Beauty in Iran: Paradoxical and Comic
I am an anthropologist and have studied cosmetic surgery practices in Tehran, Iran, named as the “nose job capital of the world” (CBS, 2005). Hardly surprisingly, there are intriguing contradictions and paradoxes in regard to perceptions towards and practices on the body, beauty, and cosmetic surgery among people including Islamic jurists, plastic surgeons and also official authorities. The recent news about the ban on “ugly” teachers from teaching – as worded by Western media (e.g. Euronews, 2017) convinced me to write this post:
The increasing demand for cosmetic surgery in Iran is peculiar in terms of its contextual dynamics, which have been reflected in the Western media with a tone of surprise; how could this be happening in an Islamic state whose leaders are anti-West? Seeing Iran listed among the countries with the highest number of cosmetic surgeries together with other “Western” or “Latin-American” countries wherein public bodily display is allowed, and/or is seen as “right” (Edmonds, 2007) generates questions and ambivalences regarding the way in which bodies are understood in social interactions and experienced in relation to the inner self. Islam as the realm of spiritual, sacred and divine values seems incompatible with cosmetic surgery and beauty as the realm of surface, form and earthly values. While Islam promotes self-mastery of the soul, and promotes certain bodily disciplines - such as self-restraint with regard to lust for food - in order to foster the soul, such “Western technology” has provided a means to self-discipline the exterior and the surface. There are no official statistics about the number of cosmetic surgeries performed in Iran, which might in part be the state’s strategy in order not to reveal people’s concerns about fostering the surface rather than the soul/depth.
While there is no legal or religious hindrance to being attentive to beauty, applying make up or undergoing cosmetic surgeries or any other references to “Western culture” are not meant to be promoted on the National TV run by the state, or on public billboards. In this context, the latest surgical technologies and Western fashion beauty ideals are marketed mainly through social media and the illegal - but widely consumed - satellite TV (Alikhah, 2007; Cohen, 2015). Angelina Jolie’s lips are highly sought after, as one surgeon told me, and a good body shape, which used to be one resembling Jennifer Lopez, now resembles the “curvy” Kim Kardashian, or the “slim” Taylor Swift. Yet, the imported beauty culture is transformed and localised echoing the cultural values and local meanings.
After all, seeking cosmetic surgery is not only about gaining beauty. Stories about young girls and boys putting plasters on their noses without even having had a nose job, or the pride behind the surgery and keeping plasters on for a long time which have been reported in recent years (Lenehan, 2008), indicate that cosmetic surgery is regarded as a socially valued process. On the other hand, cosmetic surgeries are not explicitly promoted on the official website of the Iranian Society of Plastic Surgeons either. Here cosmetic surgery is primarily defined as closely linked to reconstructive surgery and framed as a “benevolent” practice to restore the appearance of those who have been injured in the (Iran-Iraq) “holy war” or an accident. According to this website the great interest in undergoing cosmetic surgery is related to the beauty-loving nature/constitution (fetrat) of human beings, and an Islamic hadith saying that God is beautiful and He loves beauty to be evoked to “prove” this view.
The rapidly growing number of beauty salons in Tehran, the high rate of import and consumption of cosmetic products, as well as the growing number of surgeons and surgical clinics around the country indicate the state’s policies towards beautification practices. As implied by the Islamic jurists I interviewed during my fieldwork in Tehran, it seems that seeking beauty is not only regarded as not wrong for women, but rather necessary within their marital relationships and/or towards conjugal and/or profession futures. While women’s natural beauty is admired, women who do not seek cosmetic surgery to “correct” their physical “imperfections” are severely criticised. Seeking beauty is a normalised aspect of femininity and it is widely practised by both the “impious” and “conservatives”, the “upper classes” and “lower classes”, and cosmetic surgeries are offered at different prices and with different “qualities”.
|Photo by Majid Sadr on Unsplash|
Furthermore, since in Iran the display of women’s beauty/body is not allowed in public and women who do not follow the rules might risk arrest by morality police on the streets, what is known as the “objectification of women” has different dimensions. On the one hand, the Islamic hijab for women is itself argued to be one of the reasons for the great interest in surgical interventions on the face, the only arena that is allowed to be displayed in public (Kaivanara, 2017). On the other hand, women’s concern about beauty is seen as something that is inherent in their “nature”, and indeed as what differentiates them from men (Kaivanara, 2017). In contrast to the naturalisation of women’s preoccupation with beauty, it is believed that there is “something wrong” with men who opt for beautification practices. This is seen as either due to their “deviant” sexuality, or because of societal changes, whereby men do not have a chance to express their “true” masculinity - as stated by one surgeon.
While the country is governed by Islamic rules and any references to eroticism in public are outlawed, the news of British and Brazilian porn stars who travelled to Iran to have a rhinoplasty in Tehran in 2016 provoked large coverage on social media and later in the Iranian foreign ministry. In August 2016, a picture of a blonde British porn star with a hijab - worn in Iranian style - in a car in Tehran, spread on Instagram, and, similar to many Iranians who commented on the photo, I was not sure whether I was looking at a fashionable Tehrani woman or a British porn star (for more, see: BBC, 2016). Although her eyes were covered with sunglasses, her face resembled the faces of Tehrani dāfs (literally meaning hot chicks). The nose was straight, small and snub. Her tanned skin-tone suited her blonde straightened hair. The lips were augmented, puffed and enhanced with shiny lipstick and her eyebrows were relatively thick and full (compared to today’s ideal norm for women’s eyebrows in Iran). Although this was not the first time that Tehran had been a medical tourism site for rhinoplasty, the outrageous reaction of the conservative parties compelled the foreign ministry to defend its decision to issue a visa to this woman, explaining that if the consulate officers were familiar with “that kind of a woman” (i.e. a porn star), then they should have been questioned.
The story does not end here, nor is this the first time that social media users have been provoked by such news from Iran. While there is so much comic and paradoxical reaction among people to the practices of cosmetic surgeries, and new terms are coined to target women who have had so many cosmetic surgeries or who apply “too much” make up, and/or to target men with cosmetic surgeries, a lot of attention is paid to beauty, and the so-called “ugly” are marginalised and cursed for not taking care of themselves, or even banned from teaching at schools. According to a recently published document, there is a long list detailing hundreds of illnesses and conditions that prevent people from entering the teaching field; there are some other “unnoticeable” conditions such as female infertility, cancer and bladder stones but the list also focuses on appearance, which includes those with ugly faces, acne, a scar or a fungal infection, and anyone who is cross-eyed, has ugly facial moles, or skin conditions such as acne or eczema, faces redundancy (Fars Agency News, 2017). While teaching is referred to as a highly respected job, and is even proclaimed to be “the job of prophets” in the formal discourse, and one expects that there should be other criteria for teaching requirements, there is so much emphasis on appearance as explicitly revealed in this list.
This has caused an outraged reaction on social media, including from journalist Omid Memarian, who highlighted on Twitter how renowned physicist Stephen Hawking would have been banned from teaching in Iran. The policy is following the other policies that aim to socially marginalise people who are not “fitted” within normative regimes of representation, and are considered as unpleasing to the eye, and disrupting the social norm (Kaivanara, forthcoming).
Similar to Nikolai Gogol’s story, The Nose (ca. 1836), the closer analysis of the comedic aspects of such stories allows readers to see that the story is a critique of everyday lives.
Dr Marzieh Kaivanara obtained her Ph.D. (2017) in Anthropology at University of Bristol focusing on Medical Anthropology and Anthropology of the Body. In her Ph.D. research, she studied the social context that gives rise to desires for cosmetic surgery in Tehran, Iran. Her past research represents in-depth investigations of anthropology of the body, human health and medical anthropology, social studies of biomedicine, gender studies, sexuality and health policy, sexual and reproductive health, and bioethics. She published her MA research in journal of Health, Culture and Sexuality as “Virginity Dilemma: Re-creating Virginity through Hymenoplasty in Iran”. She currently collaborates with several academic journals and organisations such as Anthropology of the Middle East, HARTS and Mind, Society for Cultural Anthropology and since 2013, she is the Executive officer of Commission on Anthropology of the Middle East at IUAES. She also teaches Anthropology at the department of Anthropology and Archaeology at University of Bristol.
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Alikhah, F., 2007. The Politics of Satellite Television in Iran. In: M. Semati, ed. 2007. Media Culture and Society in Iran: Living With Globalization and Islamic State. Iranian Studies. London: Routledge. pp.94-110.
CBS, 2005. Iran: Nose Job Capital of World [Press Release]. 2 May 2005. Available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/iran-nose-job-capital-of-world/
Cohen, R. A., 2015. The Identity Designers of the Self in Sexuality, Beauty and Plastic Surgery in Iran. In: R.A. Cohen, ed. Identities in Crisis in Iran: Politics, Culture, and Religion. Maryland: Lexington Books. pp 109- 130.
EuroNews.com, 2017 Iran bans teachers with acne, unsightly moles and dental problems. 24 August 2017. Available at: http://www.euronews.com/2017/08/24/iran-bans-teachers-with-acne-unsightly-moles-and-dental-problems
Edmonds, A., 2007. The Poor Have The Right To Be Beautiful: Cosmetic Surgery In Neoliberal Brazil. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13(2), pp.363-381.
Fars Agency News. Detailed List of Criteria for Teaching is Announced. 25 Aug, 2017. The Link is removed.
Iranian Society of Plastic Surgeons. Available at: www.plasticsurgens.ir (In Persian).
Kaivanara, M., 2017. “‘I did it for My Self’: An Ethnographic Study of Cosmetic Surgery in Tehran, Iran.” PhD thesis. University of Bristol. UK.
Kaivanara, M., Forthcoming, Normative Space and Space of Normativity: Normal(s)ized Bodies and Boundaries in Tehran. Under peer-review.
Lenehan, S., 2008. Reasons for Rhinoplasty: Understanding Tehran’s Nose Job Boom. MPhil Thesis. Oxford University.
Nikolai Gogol (ca. 1836) The Nose. Accessed through https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nose_(Gogol_short_story)