What is the hottest fashion accessory in Iran today? A nose job, judging by the increasing number of young women here whose noses are graced by gauze bandages and tape.
Plastic surgery to lift droops, smooth bumps, and taper the distinguishably long Persian nose has become as popular in Iran as the youth-driven reform movement. In a nation where required Islamic dress code allows exposure of only a woman's face and hands, Iranians cite many reasons for the trend, including a long-standing desire for facial beauty that these days is coinciding with a youth-driven political reopening toward the West.
For more than 20 years, strict social rules have required modest dress and covered hair. Even today, lipstick is frowned upon in conservatives circles to give undisputed priority to spiritual aspects of daily life.
But nose procedures have "become an obsession for young Iranians," says Elahe Shirali, a teenager who sports bright red lipstick beneath her bandaged nose. "It's such a trend that even if people don't get a nose job, they will wear tape for the attention it brings."
"It's very difficult in Iran, because people are so sensitive to noses," says Shahnez Ganji, Miss Shirali's mother. "People will come up to you on the street and make fun of your nose as you walk by."
The standard is high, even for Iranian women who assert that they are among the most beautiful on earth. Facial beauty has been lyricized for centuries by love poetry, and men commonly address women as khoshgelam, or "my pretty one." Some misguided youths even invoke Islam's tenet that "God is beautiful, and loves beautiful people."
No official statistics exist, but a leading surgeon says the 100 or so nose specialists in Iran perform 35,000 procedures per year. Qualified rhinoplastic surgeons charge about $1,000 per job. That demand is not limited to the wealthy, since newer doctors charge one-third that price.
"The concept of beauty differs in every nation and culture," says Siavash Safavi, a plastic surgeon who specializes in rhinoplasty, sitting in an office hung with Picasso prints that portray duplicate and misshapen noses of every sort. "Most of my patients desire to change their nose from the age of 12, and wait four years until they are 16. The result can be unbelievable and improves every emotion and mood. For people in poor areas, the idea is the same - sometimes I charge half price for them, if a girl needs it emotionally."
During the summer, Iranians living abroad come from Paris and the US - where such procedures are far more costly - to take advantage of local expertise honed by daily work.
"It's very particular to Iranian girls, that by adolescence a main goal is to be beautiful," Dr. Safavi says. "It's a value in our culture. There is education and everything else, but beauty is right up there, in every class."
Such a perspective might cause some to question social values that mandate surgery to improve a woman's image - questions that can as easily apply to other cultures.
But in Tehran, university student Layla Jahangari embraces the Iranian trend. With several strips of tape across her nose, she says her nose job was "totally cosmetic. I was beautiful, but really wanted to change the way I looked. I just did it for myself."
Miss Jahangari explains that the impulse toward such "improvement" has filtered down to intermediate schools - a trend she doesn't approve of - where even the youngest girls have begun to wear makeup. Still, she worked hard to convince her parents that "she wanted it so much" that it "was affecting my mind," before they relented. "You shouldn't think of it as a fashion accessory. A lot of Iranian women have a problem with their nose, and reserve a right to get it done."
As natural as Jahangari may speak about re-fitting her nose, there are signs that its use in drawing members of the opposite sex in Iran - at least in public - is limited. As she speaks, the mall loudspeaker reminds women to attend to their hijab, or hair covering, to ensure full compliance with the rules. Outside the main gate, a police van has picked up a young, unmarried couple: She sits forlornly at the back, while he sits separately near the front.
"Among my friends, those who can have a nose job do it, and those who can't all want to do it," says Jahangari, extending well-manicured hands toward a pay phone, to surprise her boyfriend with the news that her nose cast is finally off.
But is it required? she is asked. "Yes, you must have it in Iran today."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society