July 2016: A discussion about plastic surgery through my personal experiences.
When I was 23, I got myself a rhinoplasty. Though my nose is perfectly straight and sits well proportioned in my face, the somewhat bovine curve at the bottom bothered me. Not the curve, per se, but a childhood memory related to it.
When I was about six, my mother had casually told me my nose looked like Barbara Streisand’s. Which, in itself, is not a bad thing to say (though it doesn’t, what were you smoking, Ma)? Forgetting all about seeding this comparison and my spectacular memory, a few months later she said, “Barbara Streisand has a really ugly nose.” This comment, for a reason that completely escaped her, caused her little daughter to weep and weep until my little heart nearly gave way.
And though my nose really didn’t/doesn’t look like the long-nosed singer’s at all; it wasn’t/isn’t really ugly and no one had/has ever said so since—the unintentional scar remained on my psyche, immune to all reason. I wouldn’t pose for side-profile pictures and was convinced it wasn’t my best face forward.
So one fine morning, mother in tow, I consulted a plastic surgeon. A few days later, I protested as he injected my nose with local anaesthesia (ouch!) and endured the hour-long tugging feeling (not ouch). I walked away with an inconspicuous bandage and a little pain that stayed a few days.
It’s the psychological scar that the rhinoplasty fixed. It fixed nothing else, physically speaking, as there is zero discernible difference before and after, despite going back a second time. My aunt, in an effort to make me feel good, kindly said, “Oh, but this is the true test of plastic surgery—you shouldn’t be able to tell!” And then, what exactly is the point?
The curve at the bottom still exists as it always did; but whereas it once looked to me like something you’d stick a ring through if I were a cow, I’ve now made my peace with it. Difference or no difference, pain or no pain, money down the drain or not, the surgery made me feel much better about myself. As I wrote overconfidently in an article fresh off the experience ten years ago: “I no longer feel that Aishwarya Rai is any competition at all…”
Trial & Error
Since, I’ve had other permanent changes made to my body. In addition to the navel ring I’ve had and loved since I was 19, I now have many more earholes than the socially prescribed pair, a nose piercing not seated in the cultural milieu in which I was raised, and eight (and counting) tattoos.
Then there have been the impermanent changes—I’ve had my lips filled twice: once on a whim, the second time along with some Botox to the skin when I was getting married. My hair has borne the brunt of my desire for change, from shaving it at 19 and 23, to a disastrous perm and a whole host of colours.
The first time I had my lips filled was when I was visiting a famous and overrated dermatologist for, you know, regular stuff. I mentioned I had always wanted fuller lips and her ‘why don’t you try’ response set the ball rolling, part of a phase of flippant experimentation. The injections were painful, despite the local anaesthesia. Worse, when the swelling subsided three days later, I discovered that her heavy hand left me with lips too full.
I looked strange, uncomfortable at work with the obvious and obviously new pout. The teasing by close friends, albeit good-natured, didn’t help. Within a month, my lips receded to the nice and gentle plumpness I had first envisioned; they were back to normal in three or so.
The second time was four years later, in the expert hands of aesthetic dermatologist Dr Rashmi Shetty. I loved it. Painful, yes, but worth it! I loved my wedding photos; I loved how my lips looked on my clear face, the acne pits Botoxed away. Dr Shetty told me the pits would be smaller once the Botox wore off, that the mere act of injecting them would stimulate collagen and self-healing—and she was right, then and four years since. The doctor does make all the difference.
The Commands of Culture
Notice I’ve clubbed the changes I’ve made to my body according to their permanence. Doing this is at the base of my argument—that our acceptance of ‘invasive beauty treatments’ is purely cultural. Ear and nose piercings don’t raise eyebrows in India, whereas a rhinoplasty does; in Iran, the ‘nose job capital of the world’, flaunting post-rhinoplasty bandages is a thing. Also consider the (now outlawed) Chinese binding of women’s feet, scarification in some African tribes and the elongation of women’s necks using brass rings practiced by the Kayan tribe in Burma.
What we are supposed and allowed to do with and to our bodies and hair is completely culturally controlled. Prevailing Western norms idealise seemingly effortless, perfect, ‘natural’ beauty, where we are supposed/allowed to ‘decorate’ the features we are ‘born’ with. Thus our willingness to talk about, indeed flaunt, some changes we make, and hide others. Think about it: apart from the personal pain and patience thresholds, what differentiates filling lips from colouring hair or bleaching teeth, if one takes their chemicals to be equally harmful. (In fact, the most commonly used filler, hyaluronic acid, is less toxic than carcinogenic hair dye. Go figure.)
When I got the nose job, I thought long and hard about whether I would tell people. I decided to do so to avoid the lying and its complications (and then, as I am wont to do, I wrote about it in a national magazine). “No need for a nose job, babe, you’re beautiful as you are,” read Shibu’s SMS. “Kya naak katake aayee hai,” said my witty grandfather. “Great new weight-loss plan—getting rid of 20 grams at a time by chopping off body parts,” teased Shiv.
But, considering just how successful my surgeon’s pursuit of a ‘subtle change’ was and the lack of a scar, I could well have got away without revealing this indulgence to anyone but family. Not so with the obvious pout the first time I got the lip fillers. And with the work around the wedding—everyone just commented on how lovely I looked. This, then, was the subtlety of cosmetic treatments my aunt was talking about.
Keeping It Real
As ironic as it sounds, I believe it’s important to talk about the work beauty entails, in order to keep it real. Bombarded with media and advertising ideas of ‘perfect female beauty’, it’s worse to propagate the myth that it’s cheap, stress-free and natural. When beauty icons thank #metabolism for their bodies and #greatgenes for their skins and features—not starvation diets, crazy workouts and surgery; dermatology; make-up and Photoshop—they make it all seem easy-peasy, and others feel worse.
Compare, for instance, the routes of actress Anushka Sharma and Kylie Jenner of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and their repercussions. When Anushka’s lip job was ‘outed’ on Koffee with Karan—she says she wasn’t hiding, just “didn’t know [she] had to tell everyone”—she took on Twitter bullies headfirst, making a statement about choice. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Kylie spent years denying cosmetic changes, her luscious lips prompting the painful #kyliejennerchallenge on social media. Teens blew up their lips by sucking in on bottles or shot glasses causing painful bruising—until she finally admitted to using temporary lip fillers.
Why Do I Do It?
I don’t think I’m ugly—far from it, I think I’m pretty attractive (and modest, as you can see). Not for the pleasure of the Male Gaze; not for the pressure of perfection.
There is no doubt that looking good makes me feel good. At 33, I’m fitter than I have ever been (when I can, I work out for at least 20 hours a month, FYI). I don’t envision using lip fillers again and, in theory, I have no problems with the impending wrinkles and the inching sags. My tattoos both display and enhance my body confidence, and I foresee swathes of inked skin. I also see myself covering growing greys with plumes of pink and purple, ‘coz camouflage is clearly my thing.
I do it because I want to. While I’m wary of ‘choice feminism’—not all choices women make are feministic simply by virtue of being women’s choices—ones journey with ones body is ones own. I am individualistic; I do both, rebel against and participate in a variety of cultures. As does my body.
With the body, as with life, one must accept the things one cannot or does not want to change; change the things one cannot or does not want to accept. To embrace it and transcend it; to enjoy it and worship it; to love it and let it go.
An edited version of this article appeared in Elle in July 2016. Read the first article I wrote about my rhinoplasty here.