, smearing on far too much eyeliner. But sticking clothespins on my face wasn't something we could all talk about, laugh about, or share techniques for. It was a beauty ritual that I did alone, underscoring difference and the allure of eliminating it. This came with a pang similar to the one I would get when a friend would put her glaringly white arm up to mine and marvel at the progress of her voluntary tan. ("I'm almost your color!") All girls "become flesh," Simone De Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, but then there are some who are never let to forget that this flesh is brown.

In the neo-backwoods places I lived throughout middle and high school—Virginia, Florida—my classmates could only identify mixed-race oddities like me as surprisingly "not like other black people"—except, of course, in the ways that I was. When they noticed those ways, they were quick to call them out. I was at the forefront of innovation when it came to new ways of laughing and crying so that my nostrils didn't flare out to invite ape comparisons. At the end of a class, when I asked the guy who earlier threw a cookie into my hair why, he shrugged and responded, "Because it was nappy." Oh, right. Carry on.

Whenever I complained about the thing in the middle of my face my mom would snap at me, 'Are you shaping it?'I would sulk back to my room and get to work.

"Somewhere on the edge of all our consciousness there is what I call the mythical norm," Audre Lorde articulates in her address at Hunter College, "Difference and Survival," "which each of us knows within our hearts is 'not me.'" That "mythical norm" was a very apparent reality to me. It certainly did not involve my brown skin, my nappy hair, or my unwieldy nose. The latter hit me the hardest; it stubbornly refused to let me pass as anything other than a black bitch. Whenever I complained about the thing in the middle of my face my mom would snap at me, "Are you shaping it?" I would sulk back to my room and get to work.

Clothespins or fingers will "work" in a pinch, but the truly dedicated or desperate can now buy specialized device—with names like Nose Magic—to soothe their nasal anxiety. Nose-shaping products first emerged in the early 20th century. Marketed to white women who wanted straighter noses, they were similar to the crude vibrators that were sold as weight-loss aids at the time. Pure snake oil. The science behind them was bunk, but who could resist an ad that compliments you before it zeroes in on your biggest insecurity? "Have a beautiful face... but hate your nose?" You're almost there!

As nose shapers revealed themselves to be useless, the devices fell out of favor, disappearing for a time and becoming lore. But now, in the age of Amazon, their descendants are enjoying a renaissance among minority women—though, just like the old methods, none of them actually work. Largely sold from manufacturers in the Philippines and in Korea, the devices are no longer cumbersome metal headgear but glorified plastic clothespins with cushioning to ostensibly make them less painful.

Some companies solicit fake reviews praising the efficacy their devices, though genuine people also use them and swear by them, as I did. In 2012, the Huffington Post wrote a fairly inconsequential blog post about the proliferation of nose-shaping clips entitled "Nose Straightening Products Have Us Scratching Our Heads." Containing insights like, "these bizarre products are funny to look at," the post was dismissive, the takeaway that no one could possibly take these things seriously.

From formidable metal claws to wives' tales to purchasable objects again, the myth of nose shaping doesn't seem like it will die anytime soon; it is not only taken very seriously, but it is also pathological, and deeply political. The products' gradual demographic switch from the 1930s to the present mirrors a similar trend in who is choosing to undergo rhinoplasty (what the nose shaper claims to imitate, minus the surgery): While fewer women overall are going under the knife, the numbers for minority groups are rising. Over at the Tablet, writer Rita Rubin quotes the physician and anthropologist Melvin Konner, who theorizes that this is because Jewish women, for whom nose alteration was once a rite of passage, are enjoying "increased ethnic pride and a decreased desire to stop looking Jewish and blend in." When the first documented nose-shaping gadgets hit the market, it coincided with harsh anti-immigration sentiments against the influx of Jewish, Irish, and Greek people to the United States. To change one's nose was to conceal one's ethnic identity, on which many opportunities in America hinged. A plastic surgeon Rubin quotes muses that now "the ideal beauty can be anybody." Though I'm sure what he means to say is "any white body"—as Jewish, Irish, and Greek people are now considered. In "In a Mirror, Darkly" Hannah Black explains this cultural alchemy:

The conceptual incoherence of race is advantageous to white supremacy, as the benefits of whiteness can be extended or retracted pretty much expediently. This is how Jewish people, for example, once considered a subhuman burden on European civilization, have survived to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their newfound white brothers in the fight against brown Muslims.

"Wanting to be 'white,'" Michelle Wallace writes in the introduction to the updated edition of Black Macho, originally published in 1978, is an "ideological fantasy, socially constructed and yet utterly impossible to achieve, like wanting to be without sin." In other words, the target may move, but to uphold status quo there must always be a target. Usually, the blackest among us is the farthest away.

I would liken the pedagogy of nose shaping to the multi-generational dance of turning one's kinky hair into effortful waves, which Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes in his essay "In The Kitchen." Or, rather, I would describe it this way if the ability to smooth nappy hair were an impossible task, futile and unachievable even after hours of hot combing by the stove. My grandfather on mom's side is a Black man from Baltimore. I've seen him maybe three times in my life, but for some reason I have an image of him in my head with a modestly balding Afro, wearing thick-lens, wire-frame glasses, a white button down, and khakis. That's probably a polaroid in a box somewhere; he might be holding my little sister, who is a remarkably adorable baby with a chubby round face, dressed in a pristine white onesie. One thing's for certain: His nose is wide. My late maternal grandmother is Japanese, and I have many images of her, with her stubbed, flat-bridged nose just like my mom's. I don't know which one of them gave my mother the idea that nose shaping was as tried-and-true as an apple a day, but after hearing my mom's stories about standing in front of mirrors as a young girl, it started to make more sense, if not fully. As if neuroses could be handed down by family tradition, it was her nose—or, rather, her lack of one—she was preoccupied with. "You have no nose!" her father would tease her, as she focused intently on the flat, small, button-like thing in the mirror in front of her.

There are still young mothers who inquire about shaping their babies' noses on parenting message boards. In the Jamaica Observer, there's a brief trend piece that points to the prevalence of the method in Jamaican communities. On Black celebrity gossip sites there are rumors that Tina Knowles is shaping Blue Ivy's nose nightly to insure that it grows into Beyoncé's and not Jay Z's. Just as there is "good" hair and "bad" hair, there are "good" noses and "bad" noses, though there is no easy route to soothe assimilationist impulses with the latter—it's a part of your face.

Recently someone asked me if I've seen the movie Bug. A trashy-seeming thriller, it was described to me as a folie à deux in which the main characters convince each other there are bugs living under their skin (there are not) and go to gross extremes to get them out. ("It's actually really good, even though it stars Ashley Judd.") The pair work themselves into an intense paranoia, lock themselves in a room, and slice into their flesh, fully convinced of their horrific condition. I hadn't seen it, though I didn't need to see the delusion unfold onscreen to share an imagined catharsis with it. I have been uncomfortable enough in parts of my body to entertain the idea of removing them entirely. When I turned 18, I settled on mutilation: two piercings on either side of my nose. (A clever distraction!) Even as I watched the skin around the rings go from swollen to bloody to full-on infected, I didn't want to take them out. I'm sure the overall effect was completely vile, but a pierced, mangled nose seemed better to me than what I was working with before. I reluctantly gave it up. Even straightened hair, with the slightest disturbance, springs back frizzy and rough. The most exacting remedy for the kinkiest hair at the nape of the neck—"the kitchen"—is to cut it off.

RealSelf.com is a site that allows users to diary their plastic surgery experiences and rate them, serving as a cautionary tale, an inspiration, or a practical resource for other members who are considering getting work done. Most of the 151 combined posts under the "African American Rhinoplasty" and "Asian Rhinoplasty" tags—together known as "ethnic plastic surgery"—sing the same refrain: I have always wanted a nose job.

It's kind of annoying to realize that your deepest insecurities are commonplace.

On RealSelf, a curated group of doctors can also weigh in on inquiries from people who are not sure where to start when it comes to their cosmetic surgery endeavor, whatever it may be. Someone like my mom, for example, who is unhappy with her "typically Asian" nose shape, has the option of implanting a silicone or Gore-Tex bridge to add height. I could have the bridge of my nose "broken to decrease the width, the cartilage in my tip... lessened, and my nasal alar... augmented by making small cuts on the inside of my nares."

It's kind of annoying to realize that your deepest insecurities are commonplace.

Hungover, I talk to RealSelf's director of community on the phone and forget to record it. (Bad Journalist.) All I can remember is her—the company's—adamant stance: Plastic surgery is about choice, specifically the power to choose. Who are we to judge, etc. Maureen O'Connor's piece for New York magazine on ethnic plastic surgery last year, in which she presents statistics and facts on rhinoplasty and double-eyelid surgery, comes to a similar conclusion. I don't buy it.

It's common for most women, at least according to the site's forums, to express the desire to "keep their ethnic look"—but just, you know, lessen it. Not so ethnic. Not so flat. Not so wide. Just a little cinched in, just a little raised up. It's rare to see women, or men, explicitly state that they're going for a "caucasian look." Presumably they're going for something more like facial armor, to better navigate the patriarchy and white supremacy. In certain lights (Lo-fi, maybe Hudson?) this looks like survival; in brighter ones, it's just the same trap, better hidden. In capitalist terms, it's an investment in a system that values certain bodies over others.

A few weeks ago I saw that my friend Sarah, who is half-Korean and half-white, tweeted, "I can never relax because I'm always thinking about what it's like to have a cute small white person nose." Sarah is beautiful to me and to a lot of people, though she thinks her nose—a diminutive of mine, with plump, round nostrils—is too big. Decidedly not "cute" and not "white." The frustration with this type of anxiety, I realized, is that it has nowhere to go except Twitter or DIY piercing therapy, unless one is willing to ascend the ranks from I have always wanted a nose job to I got a nose job. Unless one makes The Choice. There is no easy way out and that doesn't feel fair.

When I emailed Sarah to discuss her tweet, she wrote back, "I've accepted most of my body, but the one thing I've been so mean to myself about, still, is my nose. If I ever got plastic surgery my nose would be the first thing to go."

As I browsed the RealSelf forums, researching for this essay about a desire I thought was safely in the past tense of my teenage angst, I touched my nose impulsively. Some procedures were less invasive and cheaper than I thought they would be; alarplasty, for example, only requires a snip of the nostrils. I was back to wanting. I guess that I can never relax, either. The phrase "shit or get off the pot" seems applicable here.

I begin to become overwhelmed by noses. They're everywhere! At my boyfriend Rion's apartment, we watch the latest episode of Scandal when it arrives on Hulu, as is tradition, and I can't look at anything but Kerry Washington's nose. The bones of it are tiny under her dark skin. I'm not sure if she's had a nose job, though I suspect she has. The following weekend I get Rion addicted to America's Next Top Model, and we make fun of it, but the entire time I'm thinking Tyra Banks's bridge is also suspiciously slim. Later, as Rion and I are on our separate MacBooks, I look up old pictures of Tyra online-she's definitely had a nose job. I switch to Beyoncé: There are rumors that she's probably had one as well. Nicki Minaj, too. I spiral. "Every black celebrity has had a nose job!" I yell, not so much at Rion as in his general direction. "It's a conspiracy!" Rion, a white man, doesn't notice—the noses, the logic of my hysterics. There are no real noses belonging to black women in pop culture, I conclude quietly, after I settle down. I have no proof that this is a fact, but I have a lot of examples: Lil Kim, Oprah, Janet Jackson, Halle Berry, Real Housewife Nene Leakes, who had hers done on camera. The click-bait hed for the in-depth Vanity Fair profile of 16-year-old gymnast Gabrielle Douglas reduces her accomplishments to "Gabby Douglass Told to Get a Nose Job"—which, like so many young girls of color, she was, by one of her former coaches.

Though Douglas somehow went on to win an Olympic gold medal without plastic surgery, I humor a timeline. If, starting now, I put a substantial amount of money from each paycheck aside, I could have enough for an operation in less than a year. Finding a good doctor in New York would be easy. But this thought experiment ends as a thought; I don't start saving, and I don't start searching. A lazy perversion of political resistance, delaying action prolongs my solidarity with myself (my real self?), however weakly.

When I finish the first draft of this essay my mom texts me a photo of my sister and me, by too much coincidence. In the photo I'm about five years old, and my sister is a newborn. I'm holding her. My sister's eyes are closed and mine nearly are, as I look down at her, smiling. The text caption is "FBF" and the heart-eyes emoji. Staring at this image in my phone, I think of a passage from Audre Lorde's memoir, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.

Little Black girls, tutored by hate into wanting to become anything else. We cut our eyes at sister because she can only reflect what everybody else except momma seemed to know-that we were hateful, or ugly, or worthless, but certainly unblessed. We were not boys and we were not white, so we counted for less than nothing, except to our mommas.

But here, I don't see madness, or self-consciousness, or bad feelings in myself, and my sister looks so peaceful. Now she is 17 and anything but—in a previous dispatch, my mom had lamented that my sister had requested a $300 haircut from an LA salon famed for its mastery of curly hair, which typically cannot be mastered. My mother's denial of her appeal sent her to tears.

"Two babies" I text back. There's no good emoji.