Even with these medical advancements, plastic surgery could only do so much. During World War I, London General Hospital established the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department. The Tin Noses Shop, as the soldiers called it, brought together American and European doctors and sculptors who worked to create individualized metallic masks, which then covered deformed or missing jaws, eyes, lips, and noses of wounded men. Though separated by a century, photographs of these men echo those of present-day celebrities with excessive or mask-like plastic surgery.
In his book Making the Body Beautiful, Sander L. Gilman argues that by the 1920s, the reconstructed faces of war veterans helped the public begin to accept cosmetic surgery. Although the benefits of medical advancements made in reconstructive surgery during the war were available internationally, plastic surgery began its boom in the United States during this time. The society that would later become the American Association of Plastic Surgeons was founded in 1921, right after the war and during the rise of a consumer culture that sanctions the exchange of money for beauty (and noses). The popularity of cosmetic surgery grew quickly, assisted by the normalizing presence of reconstructive procedures among veterans.
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While modern war destroys noses by mishap, cultures have long employed nasal mutilation as a punishment. During the middles ages, a woman’s hacked-off nose was a sign of disobedience or sexual promiscuity. In A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages, the historian Irina Metzler explains that adultery was punishable by severing the nose in the Kingdom of Jerusalem of the 10th century. But even half a millennium earlier, the Vandal king Gaiseric “ordered his Gothic wife’s nose and ears mutilated, having accused her of plotting against him.”
These atrocities are still committed. In 2010, Aesha Mohammadzai’s nose-less face was featured on the cover of Time magazine under the warning, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” Mohammadzai’s story is a harrowing account of life under Taliban rule. When she was 12, her father sold her to a Taliban fighter to pay off a debt. After she attempted to run away, her Taliban family cut off her nose and ears, leaving her for dead. She was rescued by aid workers, who then brought her to the United States.
Mohammadzai’s post-Afghani life and the reconstruction of her nose have been widely covered in the press. CNN’s Jessica Ravitz documented Mohammadzai’s American integration, where she received a degree public of attention typically reserved for celebrities:
In sunny Southern California, she bounced between lavish homes in gated communities. She was trotted out at a pricey gala dinner in Beverly Hills, where she debuted her prosthetic nose, a preview of what the surgery would do for her. She walked the proverbial red carpet, met Laura Bush and was honored by California’s then-first lady, Maria Shriver.
When the time came for Mohammadzai to begin a marathon of surgeries, The Daily Mail updated its readers on reconstruction efforts, detailing the various procedures required to build her new nose. The techniques employed were similar to those used in ancient India: doctors used skin from her face to provide tissue for her new nose. Unlike celebrity body shaming or botched surgery rubbernecking, Mohammadzai’s reconstructive process has garnered positive attention. Four years after the Time cover story, the media continues to document her progress. The tenor of this coverage harkens to Victorian freak shows, in which indigenous peoples from Britain’s imperial conquests were displayed in Europe as primitive savages in need of saving. Media coverage of Mohammadzai similarly casts Western culture and technology as both civilizer and savior.
The aesthetic value assigned to a person’s nose reflects historical and cultural beliefs on beauty, disease, race, war, and gender. The nose’s prominence—projecting from the face for all to see in the flesh—turns out to make it a potent symbol, whether the for the sake of consumer culture, ideals of beauty, the violence of war, or the power of the state.