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The Trials and Tribulations of My (Very) Ethnic Nose

Anastasia Volkoff


“We’re just going to take a few pictures of your nose, honey. From a few different angles,

so we know what we’re working with. Smile. Wide, with teeth.” Picture this: I am fourteen, almost

fifteen, waiting in a doctor’s office, nervous beyond belief. Unlike most kids my age, I am not

anticipating a shot or a new medication or an adjustment to my braces. Instead, I am waiting for

the input of a man being paid five hundred dollars an hour to explain all that is wrong with my

nose and every way in which it can be fixed. I have wanted a nose job since the seventh grade,

when my best friend told me mine was “humongous.” Although it may seem like the kind of catty

comment middle-schoolers make all the time, the remark would define my self-image for the

next few years. Maybe that sentence shouldn’t have been enough to leave such a permanent

mark, but when I was on the brink of my teen years and wanted nothing more than to feel

accepted, hearing it felt like the end of the world.


“Here is a pamphlet, so you can look at other people’s results. I just thought it was

something interesting that you could thumb through while you're waiting for the doctor.” I flipped

through the leaflet, past pages of pictures of the same transformation: an ethnic woman’s nose,

with a high bridge or a dorsal hump, shaved to a ruler-straight point. I looked at myself in the

full-length mirror that leaned against the office wall. How would a nose job alter my own? For the

women in the pamphlet, the change was a story so clear that it could be told unambiguously in

just two frames: a big nose became a small one, crooked into straight, flared into tapered.

Despite this, I saw a more subtle “before and after” within each photo. In every image was a

“before” woman, ignorant of any notion that her nose might be unacceptable, and an “after”

woman, undergoing a three-hour surgery to absolve this new worry until its inevitable

replacement by another insecurity.


“So you’re fourteen right now, almost fifteen, correct? And what exactly do you want to

fix?” I thought of everything I had learned to hate about my nose. I kept a mental list of all that

needed to change. I knew its tip was wide and rounded, a typical feature of those who share my

Chinese ancestry. Its bridge from the side was straight, mostly, but at a certain angle, there was

a bump that, however slight, I couldn’t help but worry resembled my father’s Roman profile. The

doctor explained that he intended to preserve the ethnic integrity of my nose: “You still won’t

have a white nose after this. Your nose will always look pretty Asian.”


Of all the comments, suggestions, and observations that have been directed at the

center of my face – the center of my insecurities – the plastic surgeon’s emphasis on ethnicity

has stuck with me the most. Is there any possible way to preserve the ethnic integrity of a nose

after a nose job? What about each woman in the pamphlet? Was a part of her identity erased

along with her nose’s prominence? Recently, supermodel Bella Hadid revealed to the public that

she got rhinoplasty at fourteen, the same age I was when I had my first (and only) consultation

with a plastic surgeon. She explained the regret she feels at her loss of “the nose of [her]

ancestors,” which prompted me to wonder how my own self-image might have changed, had I

gone through with the procedure.


Of course, not everybody who gets a nose job does so in pursuit of a Eurocentric ideal,

but after being surrounded by the overwhelming whiteness of Western beauty and its

representative faces my entire life, I could not help but long to erase the part of my identity that

did not comply. My insecurity was largely rooted in shame: the shame of not being white. I

resented my nose for being indicative of my distance from the whiteness equated with beauty. In

retrospect, it is hard to believe that a single comment had such a strong chokehold on my

self-image, but in the four years of reflection since, I have realized how common this experience

is for women of color. Embracing our noses and all the uniquely gorgeous shapes and sizes

they come in is difficult within a white society. Acceptance may be a struggle at times, but I look

forward to the moment when I can look in the mirror and authentically say, “this is me.” Our

ethnic noses are symbols of years of strife, perseverance, and cultures so rich that they cannot

help but present themselves on the centers of our faces. Our ethnic noses are an emblem of

pride.

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