Who Nose

(I’m sorry, bad puns are my favorite, blame my dad.)

First off, many thanks to everyone who’s given me a story or rant so far, and keep them coming. You guys have some good stuff.

I was talking to my friend Lizzy at work today and she told me about getting coffee with a friend who looked a little different than she had when Lizzy had last seen her. She (Lizzy) assumed that the friend had lost weight, was wearing new makeup, etc. That’s what she answered with when the friend asked, “Do you notice anything different about me?” Apparently that wasn’t the right answer. The right answer was: She’d gotten a nose job. And an eye tuck. And a chin lift. At age 23.

I couldn’t believe it at first. We live in Chicago, not on the Upper East Side of New York or in LA. That’s not something I run into often–the people my age around here are mostly struggling to make rent, not springing for a new face.

Speaking of which, I said, when I was a kid I hated my nose and wanted a nose job. And technically, I’ve had cosmetic surgery.

Lizzy was stunned. It’s not something I remember to bring up in conversation, although I’m not shy about it. So here my story branches into two sections, the first of which goes back to my infancy.

I was born a perfectly normal little girl (despite what my friends will tell you about the sex change) with a shock of dark hair and turned-up eyes. In fact, I looked almost Asian. But ethnic confusion aside, I was like any other baby.

It was a few weeks after I was born that my parents noticed a little red dot on the right side of my nose. They assumed it was a blemish and ignored it at first, but it didn’t go away. In fact, it got larger. And larger. And at some point it began to bubble outward.

Don’t worry, I didn’t have some kind of baby cancer or anything remotely harmful. The doctors told my parents that what I had was called a hemangioma. We called it my birthmark. Wikipedia describes it as “a benign tumor…of the cells that line blood vessels and is characterized by increased number of normal or abnormal vessels filled with blood.” Usually they go away on their own by around age 10.

My “birthmark” continued to grow as I got older, turning from a red dot to a red bubble and eventually to a large skin-colored mass. Here’s what it more or less looked like (picture from the International Hemangioma Treatment Center):

Mine was a little more defined as a bubble shape, and not quite as large, but you get the idea.

I was a pretty social, unflappable little girl, but unfortunately people aren’t always polite to people, even young children, who look different than they expect. An old Italian woman once made the sign of the evil eye when my mother carried me past her, as though I would bring bad luck or witchcraft down upon her. By the time I was three or so, other kids were asking questions and gently teasing me. Nothing horrible or scarring, that I can remember. But my parents decided that it was time to get the birthmark removed.

I remember the bubble-gum-scented mask that put me to sleep in the Boston Children’s Hospital, how sick I felt when I woke up, and how stunned I was that they had put a tube down my throat. Other than that, everything went smoothly. My nose healed and you could hardly tell anything had ever been there.

Not to say that I didn’t hold onto the idea of being different, though. For awhile I wore a locket with a picture of my younger self in it, reminding myself that I hadn’t always looked like other kids. I cried hopelessly at “The Phantom of the Opera,” imagining that if I had been born earlier in time I would have been shunned for my appearance, maybe even left out to die as a changeling or imperfect child (I read too much about Sparta).

And gosh-darn-it if my nose wasn’t still a problem. A line of blood vessels formed along my scar so that it was noticeable if you were paying attention. Plus, and even worse, my nose decided to grow in large and aquiline instead of small and button-like.

I complained to my mom about it all the time. She had the same nose but it worked for her, and I just looked beaky, I thought. My brother didn’t have my problem. None of the women in movies I watched had noses like mine, because I didn’t watch anything involving Meryl Streep or Barbra Streisand. I thought about how nice it would be to have a normal-shaped nose and to have a chance at actually being pretty.

As I got older and grew into my looks, I began to accept my face the way it was and to stop thinking about the feasibility of rhinoplasty. In high school, though, I was still concerned about the blood vessels that, it seemed to me, highlighted my scar and pulled attention from my eyes. And in came cosmetic procedure number two: several sessions of laser therapy to snap and disperse the blood vessels.

We’d go at the beginning of vacation so I would have some time to recover before I had to go back to school. I’d sit in a chair with halves of Ping-Pong balls over my eyes and the doctor would take a pen-shaped instrument and zap each blood vessel. It felt like someone snapping a rubber band against my face, over and over. Then we would be done, and I’d look a little bit like I’d gotten into a fight, and I’d hide away and cover my face with makeup until I looked presentable again. We got the scar down to something hardly noticeable, and I stopped caring.

Now I wouldn’t dream of getting rid of the nose I have. Yeah, it’s not small, but it connects me to my mom and grandfather and a whole line of Hemsworths. And as Bobbi Brown says, real beauty is about highlighting the distinctive thing about you. I’m much more “striking” with my Roman nose in contrast to my cheekbones than I would be with some miniature ski-jump.

So that’s the story of my cosmetic surgery, and part of the reason I resist (to whatever degree I can) judging people based on appearance. There’s still part of me, hiding deep in the back of my brain, that thinks that if I’d lived earlier in history I could have ended up a circus freak or worse, even though I know it’s hyperbolic. These days I appreciate the ability to “pass” as a normal person.

It makes it all the more fun when people learn the truth.

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