Plain as the nose on your face

Laura Marginata

"Are you from the Middle East?" the woman inquired, her voice thick with accent. She seemed hell-bent on conversation during my quiet bus ride home. I scrutinized her alert eyes and deeply lined face, trying to discern whether she was merely curious or spoiling for a fight.

When I said I was born in Wisconsin, she became impatient. "But your grandparents; where were they from?" When she discovered that her guess was reasonably accurate, she sat back, relieved. "I knew it!" she announced proudly. "I'm an anthropologist."

Then she added the six little words that struck fear in my heart. "I could tell by your nose," she said.

Under other circumstances I might have pondered why strangers feel compelled to comment on such things. Or I might have wondered how reliable an ethnic indicator one's nose is. But there wasn't time. She hurtled into an impassioned (and remarkably loud) speech about the beauty of "unusual" noses—how mine had so much character, how it wasn't like everyone else's, how nose jobs were despicable. By now every passenger in the front half of the bus was studying my nose and assessing its character.

This woman's sister had urged her to get her nose fixed, and she was still fuming. "This is America!" she shouted. "What is this infatuation with noses that all look alike? You have such a gorgeous nose—you'd never think of getting a nose job, would you?"

I felt a sharp pain. My neighbor faded away and there I was, standing by my high school locker, listening uncomprehendingly as a "good friend" was telling me how another "friend" secretly hated me because of my excessively curly hair and my big, ugly nose.

Yes, I did think about having a nose job. In fact, I almost got one. I remember so clearly planning to have that operation—what had intervened? Perhaps my features had evened out. Maybe the issue had receded at college, where intellectual rather than facial aesthetics were stressed and where distinctive ethnic schnozzes far outnumbered WASPish, regular features.

Regular features—what, after all, did that mean? Western literature is replete with heroes and heroines sporting fine, elegant noses. Elegant, I understood, meant small, noble, straight. Everyone calls it a "nice" nose.

Those of us who passed through the birth canal without first packing the requisite designer genes found ourselves less fashionably attired. Our noses wore frumpy labels like pug or prominent, hawk or hook, flat or broad, bumpy or ski jump. "Elegant" meant first-class travel; the others were pay-as-you-go.

I'd never begrudge anyone the option of resculpting a nose to alleviate anguish. But by buying into the American penchant for "nice" and "normal" (read, familiar and upper-class European) as opposed to "distinctive" and "ethnic" (less familiar, hence frightening or declassé), we help perpetuate the absurd notion that "regular features" exist in the first place.

"Regular" in our multicultural nation comprises whatever our ancestral lineage has bestowed upon each of us. It's a fact as plain as that lovely appendage they call the nose on your face.

This essay appeared in the Los Angeles Times (October 22, 1990).