The shame we feel for being vain puts us in conflict with ourselves. At once, we’re encouraged to look our best by people around us, then mocked when something doesn’t seem effortless. I go through waves of wearing and not wearing makeup, in fits of caring and not caring how I am seen and understood. It reaches the point of self-identification to the extent that I pencil-in my unusually fair eyebrows because it feels like otherwise my expressions won’t be visible. Plastic surgery and body modification are at an extreme end of this: looking “natural” is not only intrinsically good, but also empowering. Still, popular body modification is more accepted than cosmetic surgery, because it carries certain assumptions: rather than making a statement about individuality, it is taken to indicate insecurity and anxiety. It isn’t empowering – it’s weak.
I only really remember that I had a nose job when someone brings up plastic surgery, and it’s inevitably brought up in a disparaging way. It was so minor that my boyfriend of two years didn’t even notice at the time, and only realised years after the fact when I mistakenly forwarded him an email. I later passed through a six-year relationship never bringing it up until the last year or so, so fed up that point of casual judgements. Surgery had no psychological significance to me at the time, but increasingly, every time it came up in conversation, I felt a twinge of irritation. Still, it was mixed with embarrassment and shame. Presumably I lacked the mental fortitude of others around me and must be frivolous and shallow. Something started to bend, eventually, when I realised how policed I felt as a result of this thoughtless parroting of what “being happy in your own body” meant to people. Society wanted me to be happy in my own body, but only if it was “natural”.
The sensation of shame involves a feeling of being a deviant in someone else’s moral compass: that there is an acceptable norm that you are outside of. It puts society above the individual. It implies a transgression but, maybe more importantly, it implies a choice – that you knew there was a better option, but went, knowing what you were doing, with another, perhaps easier, more selfish one. There is little room for body dysmorphia here. Societally sanctioned shame, particularly in Ireland, takes the illegal and makes it immoral, with institutions, organisations and individuals shaming women faced with the choice of having an abortion.
When you are unhappy with your body, you either get over it, learn to live with it or do something about it. In the media I digested as a teenager, people deal with their body dysmorphia in dramatic ways – either harmful and with evident emotional or physical pain, or through some miraculous, overnight change. It is still radical, I think, to take ownership of your physical self and re-envision it in whatever way you want. Maybe an early obsession with “The Little Mermaid” later accounted for my determination that change was within my power.
The stories from your childhood, the ones that you tell friends and strangers and by which you define yourself, are significant in our era of digital traceability. Above a certain age bracket, childhood stories cannot be corroborated – especially arriving in Ireland as an outsider. The memories I held on to both for myself, and when people ask me about childhood, inevitably emphasised a social and physical awkwardness. Which is odd, because at the time I think it was something I wanted to get away from. A lot of bullying in school centered around the fact that I preferred staying indoors to read instead of going out to play, but I remember once being put in goal because, I was told, my freakishly giant nose could deflect incoming footballs. I stopped participating pretty quickly.
It had never occurred to me that I could do something about this constant source of unease, until my parents mentioned how an aunt of mine had done so when she was in her twenties. We corresponded. She related her own anxieties and I mine, and over time the idea of surgery was normalised.
I visited the doctor, who photographed my profile and created a mock-up of what I wanted changed; a reduced bump, still aquiline, but less noticeable. I didn't want a straight nose, and I didn't want a tiny nose, I just wanted a face that didn't feel like it belonged to someone else. I was slight and bony, with a nose that had always felt and looked off-kilter, making my already bony face even more bird-like. I had it done just after my 18th birthday, in June 2006. Just as I was finishing school, right before I moved to Ireland: the perfect time to assume a new identity.
The bruising healed in a week or so, and after the doctor removed the padding the only discernible impact was slight sensitivity. I told most people that I'd gone on holiday. I felt much the same in myself – just as awkward, but minus the dissolute belief that I was grotesque. And it was seemingly possible to achieve this modicum of comfort by being lucky enough to be able to pay a doctor to realign some cartilage. What had made the actual difference, though, was being able to change. It came at the same time as I was able to leave a country I'd never really liked and, for the first time, live somewhere that I'd chosen myself. I mostly lived on my own for that first year and the power was dizzying.
I never mentioned it to anyone, because it didn't seem very important. I was aware of how other people saw cosmetic surgery, and I didn't want to be judged. I didn't identify with the archetypes strangers referred to when they talked about plastic surgery and I didn't see why they had the right to make this sort of judgement. At the time, I thought I was side-stepping their judgement and my shame by not being up-front, but looking back it was acquiescence, and tacit support of this framework of thinking that made me less honest with them and with myself.
More than men, I'd often clash with other women on the subject. They wouldn't be surprised when I was pro-having-whatever-the-fuck-drug-you-need when giving birth, but they would be taken aback when I took issue with their casual dismissal of cosmetic surgery and the people who chose it. Ultimately it felt like an association of female empowerment with authenticity, which enraged me. Later, when I became more open about having had plastic surgery, some people said that I "didn't seem like the type."
Being against my sister’s decision to also have cosmetic surgery helped me to question my own bias. More than this, it revealed how inadequately equipped we are to understand the scale of someone else’s hang-ups. I was determined to see her one way, and when she wanted to take agency over her own body I felt protective. It is disquieting, maybe, when someone you feel that close to reveals an interiority distinct from how you perceive them. Disquieting because you feel as if you’ve been seeing them as their own person, but really you’ve been looking at them as an extension of yourself.
Body modification can be empowering, allowing you to recreate yourself to align with how you conceive of yourself. Still, it gives people around you more obvious tools through which to categorise you, challenging the rigidity of the private and social self while ultimately reinforcing it. When you’re asked about your sexual or gender identity, it provides a framework of assumptions. Someone once said, in what I can only hope was a misguided attempt at providing support, that being queer was great because “it’s cooler than being gay”. No matter what you’re trying to express, definitions become categories for people who want to fetishize and consume you. At least when you continue questioning another person’s assumptions (and your own) you sacrifice certainty, but gain insight.