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How I Learned to Love My “Worst” Feature

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I held the carrot up my nose. My friend iced the skin to numb it and then the needle was through.
I was twenty years old when I got my nose pierced, a pivotal moment after a decade of insecurity. Toucan Sam. Pinocchio. Hawk nose. Growing up, I was called all these names and more. Most people go through an awkward phase, but it seems that during mine even Hollywood movies conspired against me. In Roxanne, though it was the lovely ingénue whose name closely resembled my own, the fact that an enormous nose was featured in the movie didn’t do me any favors in junior high.
The boys I had crushes on taunted me the most. To the tune of “Copacabana” (by none other than honker poster boy Barry Manilow) they’d sing, “My name is Ro-xy, I am so u-gly,” assaulting my self-esteem and Cuban heritage with one deft blow. Sometimes they smushed down their noses with a finger when they saw me. I ducked in the hallways and after school used scotch tape in an intricate wrapping technique to rectify the dip in the tip. It worked—for about half a second.
Today, nose jobs may be the new must-have for teenagers, but in the twentieth century going under the knife wasn’t something you bragged about. I earmarked the summer between high school and college as the ideal time to get my nose fixed so my new friends would never know about my old face.
I inherited the nose from my father. My mother had been a beauty queen in her day and a petite nose wore the crown. The product of a prominent yet nonetheless sneaky gene, my father’s schnoz built up steam bypassing my two older siblings to land full-throttle on my face. I was an extroverted grade-schooler before my nose blossomed into the feature it became by the age of thirteen. And by the time I was getting teased for my nose, my dad had left for good, so I could neither go to him for advice about the thing or offend him with my desire to change it.
But as high school wore on, the teasing subsided. My face grew some to accommodate the nose and I learned how to use a curling iron—the big hair of the eighties helped to camouflage my big feature. I even became second-tier popular. Just shy of the rumor mill with plenty of friends, I shook my pom poms during football games. I can’t say that my high school years were torment because of my nose, but it continued to loom large, especially, I thought, in profile.
Things felt more or less normal. I obsessed about boys and clothes and makeup and wrote typical angst-ridden poems that had nothing to do with my nose or my father, who had been gone for five years by then. He’d moved to another state and called only occasionally. I didn’t dwell on the fact that he wasn’t around, though the mirror showed proof that a part of him remained. Even if home life was more peaceful without my father, I couldn’t get away from the fact that of his three children, I was the one who carried him in every facial expression.
When graduation day arrived, with my mother working several jobs and little-to-no child support, there wasn’t money for a nose job. In any case, I was starting to have second thoughts. I loved to sing. Why hadn’t Barbra Streisand ever fixed her nose? Would an operation change my singing voice?
My nose and I arrived at the University of Michigan intact. Whereas high school had been all about blending in, I learned quickly that it’s best to distinguish yourself within a student body of 35,000 or else you’ll be swallowed whole.
So my nose and I walked around campus searching for self. I became driven by women’s issues and began editing a feminist magazine. I awakened to the fact that I was Latina and joined the school’s Cuban American Student Association. I performed in musicals. Even if I’d gotten my nose from my father, my singing voice was all mom and she was always there on opening night. I kept writing. My father, who I hadn’t heard from in several years, started to make appearances in my poems. And as he did, I felt myself more assured of who I was by calling up memories from my childhood.
In the mirror, I began noticing some of my other features: the distinctive mole I’d inherited from my grandmother; my mother’s cheekbones. It became less about hating the trait that linked me to my father and more about embracing the composite that made my face unique. As the silver stud went into my nose, I knew that it would draw more attention to what I had once tried so much to hide. But it didn’t matter anymore. Even if someone noticed my nose first, I was confident that they would notice something else soon after.
A year later, a friend told me that she was getting breast implants. I reacted harshly, telling her that I thought cosmetic surgery was a cop out. After all, if I had gone through the journey of building self-esteem without it, she could too. But to her, the boobs were like an accessory she’d always pined for. She had plenty of confidence already and the surgery wasn’t about giving her a boost—or about severing some genetic tie.
Over the last few years I’ve started to build a bridge back to my father. A recent photo he sent made it clear he’d had a nose job. When my parents were still together, his snores could bring down the house so the rhinoplasty was likely more than cosmetic. But regardless, just as I no longer judge my own face by one attribute, I don’t judge him for making the change. I’ve changed too. Over time our bodies transform along with our opinions and emotions. I may have lost the flair for wearing a nose ring, but a tiny hole where it once was will for the rest of my life recall what that act meant.


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