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Al Arabiya’s English website features a gallery that introduces soft news stories through pictorials: their recent features include Lebanese singer Fairouz and Saudi soccer player Sami Al-Jabir. Last month, they featured one about Iranians, entitled “Nose-Job Nation: Iran Goes Plastic Fantastic,” which highlights the rhinoplasty “trend” in Iran.
I am so sick of hearing about this. It’s just so tired. A quick archive search of Google News reveals that this story has been told over and over: U.S. news sources The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor got to it in 2000, the Washington Post reported it in 2005, and Variety talked about it in 2006.
And now Al Arabiya gets in on the fun (a little late). Its pictorial is no less sexist or offensive than the other articles, but since this is the most recent one, it’s going the bear the brunt of my criticism.
The title itself starts us off badly: the words “plastic fantastic” evoke images of dolls, implying that Iranians (usually Iranian women) are turning themselves into plastic figurines without feelings or interests other than their looks.
According to Al Arabiya (and many other news sources), “Iran has earned itself the distinction of being a ‘nose-job nation.’” This is ridiculous: Iran was given that name by all the media outlets that reported on how many nose jobs it had. It’s not as if plastic surgeons in Iran have been toiling away in hopes that their country would be named the capital of Rhinoplasti-stan.
The pictorial shows several pictures of Iranian women with head scarves and bandages on their noses—showcasing only two men with nose-job bandages. These appear along captions like, “And there’s no stigma. Patients wear their tell-tale bandages openly as they stroll the trendy streets of Tehran or go about their business.” What?! They don’t even pretend to have deviated septums in Iran?! This caption is laced with judgment, implying that it’s shameful to flaunt plastic surgery and that Iranians shamelessly do just this.
The pictorial also estimates that “tens of thousands of people in this country of 70 million had nose jobs last year.” Is that supposed to be a big deal? It’s estimated that approximately 35,000 nose jobs are performed a year in Iran. Assuming that Iran’s population is around 70 million, this means only 0.05% of the population gets a nose job every year.
And that assumes that the entire country gets nose jobs. Al Arabiya can’t be looking at the entire country: in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if all these news outlets only looked at Tehran. Tehran’s population is estimated at over seven million: so, if only Tehranis are getting nose jobs, that’s still only 0.5% of the population. So this is why Iran is a Nose-Job Nation?
Not only is Al Arabiya trying to stretch out rhinoplasties that occur in urban centers throughout an entire nation, but they’re also only looking at the middle and upper classes. Al Arabiya (and most other outlets) overlooks the fact that many Iranians can’t afford basic medical care, let alone non-necessary plastic surgery. The women pictured in this pictorial have time and money to spend on themselves—most lower-class women do not. It’s laughable to think that a woman in a rural farming village is going to save up her money in order to go to the nearest city and get her nose done.
The pictorial then goes on to characterize Iranians as shallow. “In Iran, appearances matter. Beauty has always been highly valued in Persian culture.” So, unlike the rest of the world, Iranians like a pretty face. Please. It seems as if nowhere else in the world puts as much emphasis on the face as Iran does. But maybe that’s true: in the U.S., a woman’s emphasis is often on her breasts. But the U.S. isn’t known as the Land of Boob Jobs.
Al Arabiya says, “It’s not just nose jobs that are in vogue. Boob jobs, hair extensions, tanning, gastric bypasses, liposuction—all are in demand in the scores of beauty salons across Tehran.” So…what? These are readily available and in demand at beauty salons and doctor’s offices in the west, too. The idea that women want to enhance their appearance isn’t a new one. Why is this presented as surprising information?
This pictorial is part of a larger characterization of Middle Eastern women in general as shallow, vain, and artificial. Many of the articles on Iranian rhinoplasty portray women as obsessed with their looks: in Al Arabiya’s pictorial, Shakufa Mullay says that she “spends $1,000 a month on her appearance” so that she can look good to “keep [her] marriage.” The reader is expected to recoil with disgust at what is perceived to be an extravagant amount of money for one’s looks. Not to mention the idea that her husband must be an incredibly shallow man.
I’m not going to say that these men and women aren’t concerned with beauty at all—nobody wants to look ugly—but this pictorial implies that it’s all they’re concerned with. These articles don’t mention a word about societal pressures to look beautiful (one I think most women, Middle Eastern or not, can understand). They just assume that Iranian women (and men) are turning out in droves to get their noses hacked off so that they can be pretty, and that’s all there is to it. By ignoring important factors like western ideals of beauty, societal pressures to look good, and class issues that rear their heads when a nose job bandage is considered a status symbol, news stories that reduce Iran’s rhinoplasty to a mere trend are missing the bigger picture.