Despite a conservative culture, plastic surgery and eating disorders are all the rage in Iran. Is Western culture to blame?
I am the first person in my family to be born in the United States. It wasn’t until I was 10 years old that I went to back to Iran for the first time.
Looking back at pictures of myself then, I looked like a typical Iranian girl, with one, singular eyebrow spanning the full distance directly across my face, and thick frizzy hair.
n the United States, I stood out like a sore thumb, especially amongst my suburban, blond-haired classmates.
For the first time, while I was in Iran, I finally felt like I fit in because the majority of the girls that were my age looked just like me. And they were considered beautiful.
As I got older I continued visiting Iran. The last time was just last September.
While I was there, I noticed that none of the friends that I had grown up with during my visits all these years looked very much like me anymore.
The reason was shocking: They’d all had plastic surgery to alter their noses and chin, liposuction to remove invisible areas of fat in areas that I won’t mention, and breasts that no longer move when the rest of their bodies do.
I had only been away from Iran for less than a year, but suddenly they all looked very different from me. I was completely confused.
And despite the major physical alterations they’d made to themselves, many of them were still dissatisfied with their appearance.
They would obsessively talk about weight loss and their next plastic surgery. Women who were skinny by any standard were constantly rushing off to nutrition appointments and aerobic classes. Girls under 19 had already gotten lip injections and nose jobs. It made me sad to think of their young faces changed so drastically before they even reach adulthood.
I had a lot of conversations that went like this:
Iranian girlfriends: “Are you going to get work done while you are in Iran?”
Me: “Work done?”
Iranian girlfriends: “You know…like liposuction. I know a doctor that will do it less than an hour and it only takes a few days to heal. He’s really good and won’t leave you with a crooked belly button like what happened to Fatimeh. And while you are here, you should lighten your hair, thin your eyebrows….”
I had never seen so many women so openly critical of each other and invested in their own appearance.
It reminded me of my own self-critical thoughts about the way I looked growing up. But I had never gotten to the point of developing an eating disorder or deciding to lighten my hair, and there was no way I was going to thin out my eyebrows.
When I asked my Iranian friends if they were worried about eating disorders, they told me that anorexia and bulimia were “new” disorders in Iran and doctors are still trying to figure out treatments.
I flashed back to my time at Redmond Junior High, where the hallways were plastered with posters about self-esteem and eating disorder awareness, explaining how to approach a friend if you thought they had a problem.
We even had school counselors come to talk to us during health class about the seriousness of nutrition and how to keep a well-balanced diet. Most of the Iranian girls I had met were on strict protein diets, eating chicken breasts every day for lunch and dinner and taking snack breaks with cucumbers.
A study published by the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that, even way back in 2001, women in Iran had an equal or higher prevalence of eating disorders than first and second generation Iranian immigrants in LA.
The hypothesis was that Iranian women living in Iran would have fewer body image issues, since they lived in a conservative culture where they weren’t inundated by unrealistic images of idealized female bodies on billboards, magazines, and television, as the women in the US were.
But that just wasn’t true.
“These results suggest that exposure to Western cultural influences may not be as strong a risk factor for eating disorders and body image concerns as previously thought,” the study concludes.
“In addition, these results suggest that having one’s body covered the majority of the time does not necessarily protect against body image concerns and eating disorders.
So if it’s not Western culture telling Iranian women they should change the way they look, what is it?
In my experience, it might just be other Iranian women.
During my last visit I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office when random woman came up to me and asked me if I was married. I told her I wasn’t, and she said, “Oh. You should meet my son. But you are a little chubby around your thighs. You just need to lose a little bit more weight and then you can get married and have children.”
This from a total stranger.
Iran’s strict rules for the women to wear hejab and cover their arms and legs can also mean a woman’s face becomes the focus of perfection.
Being an Iranian girl with a very prominent unibrow growing up in America, visiting Iran meant a refuge where I was free to be exactly who I am, embracing all the traits that make me look Iranian.
But now when I ask my friends why they keep getting work done, their answer is, “Why not? If you don’t like the way you look and you can change it, then go and change it. As women, we can only show our faces and it should always look put together. Perfume isn’t enough!”