I Look, Therefore I Am?

I thought a nose job would make me beautiful and popular. It was much more complicated than that.

by R.G.

Geckophotos, iStock

Names have been changed. 

It was the day of my friend Amanda’s bat mitzvah. She was more of a recent friend, someone who, with my implicit permission, tended to degrade me on a daily basis. Nonetheless, I liked her, and at one of the final parties of the year-long bat mitzvah season, I wanted to look my best.  

My grandmother graciously footed the bill for what I thought was the cutest dress in the world—a short, black getup with two symmetrical white cut outs on both sides. I straightened my usually poofy hair, and from my vantage point, it looked amazing. I even did my makeup, just a bit of clumpy mascara and some lip gloss. I felt almost reborn with newfound beauty, like Aphrodite emerging from the sea—or at the very least one of the “popular” girls.  

I was thrilled and surprised when Amanda selected me to make an impromptu speech before lighting one of the 13 candles at her ceremony. But I was nervous, too. A few seats to my left, my longtime crush, Scott, laughed raucously with his “cool” friends, all looking dapper in their thousand-dollar children’s tuxedos. I didn’t want to awkwardly stand up at the wrong time, accidentally fall while walking up to the podium, or sound dumb during my speech. I probably felt even more nervous than Amanda. 

“R.G. is my best friend, and she’ll be lighting the 11th candle,” Amanda said, and I rose to my feet gracefully. I began to walk, careful not to make any missteps while attempting to recall whatever scrambled fragments of a speech remained in my mind.  

“Above all, I feared that my peers would think that I, the ugliest girl in the world, had the nerve to believe that I was pretty if I tried to defend myself.”

Then, I quickly picked up on a rhythmic noise. I turned my head slightly to try to locate its origin. The sound was coming from Scott’s area. When I nearly reached the podium, the jumble of syllables finally came together as a chant.  

“Goblin shark! Goblin shark!”  

I was not surprised to hear those words. I had heard Scott call me this at school, and I sometimes laughed along, silently agreeing that I bore a striking resemblance to the animal—with my protruding and bumpy nose, jagged teeth, and barely-there jawline. But it felt different to be called this name here, in front of everyone. It felt even worse in my “cute” dress, which had promptly begun to suffocate me, and my clumpy mascara that now made me feel as though I belonged in the circus.  

I didn’t know what to do—I understood, now better than ever, what it meant to wish you were invisible. At least then, no one would be able to see me, because to see me was apparently to judge me. 

Wishing I Had a Good Comeback  

Later, I spent hours in the shower, in front of the mirror, almost anywhere formulating the fiercest comebacks, ones that would have created a microphone drop moment. My hypothetical comeback would scare Scott into silence or worship (whichever came first), I thought.  

But I had never been the one to retort back. Besides, what was there to say? They were right, I thought. Above all, I feared that my peers would think that I, the ugliest girl in the world, had the nerve to believe that I was pretty if I tried to defend myself.  

Over the next months, I became intensely self-deprecating, at first only over my looks, then about almost everything else. I was sure that I was too crooked to be able to experience romance. I felt deep shame for harboring crushes. It didn’t help that my friends grew out of their tween awkwardness and began commanding crowds of admirers, while I lurked on the outskirts of circles in which boys desperately attempted to acquire girls’ Snapchat info.  

A Solution Appears…I Think 

I was exhausted by my anxiety about my not-so-good looks. It felt like my appearance cast a shadow over every positive experience I had, whether I got a good grade, told a funny joke, made a new friend, or even ate a good meal. As I kept obsessing over my unchangeable looks, I became unable to focus on my schoolwork or general personhood.  

Then I realized that my looks might not have been as unchangeable as I once believed. As a naive, barely 15-year-old, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could alter my face forever. But upon discovering so, I was thrilled. When a family friend got a septoplasty to fix a deviated septum and a rhinoplasty afterwards, I told my parents that I wanted to look into the procedures. A nose job seemed like the answer to everything, a magic cure to free me from inescapable torment.  

Armed with a fresh comeliness, I could conquer the world. To my surprise, my age was no limitation, and there were plenty of doctors who were happy to perform the surgery as long as it was paid in full. My parents were happy to oblige and even thought of the surgery as a way to save themselves from hearing me snore all night.  

Going Through With It 

I met with my doctor a few times, and he printed a photo of what I would look like after surgery. If this was a marketing strategy, it worked—I looked beautiful. I had started high school and showed the photo to my new friends, whose pleasantly shocked reactions only fueled my excitement. I consulted it almost daily in the months leading up to the surgery.  

The doctor told me that the “ethnicity” of my nose would be preserved. Looking at the Photoshopped picture, I didn’t quite get how, but I didn’t quite care, either. After all, my main objective was not to “preserve ethnicity.”  

Finally, the day arrived. My mom came to the office with me. In her mind, the cosmetic aspect of the surgery was minuscule—she didn’t realize that, to me, it was so much more than a health concern.  

But I had a feeling in my stomach akin to the one that plagues me as I wait to begin a test, or first see my friend after a big argument. In hindsight, this feeling should have worried me, at least slightly. But I was just thrilled to get it all over with—not just the surgery, but more so the humiliation that had come before.  

No Instant Gratification 

Though I felt fine for the first couple hours after I returned home, eventually a throbbing pain settled in my skull. My mouth became overworked and dry from picking up the slack for my nose, which was momentarily incapacitated. I wondered why I had subjected myself to this torture.  

Ironically, looking in the mirror was even more difficult than it’d been before. My face was barely identifiable underneath the bruising and swelling. My winter break passed by slowly. Each minute that I survived this agony felt like a victory.  

The aftermath of the surgery remained hellish, but as I performed my twice-daily excruciating nasal rinse and struggled to take even the shallowest of breaths, I kept my eyes focused on the prize: beauty. It was so close, then, that I could taste it in the mucus backed up in my throat. Maybe the magazines were right all along and beauty’s existence really only came down to survival through pain.  

Two weeks later, when I finally got my cast removed, I cried the entire way home, grateful for COVID-19 mask-wearing and for the coveted corner seats on the subway. I couldn’t decipher why I felt so emotional, so humiliated. This was supposedly the moment I’d been waiting for. 

But I felt worse. I hadn’t expected, post-surgery, to hate the face that stared back at me from the subway window with an even more fervent passion. My mom told me the swelling would go down, and I knew she meant well. She had dedicated a lot of time and energy to getting me through this, and I was frustrated that, for a reason that I could not pinpoint, I couldn’t just be appreciative and satisfied.  

I felt like a complete clown, because I couldn’t believe that I’d endured the terrible surgical aftermath just to feel even worse than I had before. At least, that was the cause of my intense regret at first. But over the weeks, I began to feel foolish for a different reason—I couldn’t believe that I’d gone through all this just because some middle and high schoolers had made me their own personal laughingstock.  

An idea began to creep into my mind that what I look like should never have carried so much weight. But I shoved it to the side, as the thought that I might have gone through this for something as superficial and insignificant as my looks was even scarier than my previous fear, that my looks were unfixable.  

Understanding Beauty and Worth 

It’s been a year and a half since the surgery. I still don’t know how to feel. I think maybe I should regret it, but I don’t. If I hadn’t gotten the surgery, I would have believed that a nose job was the answer to all my problems—I never would have let up. In that sense, I needed to do it. Besides, the swelling did go down. I am still not a looker, but I do look better. 

I still do not feel beautiful, though. I still lurk on the outsides of circles and interpret my friends’ romantic successes as personal attacks on me. I still don’t like to “crush,” and to this day, I’ve never revealed one. I still cover my mouth when I laugh.  

I am slowly coming to terms with the idea that maybe I do not need fixing. There are a lot of things that I might one day offer to the world, and I do not have to be beautiful. My new nose doesn’t contribute to my intelligence, and I am no more talented if my smile is blinding. This story would not be any better because I wore makeup as I wrote it—but most days, I did anyway. 

I could tell you not to get a nose job, but if you are anything like me, you will probably not listen. It took actually getting the surgery for me to realize that having a cuter nose doesn’t make me feel any better about myself. I realize that my self-worth is rooted in so many more valuable things: my sense of humor, my academic success, my friendships, and the power of my mind.  

You might feel as though all you need is a nose job to be beautiful—and, having believed the same myself, I won’t tell you that that is not true. What I will tell you, though, is that you don’t need others to think you’re beautiful to be worth something. 

Discussion Questions

1. Why did R.G find it easier to agree with and perpetuate her peers’ jokes about her looks, rather than push back on them?

2. How did R.G’s belief that she is not beautiful lead her to see her looks as a problem to be fixed? How did she imagine that being beautiful would change her self-worth?

3. After getting the nose job, how has R.G’s perception of her self-worth changed? 

Explore All Topics