When I was fifteen, a remarkable fifty-one years ago, I became fixated on my nose. Roman shaped, as large and imposing as my grandfather’s, it overshadowed what I considered my otherwise welcoming features. This image of myself was the sad result of the long-endured taunts of schoolmates. I didn’t know my nose was noteworthy until the boy seated behind me in fifth grade leaned over and delivered the unsettling news: “You have a big nose.” Later, a bullying girl in my junior high study hall posted a heart-shaped sign penciled “Nose and Harold.” Harold was not only my friend, but the most overweight boy in class. No kind counselors surfaced to help me process these attacks and so by the time I entered high school, I was apt to sit with one finger covering the bump in my nose, so onlookers saw only the “pretty” part.
Fifteen was a little young for a nose job; sixteen and upwards was recommended. My very handsome Danish surgeon advised I wait out the year, otherwise the nose might keep growing after surgery creating a small bump on an otherwise sculpted swoop. The notion of another twelve months with my nose felt like a death sentence. I begged and prodded my parents until they gave in. Hardest to face was my grandfather who was proud of our nose, but my mother, his daughter who showcased a more delicate version, understood. She wanted a small pretty nose on my face as much as I did and convinced my father to foot the bill.
So intense was my motivation that I barely experienced the fear, invasion and pain that normally accompany surgery. Infatuated with the blue-eyed Nordic holding the little hammer that would break my nose and fortified with my mother’s reminder pinned to my hospital johnnie (“Don’t give her a pug!”) I felt safe, determined and borderline ecstatic. When I heard the cartilage tear, through a drugged haze, and felt the spray of blood on my face, I only laughed, asking if it was raining.
I returned to school a different person. Boys I’d known for years but who had never given me the time of day wondered if I was new in town. I started dating the popular ones. I ran for school government and was selected for a beauty contest. All because a family trait was now absent from my face.
For many years I was grateful for my new nose. It made me happy, because it made me feel pretty, admired, worthy of notice. It didn’t eclipse my round hazel eyes and what my mother generously coined, rose bud lips. It cooperated, taking up only its fair share of my face, sporting a pleasing profile. I no longer felt the urge to scissor myself out of family photos. Instead I posed assuredly, intentionally offering a three-quarter view, hoping my talented doctor’s handiwork would catch the light.
In time, I stopped thinking about it so much; it became, just my nose and nothing that terrific. It did indeed develop that small bump the doctor had predicted, but it wasn’t visible until later in life when flesh succumbed to gravity and suddenly, ha! There it was. Now and then I would notice women with a nose like mine had been. Many of them had succeeded in accentuating theirs as a sign of beauty, character and distinction. Offsetting large or sparkly eyes, or a stylized chin, their noses enjoyed a kind of victory, held with confidence and poise. It was enviable. To my surprise I found myself wishing, or at least wondering how I might have done the same. Had I waited. Had I had the courage and support. Had I known not to listen to the heckling of misguided children and been able to look in the mirror and see as appealing an appearance as any around me. Had I recognized beauty where it apparently lived.
But that’s a tall order. Most likely, had I not had my nose job, I would have wall-flowered my way through high school, head down, finger over nose. I would not have been the leader I became, vocal, party-loving, enjoying a fleeting popularity and, however frail, some semblance of self-esteem. In college I might have been too shy to raid the boys’ dorms or approach a prospect at a mixer on my own accord. I wouldn’t have felt pretty enough to be so bold. I have been prone to wonder if even my husband of forty-two years and soulmate for life would have found me attractive at twenty-two, given his own prerequisite for a certain standard of beauty in his girlfriends.
What I do know, finally, is that eventually, certainly by now at sixty-six, I would have unsheathed the person in myself who realizes that not only could I make something of my old nose were it still with me and beautify it at least as well as the rest of my compromised features, I’d have fun doing so. But even more important, I could just be me: a woman called “old” who daily greets herself in the mirror, the wrinkles revealing both joy and sorrow, age spots and dry spots, soulful eyes and the same pink mouth my mother dared to compare to roses. So what if my grandfather’s nose was also there to join the party. How wonderful, in fact, if it were. Because Grampa, God-bless him, was right all along. He simply couldn’t understand what I thought was wrong with my nose. God gave you this nose, he’d reminded me, a flash of warning in his eyes. You are beautiful darling! But it was only Grampa talking. Only Grampa, the wisest person in my life. What irony that had my otherwise disparaging schoolmates been the ones to tell me I was beautiful, it might have stuck.
WRITTEN BY BARBI SCHULICK