Images by Tina Tiller
Images by Tina Tiller

SocietyJune 1, 2024

The entire history of my nose

Images by Tina Tiller
Images by Tina Tiller

From my Greek great-grandfather all the way to the cosmetic surgeon’s office.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

In a lush waiting room in a renovated Remuera villa, I shift restlessly on the edge of my chair. I’m ridiculously early. I spent 20 minutes in the car outside and now I’m passing the remaining 15 staring at the ornate flowers on display. They’re flawless.  I wonder how often they are replaced.

I’ve been waiting six months for this appointment, on top of the 28 years it took to accumulate enough nerve to book a consultation for a nose job, but the final minutes seem to stretch into infinitely dividing segments. 

Five minutes after my appointment time, the surgeon appears from his office and ushers me in. He directs me to a seat adjacent to his desk and asks me what I am here for, like I might be at the post office or VTNZ — not in the office of a cosmetic and ENT surgeon.

Like asking a mechanic to take a look under the hood, I remove my mask and offer up my nose for his assessment. 

He enquires if it is mum’s or dad’s nose. “Mum’s,” I respond. I show him pictures of models on Pinterest and ask for “an Instagram-perfect nose”. 

For an hour he inspects, prods, measures and morphs my nose. The verdict: “A challenge.”

In a surgical plan, the surgeon explains how every aspect of my inheritance will be corrected: shave cartilage off the hump, fix the overgrown right septum to straighten and widen the nose, pull the tip up (moulded with the same cartilage) and finish with a fascia graft from behind the right ear. 

“We’ll take 12mm off, which is as much as you ever take off a hump,” the surgeon says, as casually as if he was sculpting clay.

$24,000 would afford me a three hour, 45 minute surgery. “That’s a lot of money,” comments a friend. I agree with them. But I tallied up that, over the years, I had spent more than that on makeup, hair, and clothes, all to divert attention from my nose. It was a black hole that inhaled my time and energy, and no retail therapy had made the void any less deep.

At 16, I came into the full expression of my phenotype and my nose became a focal point of my insecurities. I never looked at myself in photographs, but in a mirror and using the front-facing camera on my phone I could adjust the boundaries to reflect a flattering image, one where the light made my nose appear straight and the hump a mere curve. A picture that captured me as I saw myself, not as I really was. 

On the day of the surgery, a nurse takes me through pre-op. One look at my nose and she declares, “You’re going to be so happy with the results.” She hands me paracetamol and nose spray.

“Is it a Roman nose?” she asks me. 

I shake my head. “Greek,” I reply. 

You can find my great grandfather, John Paul Galatti, on the Agelastos family genealogy website. Attached to a record of birth and death is his photograph – broad forehead, close-set eyes and a large aquiline nose that draws the eye from hump to downturned tip as it slants to the right. The picture itself is lemon-tinged with bleached corners, but the nose’s curvature doesn’t come out in the wash.

The origin of the nose was under ethnic speculation for a long time. My grandfather changed his last name after the second world war and died soon after I was born, but in a photo of my christening I can see the family resemblance in him and my mother as they stand on the church steps, my mother holding me in her arms. Despite replacing Galatti with the inoffensive, British “Allison”, the nose remained across three generations. Being christened with my mother’s maiden name as my middle name was just another iteration of mismatched name and nose.

 According to my mother, her father changed his last name after World War II. Stationed in Italy in 1948, a superior officer strongly suggested that a name like “Galatti” was not suitable for an English captain. As a child I was drawn to the emphatic and unique sound “Galatti”. Hearing what could have been my middle name, had it not been surrendered for the mundane “Allison”, provoked an unsteady feeling, a small grief for something I never had.

On surgery day, I sit fidgeting in the pre-op room about as bare as the day I was christened, clad only in a surgical gown and my underwear, ready to rid myself of my inheritance. Finally, I am led towards the operating room. Without my glasses, I stumble blind amongst smears of blue and the scent of antiseptic. I climb onto the surgical table and the nurse tucks me into white hospital sheets so stiff and sterile they crunch like a bowl of cereal. 

“Are you excited?” the anesthesiologist asks me, pulling out my arms from the covers and rubbing the crook of my elbow with sterile wipes. “I am,” I say, but I am also terrified of going under. Maybe it’s just to soothe any pre-op jitters, but no one says quite what I’m expecting them to, which is something like, “But I don’t notice your nose”, or, “You don’t need a nose job”. Comments suggesting that my relationship with my nose is a failure in self acceptance. 

I look like my mum, is that such a bad thing? 

Yet, my brother was spared the affliction and my aunt had a rhinoplasty in the 90s, before you could window shop noses on social media. 

A cool liquid is piped into my vein and it becomes very, very easy to submerge into the bed. As if there is nothing between the table top and the blanket, as if I simply don’t exist for the next three hours and 45 minutes. 

I enjoy the existential break. 

I wake up with foamy limbs and a numb nose, back in my T-shirt and leggings and not knowing how I got dressed. It takes a minute for my memories to return from the chronological skip in time. The nurse is here again, giving me cheese sandwiches and telling me how beautiful the result is. I brush my fingers over my nose, imagining a straight bridge, but feeling the hard cast in its place. The nurse hands me a mirror and there is the gauze equivalent of two bloody tampons up my nose. 

At home, my partner feeds me painkillers and tucks me into bed propped upright. I am sore, cramping and euphoric, on a comedown from the anaesthesia and morphine. Giddy, I send my closest friends pictures of my current state; black eyes, nose tampons and all. I wake up constantly in the night, unable to breath through my nose. My mouth and tongue are painfully arid.

In the morning, I go back to the clinic to have my gauze removed. My right nostril – the problem one – spurts blood all over my T-shirt. For 10 minutes, I soak gauze until it’s dense with red. Finally the blood dries up and I can take a light-headed breath through both nostrils. I’m again given a mirror, and even with the white fibrecast splint around my nose, I can see the tip is upturned and the hump is gone. 

A week later, I have my cast removed. On the reveal, I look at my reflection and I am underwhelmed. After a week of settling in, instead of this miraculous transformation, there’s just my nose, there, looking as it always should have. 

At home, I practise modelling my new face. I cover up the remaining bruising with a thick slather of concealer to preview the final transformation. Using the front-facing camera, I no longer have to angle myself to make my nose appear straight. It is linear in all planes now. 

During my first week back at work, I expect to be called out, uncovered, revealed, but no one says a thing. My own parents have no idea until I confess to them my secret; only then do they notice my profile no longer matches my mother’s. “It looks nice, but I can’t actually remember what your nose looked like,” says one friend. Then I pull out my phone and show them a slideshow of my transformation. There is a hushed “Oh” when they compare my before with my after, but I realise no one associated me with having a big nose. To them, I was just Hannah: not in parts, but a complete picture. 

I return a year later for my final post-op check up. The surgeon once again leads me into his office, saying, “I was just looking at your pre-op pictures – I remember this nose, it was a challenge!”

The dialogue between the surgeon and me is polite but superficial as he looks up my nostrils for the final time. “What an improvement it is! Doesn’t it look better now?” he says, checking behind my ear. What I hear is how awful an affliction my previous nose must have been.

The question he should have asked was, “Do you feel better now?” Because I do. With no trunk space to store my insecurity, there’s been room to grow and to shape a much richer, fuller life for myself.

The surgeon asks if he’s able to use my photos for his website and Instagram and I give him permission. I’m not ashamed about the before or the after, but as I get my final set of photos taken I think about an alternate family history. One where my nose had a connection to culture and identity and was not so readily traded in for a more conventionally aesthetic model. 

I want to yell at my surgeons to stop treating big noses as some kind of genealogical failing. 

My own nose was a failing of the paternal line: my grandfather was born in Calcutta in 1924 after a shotgun marriage between his Greek American father and English expatriate mother. Shortly after, his father abandoned his wife and son, leaving them to re-immigrate to England a few years later. 

My grandfather never saw his father again, so changing his last name during the war to gain his captain’s commission was inconsequential.  

My own nose put up a fight. When swelling went down a wisp of the bump still remained — 12mm was not enough to completely erase my ancestry, but these days I can appreciate the parts of me that aren’t so easily cut out. 

My mother is the final keeper of the nose now. One day I may have a baby girl and she may resemble her grandmother more than her own mother. One day she too may make a choice to change the expression of the genes she inherited.

That’s the wonder of the things we inherit: sometimes they define who we are, sometimes they are ours to redefine.

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