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The Beauty Regime: The Politics and Popularity of Cosmetic Surgery in Iran


The popular Persian proverb “Kill me but make me beautiful” displays the high esteem in which aesthetic presentation and beauty are held in Iranian society. A “subculture” of cosmetic surgery and enhancement is evident in Iran (Suleymani, 2020, p. 204) with rhinoplasty, the medical term for a ‘nose job’, likened to a rite of passage for many women (Haidrani, 2020). Iran’s high uptake of surgical procedures for aesthetic reasons (herein referred to as cosmetic surgery) is widely viewed as a peculiarity as per global trends, not least because of the state’s strict policing of (particularly women’s) bodies and appearances. This Juncture Review intends to cover the symbiosis between religiosity and cosmetic enhancement and discourses and history surrounding beauty ideals to give some insight into the high uptake of, and culture surrounding, cosmetic surgery in Iran.


Theorising Cosmetic Surgery

The choice to get cosmetic surgery is informed by both individual choice and structural factors. Despite this, scholarship regarding cosmetic surgery displays a tendency to diverge into two disparate approaches (Negrin, 2002, p. 21). These are the conceptualisation of cosmetic surgery as a medium by which women actively choose to recraft their bodies and, more critically, a womens’ submission of their “bodies to forms of regulation based in social conceptions of the ideal female body” (Gulbas, 2008, p. 4). While the former fails to examine the larger structural causes influencing the decision to undergo cosmetic surgery (Negrin, 2002, p. 39) the latter reifies femininity as a category experienced by all women homogeneously (Gulbas, 2008, p. 4). Both categories are thus inadequate in elucidating the role both agency and structure play in the production and consumption of cosmetic surgery.

Social action regarding the decision to undertake cosmetic procedures can instead be understood in relation to Giddons’ (1984) theory of ‘structuration’ which sees action and structure as a duality rather than separate entities. Individuals are free to express their agency in their everyday lives, even though their choices are confined within these structures. Due to the nature of evaluating the specific socio-political context in which cosmetic surgery is undertaken in Iran, more focus (although not necessarily more importance) will be placed on the role of structure, although crucially it is recognised that this is intrinsically connected with individual agency as per the established parameters. This approach also accords with the findings of Rahbari et al. (2018) whose accounts of beauty discources in Iran suggest that “beauty is socially-defined, and then pursued by the individuals” (Rahbari, Dierickx, Longman, & Coene, 2018, p. 57).

Historical Discourses Surrounding Beauty Ideals and Cosmetic Surgery in Iran

The trajectory of gender and sexuality from the late 18th century, as well as Iran’s exposure to the West, has significantly influenced the country’s contemporary culture of cosmetic surgery. This section attempts to provide a brief overview of competing political ideologies and social reception pertaining to certain beauty features. Dezhamkhooy (2022, pp. 266-267) characterises four stages of beauty transformation relative to the royal and upper classes in Iran from the 18th century; genderless beauty, gendered beauty, the feminisation of beauty and the contemporary stage of beauty and femininity. The importance of Dezhamkhooy’s scholarship to this inquiry lies in the recognition of the cultural relativization of bodily aesthetics and related gender norms, and beauty as a culturally contingent and socially constructed phenomenon.

In Women with Mustaches Men without Beards (2005), Najmabadi notes that beginning in the early 19th century during the latter period of the Qajar dynasty (1789–1925), the permeation of Western influence began to change female indicators of beauty. The example of the perceived desirability of facial hair on women, once considered a feature indicative of beauty, becoming a “universally accepted sign of ugliness” (Najmabadi, 2005, p. 235), is here pertinent. A process thus began of

“Iranian women attempting to look like European women about whom Iranian men fantasized and wrote about endlessly, with lighter features, thinner bodies, and hairless faces” (Najmabadi, 2005, p. 235).

While such a statement is pejorative in the sense that it negatively portrays a proclivity towards a certain ‘hive mind’ attitude amongst Iranians at the time, it does give a sense of how Western culture was beginning to permeate into cultural beauty standards. Furthering such a process was the Pahlavi regime’s ‘modernisation projects’, adopting the stated purpose of “socially engineering traditional Iranian society in a more Western-oriented direction” (Suleymani, 2020, p. 207). Foucault (1977) saw body management as deeply affected by power relations that order hierarchies and serve to objectify the individual. As noted by Leneham (2011, p. 50) the continued relevance of Foucault with regard to this subject is seen in the work of anthropologists on the globalisation of body management practices existing within specific constraints imposed by the Western consumer image. For example, the diffusion of models and behaviour of the elite can be seen through the epitome of “the envied type of female nose” (Gazagnadou, 2006, p. 107). Identified as the French ‘snub’ nose, or the Italian or American version, its influence in the formation of a beauty standard in Iran permeated through fashion magazines, foreign movies, and travel (Gazagnadou, 2006, p. 107).

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 attempted to reverse such attempts at Westernisation, which it considered to be a pernicious and culturally toxic influence (Najmabadi, 2005). Domestic policy thus became focused on the proliferation of Islamic values through an official state ideology. The clash of state doctrine against tradition or the re-imposition of traditional values in the face of Westernization played itself out through women’s dress and through social dynamics. The dictates of the Islamic Revolution resulted in Iranian women being forced to re-veil under a rûsari, a maqna’e, an even stricter hedjâb or a chador. According to the so-called ‘Hijib theory’ the act of veiling highlights the nose as the most notable feature, with this theory being used in support of a contemporary causal relationship between Iran’s cultural politics and its precedent of rhinoplasty procedures (Gazagnadou, 2006, p. 107). This theory is reductionist; reducing complex causal factors to a lone constituent part. Firstly, such negative conceptions of the distinctive ‘Iranian nose’[1] can be noted within the prosperous classes during monarchal times with women in the entourage of the shah already having had nose operations in the 1950s and 1960s (Gazagnadou, 2006, p. 107). Additionally, such a phenomenon of cosmetic surgery uptake cannot be observed in other Islamic countries with cultural or political inducement/coercion to wear a veil. Thus, in Iran wearing the veil has perhaps accentuated an older existing complex, but not formulated a cultural predisposition anew to undergo rhinoplasty procedures. Instead, the popularity of rhinoplasty has been due largely to its association with the affluence of the upper classes (Leneham, 2011, p. 54), and as a result of the reduction in the costs of the surgery, which has allowed the model and practice to spread through the population (Gazagnadou, 2006, pp. 107-108).

Naturally, a culture of consumer cosmetic surgery would have struggled to develop without both the impetus and the necessary domestic technical capabilities. The most significant developments in plastic surgery were made during the 1950s and 1970s, although absent from this context were impetus relative to beauty and sexuality (Cohen, 2015, p. 111). The Islamic Revolution in 1979, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 equally saw advancements in reconstructive surgery. While the former saw the approach of many fields of research change from globalisation to localising that field of knowledge, the latter events presented an opportunity for the medically capable to demonstrate capabilities in reconstructing wounded soldiers (Kalantar-Hormozi, 2013). The diffusion of an aesthetic model of the body in Iran, has materialised through the existence of surgical techniques and knowledge. The hypothesis of cultural technology, stating that techniques and their diffusion (via the cinema, magazines and improved transport systems) often form the basis for cultural and subjective transformations is thus of relevance here (Gazagnadou, 2006, p. 108). In conjunction with cultural diffusion, as Suleymani (2020, p. 211) states, “cosmetic surgery has become one of the issues at the intersection of ideological theocratic rigidity and a Western lifestyle of modernity and affluence due to social pressures and mass media”. Cosmetic surgery both promotes the quintessential social value of beauty, as well as representing a tool of transformation with which Iranians can conform to an external Western standard (Suleymani, 2020, p. 211).

Ethnicity and Religiosity

The gendered division of cosmetic surgery patients has long been established, with studies reflective of global trends showing that around 80-90% of Iranian candidates for cosmetic surgery are female (Ehyayi, 1994; Rahbari, Dierickx, Longman, & Coene, 2018, p. 51). Additionally, another notable tendency of the practice is its intersection with racial and ethnic discourses. Leneham (2011) examines whether the most popular cosmetic procedure in Iran, rhinoplasty, reflects a shift in Iranians’ attitudes towards their ethnic and cultural identity. In line with the paradigm discussed above of both western and domestic shifts, she argues that fashion and beauty norms are informed by globalised images, albeit that these are mediated by Iranian moralities of prestige, image consciousness and class awareness (Leneham, 2011, p. 47).

While a ‘Westernised’ nose as the normative ideal may have originally been a response to foreign cultural influence, aesthetic diffusion has since provided it with other symbolic meanings (Leneham, 2011, pp. 54-55). The rise of rhinoplasty as a form of conspicuous consumption relates to the reproduction of prestige and how etiquettes in Iran are linked to social ‘face’ and the appropriation of status (Leneham, 2011, p. 55). The tendency to proudly display “bandages of honour” following cosmetic rhinoplasty, is a noted tendency of many Iranian women. The bandage displays “that you come from a family who cares and provides for you—even if you don't need a nose job, having a family that can afford to give you one is preferable to having the genetics for a petite nose” (Nayeri, 2014).

Equally a study conducted by Leneham (2011) highlights an important point regarding associations of the phenotypical Iranian nose and Iranian identity. While pre-surgery noses were frequently referred to as aquabmânde (retarded) and dehâti (peasant-like), these negative traits were not associated with being Iranian. As such, rather than “negating Iranianess, rhinoplasty seemed to have come to stand for values – such as beauty, sophistication and cosmopolitanism – that are viewed as consistent with being Iranian” (Leneham, 2011, pp. 52-53).

The contradiction between the Islamic regime allowing such an extreme form of aesthetic enhancement but condemning a host of bodily adornments, ranging from nail polish to designer t-shirts, is notable. However, many of these aforementioned aspects of Western aesthetic enhancement are condemned on the basis that they are purposefully eye-catching and incitive of sexual thoughts (Leneham, 2011, p. 57). The Islamic regime did not fetter the surge of rhinoplasty, with Ayatollah Khomeini sanctioning rhinoplasty in the 1980s, referencing the Hadith: “God is beautiful and loves beauty” (Nayeri, 2014). However, recent actions indicate a change with Iran’s Supreme Leader issuing a fatwa which banned male surgeons from performing cosmetic surgery on women, and measures by an Iranian TV channel to ban actors/actresses who have had undergone surgical cosmetic alterations “to prevent cosmetic surgery from becoming contagious” (Al Arabiya News, 2014).

While a somewhat convoluted relationship between the Islamic regime and cosmetic surgery exists, religiosity of the individual is also worth evaluation. While Leneham (2011, p. 58) argues that the practice of rhinoplasty can co-exist comfortably with conservative Islamic values, the results of a study regarding social streams, religious dependence and independence, and attitudes towards religion display what may be interpreted as shifts in Iranian society (Cohen, 2015, p. 127). That is to say that despite 76.1% of respondents who self-identified as being ‘traditional’, only 10.2% consulted any religious authorities before having surgery (Cohen, 2015, p. 126). Beyond demonstrating social independence, this “probably indicates a certain level of disconnection and disassociation with the religious system” (Cohen, 2015, p. 129). Moreover:

This lack of consultation, especially concerning deeds associated with Western lifestyles, may indicate that there are social changes taking place that even the Iranian government has no power to fight or change, especially since plastic surgery clinics are widespread and since some of the procedures are being subsidized by the regime (Cohen, 2015, p. 129).

Religiosity can be seen as part of the larger context of consumption of cultural capital, normative pressures, social relations, and status. Included within these sub-categories are contextual formations of Iranian society, including a semi-modern neoliberal structure, dress code rules, and patriarchal norms, all of which are seen as affective of women’s tendencies to undergo cosmetic alterations, and can be heuristically linked to the historical religious narrative of Iran (Sadrnabavi & Fooladian, 2014).

[1] Seen as a prominent ethnic marker, the so-called ‘Iranian nose’ is often used in a negative sense to describe noses with a “prominent bone and cartilaginous hump” (Ashtiani & Hafezi, 2023).


Bibliography

Al Arabiya News. (2014, June 26). Iran TV snubs actors with plastic surgery. Retrieved from Alaraybia News: https://english.alarabiya.net/variety/2014/06/26/Snuffing-out-nose-jobs-Iran-TV-bans-actors-with-plastic-surgery-

Ashtiani, A. K., & Hafezi, F. (2023). The Persian Nose: Characteristics and Management. Rhinoplasty, 290-295.

Cohen, R. A. (2015). The Identity Designers of the Self in Sexuality, Beauty and Plastic Surgery in Iran. In R. A. Cohen, Identities in Crisis in Iran: Politics, Culture, and Religion (pp. 113-131). Lanham, Maryland: Lexingotn Books.

Dezhamkhooy, M. (2022). From moon-faced amrads to farangi-looking women: beauty transformations from the 19th to early 20th century in Iran. In M. Uroš, Beautiful bodies : gender and corporeal aesthetics in the past (pp. 263-292). Oxford: Owbow Books.

Ehyayi, F. (1994). Epidemiological Study of the Tendency to Undergo Rhinoplasty in Tehran. Tebb va tazkiye, 22(3), 9-16.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gazagnadou, D. (2006). Diffusion of Cultural Models, Body Transformations and Technology in Iran: Iranian Women and Cosmetic Nose Surgery. Anthropology of the Middle East, 1(1), 106-111.

Giddons, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gulbas, L. E. (2008). Cosmetic surgery and the politics of race, class, and gender in Caracas, Venezuela. Online: Southern Methodist University ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Haidrani, S. (2020, March 13). This new film is a visual celebration challenging Iranian beauty ideals. Retrieved from Dazed: https://www.dazeddigital.com/beauty/article/48334/1/the-fall-of-the-standard-of-beauty-ideals-film-iran-sahar-ghorishi

Kalantar-Hormozi, A. (2013). A brief history of plastic surgery in Iran. Arch Iran Med, 16(3), 201-206.

Leneham, S. (2011). Nose aesthetics: rhinoplasty and identity in Tehran. Anthropology of the Middle East, 6(1), 47-62.

Najmabadi, A. (2005). Women with Mustaches Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. Berkley: University of California Press.

Nayeri, D. (2014, October 8). The Complicated Beauty of the Persian Nose. Retrieved from Vice: https://www.vice.com/en/article/5gk7m8/shes-so-najoor-0000467-v21n10

Negrin, L. (2002). Cosmetic Surgery and the Eclipse of Identity. Body and Society, 8(4), 21-42.

Rahbari, L., Dierickx, S., Longman, C., & Coene, G. (2018). ‘Kill Me but Make Me Beautiful’: Harm and Agency in Female Beauty Practices in Contemporary Iran. Iran & the Caucasus, 22(1), 50-60.

Sadrnabavi , F., & Fooladian, A. (2014). “An Investigation on the Reasons of the Iranian Women’s Tendency to Cosmetic Surgery: A Mashad Case Study. Indian Journal of Fundamental adn Applied Life Sciences, 4(4), 408-411.

Suleymani, S. (2020). Futurities of Beauty and the Scalpel: Cosmetic Surgeries and Fatphobia in Iran. An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, 9(3), 204-219.

Thankyou Asad for the idea :)

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