After decades of being teased and rebuffed because of her nose, Rachel Hager found herself considering plastic surgery in her 50s. But was she caving to cosmetic conformity or taking control?

By Rachel Hager
Updated June 21, 2016
Chris Gramly/Getty Images

It’s August 3, 2015, and I’m sitting in a photo studio under unforgiving lighting, waiting for my close-up—just like I did before my surgery, one year earlier. But this time I am calm, happy, and extremely grateful. These photos will be the “after” of the standard before-and-after photos plastic surgeons use to help guide their work and measure the results. You see, a few weeks shy of my 51st birthday, after years of being largely anti–plastic surgery, I capitulated—but not for a face-lift or eye work or any of the other procedures women my age tend to have.

I decided to have a nose job.

Flashback 40-something years: I was eight years old, the only child of Orthodox Jewish Holocaust survivors. It was my first day as a transfer student from an all-girls Modern Orthodox school to a more religious one in Brooklyn, New York. As the bell rang and we lined up in the schoolyard, I spotted a group of girls marching over to me. Uh-oh, I thought. I must have it: that “new girl” smell.

“Hey, you,” said the tallest girl—let’s call her Sarah. “What’s your name?” This was it, my defining moment. I looked Sarah squarely in the eyes and responded, as steadily as I could, “Rachel.”

That’s when it started—so softly at first that I thought I’d misheard, but it wasn’t long before the chant became deafening. The girls had formed a circle around me, Sarah leading them as they shouted: “Pinocchio, Pinocchio. Big-nose Rachel. Rachel is Pinocchio!”

I bit my lips to keep from crying. Until that day, I had never even noticed my nose—and neither, it seemed, had anyone else. If they had, they’d certainly never said anything. Being new was fixable—eventually there would be someone even newer. But my nose? What was I supposed to do about my nose?

Be miserable, apparently. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the ringing of “Pinocchio” out of my ears. Nor could I look at my nose the same way. I suffered in silence.

High school was better. Because no one ever mentioned my nose, I felt more self-confident and even honed a special kind of self-deprecating nose humor so that my classmates laughed with me rather than at me. And then it happened: A girl in my sophomore class got a nose job. Some of the older girls had nose jobs, too. Their noses all looked alike, as though they had picked them out of the same catalog.

The seed was planted. I was clearly old enough for a nose job and wanted one…desperately. But my parents were having none of it. “There’s nothing wrong with your nose,” my mother insisted. “It’s a perfectly fine nose that goes with your face. It has character. What do you want? A pug nose?”

The conversation was over—until the last year of high school, when we all began being prepped (by teachers, family, and matchmakers-for-hire) for the marriage market. I guess you could call it the Orthodox version of “coming out.” We were learning what to say (or not) on a date, trading in glasses for contact lenses, experimenting with makeup, making sure we were attending and being seen at more events. So once again I broached the subject of a nose job. My mother’s answer was always the same: No. “With all you have to offer,” she said, “any guy who doesn’t want to go out with you or marry you because of your nose is not a guy you want.”

My response was somewhat more succinct: “You’re ruining my life!” I screamed and ran down the block to my friend Kranie’s house. Always practical, Kranie had it all figured out. “I know,” she said. “I’ll just push you down these stairs. You’ll break your nose, and then your parents will have to let you get a nose job!” I looked up at her, and for a nanosecond I was there. Then reason returned: “I appreciate the offer, but with my luck I’ll break every bone in my body except my nose!”

In the cookie-cutter mainstream Orthodox culture I grew up in, the pressure to get married by age 21 was—and still is—intense. As I sat aging on the vine (I was in my mid-20s), an aunt I adored sat me down to talk. “Ruchele, you know we love you,” she said. “But we’ve heard from some matchmakers who are having a hard time finding you guys because of your nose.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Really? My nose—not my independent streak, not my unconventional thinking, not my college education (frowned upon in very religious circles) or secular career choice ( journalism)—was the reason I wasn’t married? “If someone doesn’t want to go out with me because of my nose, he’s not the kind of guy I want anyway,” I said and stormed out. I couldn’t believe it. There they were, my mother’s words. Not only had I said them, I meant them. By that time, my career was starting to take off. I could hold my own and then some. “Out there,” my self-esteem was solid.

So I began to wear my nose as a badge of courage. It became my symbol of substance over shallowness. Of being myself rather than the person others wanted me to be. In truth, it became my protective shield. But as time went on, I found I didn’t need that protection outside of the tight-knit, perfection-obsessed, Stepford Wife–like community I’d grown up in. Lots of people, guys included, found me beautiful—and a lot of other things besides.

Then, in the summer of 2014, the subject of nose jobs came up with one of my male friends. “You put on makeup, you dye your roots, and you dress beautifully—all to improve your appearance,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you fix your nose? Your face is a gateway. Why not increase the number of guys who want to pass through that gateway to get to know the real you?” I laughed. Back to the guy issue. He was, however, right about the makeup, hair, and clothes. “But I do those things for me,” I whined, “for how they make me feel.”

As I listened to myself, I stifled a smile. I had imbued this nose job with so much meaning and power that I had lost sight of the fact that we were talking about a nose, not human rights. If I were to have the procedure now, it would be because I wanted it, not because I thought I needed a different nose to get a man. And, just like that, a decision 40 years in the making was made. With my self-esteem and self-knowledge stronger than ever, I was going to have that nose job. It finally felt right.

Today I’m still single, proving that my nose has never had any bearing on my marital status. When people see me, they don’t say, “Oh, my God, you finally had a nose job!” They say, “Rachel, you look amazing. Better than ever. What did you do? Change your hair? Lose weight?” I just smile, reveling in my secret, and say, “Thank you.”

It’s August 3, 2015, and my photo shoot is finishing up. “OK,” the photographer says. “Last one. Give me a big smile.”

About the Author

Rachel Hager is a New York City–based writer, editor, and digital-content specialist. She is a co­editor of When They Came to Take My Father: Voices of the Holocaust.