Ode to the Nose
Somebody once asked Princess Di to name one thing she would change about herself. Without hesitation, she replied, “My nose.”
Ah, the poor, long-suffering nose! Dissed by royals, no less. It’s the most maligned facial feature, but arguably the most indispensable. The eyes may be the windows of the soul, but the nose is the entrance to the respiratory realm.
When it’s not sneezing, sniffling, snoring or smelling, it’s taking in oxygen 24/7 to keep us alive, inhaling and exhaling nine liters of air each minute, filtering out harmful debris, producing one quart of mucus per day, and managing more than 12 million olfactory receptor cells that can detect 10,000 scents, all with maximum efficiency.
It’s a hyper-bustling manufacturer, the Apple Inc. of our anatomy.
Why, then, do we look down our noses at the nose? Why do we poke fun at it in merciless ways, criticizing its shape and bemoaning its size?
To misquote Gertrude Stein, “A nose is a nose is a nose,” isn’t it? Not always.
A nose isn’t a nose when it ceases to be an olfactory organ or breathing mechanism and instead starts to define us, manipulating our self-esteem, playing havoc with our self-image, and usurping our identity.
An entire play was written about a man—Cyrano de Bergerac—who suffers an identity crisis because of his nose, costing him his true love, Roxane. Ashamed of his heinous hooter, he only expresses his feelings for her in letters where he signs another man’s name, unwilling to reveal the truth until it’s too late.
Judging by the number of people preoccupied with fixing their noses, Cyrano isn’t the only one beset by nasal fixation. In this country, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons estimates that every year, 220,000 malcontents undergo rhinoplasties, the medical term for nose jobs. It’s as if all the residents of Des Moines, Iowa, were to trade in their noses annually for new models.
Rhinoplasties date to 6th century B.C. in India, where folks attempted crude reconstructive surgery on people whose nebs were lopped off as punishment. Then in 16th century Europe, when syphilis besieged the continent and rotted victims’ noses, Europeans masked the deformities with surgery. But it wasn’t until 1887 that an American otolaryngologist, John Orlando Roe, performed the first documented rhinoplasty for cosmetic purposes, to enhance an intact nose. His patient apparently had a distressing pug nose.
Schnozz consternation transcends socio-economic lines. No matter how rich or poor we are, how famous or obscure, we find fault with our snouts.
Michael Jackson, the legendary King of Pop, was so displeased with his that he practically wished it away after repeated rhinoplasties. From Neverland to La-La Land, celebrities Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and Cher all received freshly sculpted noses. So did Halle Berry, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston, Tyra Banks, Kim Kardashian and on and on and on.
Then there are the stars who perhaps should have signed up for surgery, but didn’t. Nicknamed “The Great Schnozzola,” old-time comedian Jimmy Durante employed his nose as a ticket to fame by uttering his signature line, “Lady, that ain’t no banana, that’s my nose!” Likewise, maybe songstress Barbara Streisand realized she couldn’t wow audiences with her amazing pipes without her unique nasal structure. The nose, after all, helps to create vocal resonance.
Hollywood glitterati aside, the prize for the world’s most unsightly nose goes to Gilded Age financier J. P. Morgan. Though the richest man on the face of the earth, his own face was marred by a honker once described as a purple cauliflower. His proboscis was enlarged, scarred and discolored by rosacea and rhinophyma. Extremely sensitive about it, he avoided photos and beat one photographer with a cane when he tried to sneak a snapshot.
Experts disagree on the specific number of kinds of noses in the world. Some say there are 12. Some 14. Some even 19. Whatever the tally, a nasal primer would certainly include snub, hawk, aquiline, Greek, Nubian and Roman varieties.
I prefer more colorful nomenclature. Nothing beats the “ski slope” to characterize the trunks exhibited by Bob Hope and Richard Nixon. How about “whiskey nose,” best exemplified by W. C. Fields? Or “pig snout” for Winston Churchill’s (despite his inspirational leadership)? And don’t forget “button nose,” a cute little depiction for tiny noses fawned over by maternal types and flaunted by waifs like Shirley Temple.
What could account for this variegated array of nostril constructions? Evolution, of course. Over eons and multitudes of generations, noses evolved to adapt to their surroundings. You know, survival of the species. The weather, in particular, had a lot to do with it.
Frosty Scandinavian winters produced noses with narrow bridges to cope with the cold, while Mediterraneans developed noses with wide bridges to thrive in toasty climes. That’s one reason the real Cleopatra had a big nose, seen on coin relics and busts of the Egyptian queen—nothing like Elizabeth Taylor’s.
Is there such a thing as a perfect nose? If so, the Duchess of Cambridge has it. According to one London surgeon, Kate Middleton’s flawless neb is the most popular model requested by plastic surgery candidates, who simply ask for “The Duchess” when booking their procedures.
Does anyone ask for “The Ringo” when scheduling surgery? I doubt it. But wasn’t Ringo the most endearing Beatle precisely because of his nose? Perhaps it was just the sympathy vote after this scene from “A Hard Day’s Night”:
Ringo: “I don’t snore.”
George: “You do, repeatedly.”
Ringo: “Do I snore, John?”
John: “Yeah, you’re a window-rattler, son.”
Ringo: “That’s just your opinion. Do I snore, Paul?”
Paul: “With a trombone hooter like yours, it would be unnatural if you didn’t.”
Paul’s grandfather: “No, Paulie, don’t mock the afflicted.”
Paul: “Oh, come off it, it’s only a joke.”
Paul’s grandfather: “It may be a joke, but it’s his nose. He can’t help having a hideous great hooter. And the poor little head trembling under the weight of it.”
Too bad Ringo hobnobbed with irreverent lads from Liverpool and not with noble beasts from the jungle. Animals don’t mock their cohorts’ noses. So what if proboscis monkeys have pendulous snouts and mandrills garish ones? No one in the animal kingdom cares. Some creatures don’t even have noses, like butterflies and octopuses. Lucky them, spared from humanity’s nasal conundrums and nasal congestions.
Yet think how bereft the English language would be without the nose. Consider the expressions we’ve coined.
If you have your nose in the air, you’re a snob. When you stick your nose in something, you’re a snoop. If you have a nose for news, you’re a nosy reporter. But even if you follow your nose, you might miss something that’s right under your nose. Your boss may be hard-nosed, but if you keep your nose to the grindstone, you might be promoted—unless the economy takes a nosedive. In which case, save your pennies, keep your nose clean and don’t pay through the nose. Otherwise, you’d be cutting off your nose to spite your face.
And if after all that, you do go broke, it’s no skin off my nose, but I promise not to rub your nose in