Nose no problem

Observations on Iran where there are phemonenal numbers of nose jobs

In recent years, Iran has been described as "the nose job capital of the world". The figures are indeed phenomenal: in 2006, there were approximately 35,000 cosmetic nose operations in Tehran alone, compared to 6,000 in the UK.

The western media have seen the statistics as proof of encroaching westernisation: Iranians are rejecting the regime, pursuing a Hollywood perception of beauty.

But research from the University of Oxford undermines this theory. Sara Lenehan, a British-born Iranian, interviewed more than 40 plastic surgeons and patients. Her findings are intriguing. "Although most rhinoplasty [nose surgery] patients are more secular, a significant number support the religious regime," she said.

"I visited one surgery where over a third of the women waiting were wearing the chador . . . typically associated with religious piety and political conformity."

Dr Ameri, a surgeon in northern Tehran, thinks the Iranian obsession with rhinoplasty has nothing to do with wanting to be western: "Look at American women who go and get breast enlargements," he said. "Nobody turns around and tells them they're trying to look more African or Latin. By making the nose smaller, we exaggerate other features - like Iranians' large and beautiful eyes."

Nor do religious leaders seem to find Iranian damagh amal-kardeh (nose-operated) men and women threatening to traditional values. Ayatollah Khomeini gave his religious blessing to rhinoplasty in the 1980s taking his justification from the Hadith: "God is beautiful and loves beauty."

Unlike other "westernising trends" in Iran that are chastised by the religious police - the showing of too much hair, the tightening of tunics and the rising use of lipstick - there is no political sanction for having a nose job.

Lenehan argues that plastic surgery, rather than serving as a form of rebellion against a conservative ideology, is providing a new channel for old customs. "Beautification is a big part of traditional culture," she explains. "It's seen as part of becoming a woman - initiation rituals such as band andazi [hair removal] take place for the first time in the run-up to marriage, not just in cities, but in traditional rural areas, too."

Iran has always been an image-conscious culture; there is a word in Farsi - aberou - to refer to one's "social face". We have no equivalent word in English. One doctor Lenehan talked to claimed to have operated on two religious women under pressure from their mothers-in-law to get surgery. A nose job, they were told, was a precondition for engagement.

"Improving your looks can be a way of getting ahead, just as it is in the west," said Lenehan. For this reason many poorer sections of Iranian society save for the operation to demonstrate wealth and increase their chances of "marrying up". For those who can't afford it, fakery is an option; the prestige of a nose job is so great that pharmacists report selling bandages to those who haven't even had the operation.

Lenehan herself has faced pressure to undergo surgery: "When I was in my early teens my grandma started saying I needed to 'get my bump removed'," she told me. Lenehan insists that her gran, who has had the operation, was speaking in her best interests. "It's never nice to hear that something about you needs changing," she said, "but my gran thinks she's helping to better my life chances."

Iranians abroad are encouraged to return home for the operation, where rates are cheaper (a new nose costs between $500 and $2,000) and the doctors more experienced. But there is still resistance. On Facebook, Iranians have set up diaspora resistance groups such as "You're jealous of my sexy Persian bump!" and "Bow down before my big proud Persian nose".

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it