I held on to my secret plan the whole day, while I laughed with friends, took a math quiz, and ate lunch in the senior lounge at my Upper East Side private school. At the end of the day, instead of my usual routine of taking the M86 bus with Dana to the Upper West Side, where both our families lived, I left school without staying bye to anyone, made a left on Park, and walked south as quickly as I could without drawing attention.
My mother was constantly whining to my father, “Why can’t we move to the Upper East Side? It’s so much better than here.” It didn’t really matter to me, though, I hated them both, but I knew that the Upper East Side was its own strange universe. As I walked, I passed kids getting out of school — some in uniforms from the all-girls school nearby, some in Juicy Couture jumpsuits, or Seven jeans — a lot of not-white nannies taking care of white kids, and moms in expensive yoga clothes or business suits running errands. There were no men around; the fathers were at work. I made a right on 82nd and searched for number forty three.
“Yes, miss?” the doorman asked.
“Ummm,” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. The plastic surgery Chicago clinic was on my mind. “I think I’m going to Suite 1-C?”
“Yes, of course, right ahead,” he said, unfazed.
The office, softly lit, all beige and pink, with black-and-white photos of flowers on the walls, looked more like a hotel lobby than a doctor’s waiting room. I felt calmer than I’d been in a long time. Like my life was finally getting started. I was taking control. I’d expected the receptionist to be all swollen lips, perfect ski-slope nose, tight skin, blond hair…but instead she looked normal, medium pretty.
“I have an appointment for a consultation,” I said, blushing.
“Of course,” she said.
Sitting on a comfortable chair, I alternated between filling out forms and looking at myself in the mirrored wall. Like every day, I had on jeans and a sweatshirt, my frizzy hair pulled back in a bun. A pamphlet on the side table described the Mommy Special — “a collection of surgeries designed to restore your pre-pregnancy physique” — and the Bridal Package — “not just for brides, but for the entire bridal party.”
I could see my future: the boyfriend who’d be handsome, but in a low-key way. He’d love reading, but also be good at sports. I pictured us making out against a brick wall. You’re the love of my life, you know that? he’d ask. You’re the fire of my loins, I’d purr, smiling seductively. We’d get married, our whole wedding party getting surgery on different body parts beforehand.
I fingered the slope of my nose self-consciously, thinking back to tennis practice when Jessie, Pam and Katie had been gossiping about Rachel, who wasn’t there. I wasn’t really friends with them, but we were on the team together.
“She really needs to get her nose fixed,” Pam had said. “She’d look a lot better.”
I waited for all of them to turn to me, for Pam to put her hand over her mouth in worry that she’d offended me. I felt hot, my eyes stung. But they continued on. They hadn’t noticed me, or hadn’t thought I needed to get mine fixed, too. How did one know if one needed to get a nose fixed?
I knew what fixed meant, of course. My mom had explained it to me years ago. She’d found me sobbing in my room one day, and when she asked what was wrong, I told her I couldn’t stand how ugly I was.
“I just can’t bear it anymore,” I cried.
I was too young now, only 13, my mom explained, but in a few years I could get a nose job.
I hadn’t known what to say. In a way, it was a relief to know I was right, that there was something wrong with me. But it also ached, because deep deep down, I’d always hoped that I was imagining it. My mom touched her own nose and said, “Look, we have the same bump. I’m sorry I gave it to you.”
She told me she’d always regretted not getting a nose job herself, and she didn’t want that for me. My mom plucked her eyebrows into mean, thin arcs and woke up at 5:30 a.m. to meet with Peter, her personal trainer. She made recipes from cookbooks called Hungry Girl to the Max and Skinny Bitch in the Kitch.
“It’s too late for me now,” she said sadly, “but not for you.”
For years after that I hated trying on clothes in stores. Dressing rooms had angled mirrors, so you had to see yourself in profile. I tried to position myself in conversations so that as few people as possible could see the side view of my face. Head on, I looked okay.
I’m just having a free consultation,” I told myself as I waited. Nothing has to come of it. I secretly hoped they’d say, “You’re crazy, you’re a beautiful young girl, perfectly normal, and plastic surgery is for people who are in dire medical need.” Then I could go on with my life. But another part of me hoped, masochistically, that they’d go to the other extreme.
“Whoaahhh, boy, we got a red alert here, get out the knife, this is an emergency. How could you have waited so long, young lady?”
When the doctor called me in, he got right down to business.
“Can I touch your face?” he asked politely. I nodded.
“Okay, yes, I definitely see the problem areas,” he said, turning my face gently from left to right.
“Now I’m going to show you our computer simulation, so you can see exactly what we can do for you, and what you’d look like after the procedures. Now look at the camera….”
He took a photo and my face popped up on the computer screen. It looked okay, I thought, but then he told me to turn to the side so he could do the profile. I felt a familiar wave of panic. It came up on the screen, looking the same as always. Whenever I saw my profile, I felt ashamed by my thoughts: I look like Nazi drawings of Jews during World War II. I’d seen the propaganda once on a school trip to the Holocaust museum, and I was devastated by the resemblance.
The doctor had started talking: “So I’d recommend definitely rhinoplasty, getting rid of the bump, and then also a chin implant to sort of even out the face…. It’s very common, we do this all the time.”
As he spoke, he dragged and clicked the cursor on the screen, stretching and pulling my face. I sat, mesmerized, watching myself transform.
“There, something like that is what I’m thinking,” he said.
I looked at the girl on the screen. She did not look like me. She looked very normal. Pretty. Good. Nice. Sexy. I especially liked the way the chin implant looked. I’d have never thought of that. It felt like I could suddenly read minds, or be invisible and hear what everyone thought of me without them knowing I was there. No one would ever have had the guts to tell me I needed a chin implant. But now I could clearly see how much it helped. It changed me from looking like a weak, ugly nerd to a pretty, confident American girl. And hearing the doctor discuss my appearance candidly, without excuse or apology, was deeply satisfying. I’d been used to friends who’d say, whenever I’d broach the subject, “Shut up! You’re pretty!”
“Now that’s better,” the doctor said, staring at his screen. “Isn’t that beautiful?” He called in a nurse.
“Oh yes, that looks really good,” she said to me. “Do you like it?”
I nodded and asked if I could have a copy of the image.
“Of course,” the doctor said. He handed me a glossy print-out and I studied it, trying to make it make sense. I jutted out my chin to look more like the girl.
“The recovery process typically takes about two weeks, with a full recovery after about six months. Following the procedure there may be nausea, headaches, swelling, bruising and nosebleeds,” the doctor said, his white teeth gleaming.
The doctor and nurse explained that they would render me unconscious and cut into my face with sharp tools. He touched my face as he described where he’d make “incisions” — inside my nose, in the skin that separates my nostrils — and I began to feel sick. They were speaking so quickly. Who the fuck were these people. This couldn’t have been what my mom meant. I’d known what plastic surgery was, but there, in the office, I knew I hadn’t really processed the violence of it. I hadn’t, of course, told my mom about the consultation — I guess I hadn’t wanted to give her the satisfaction. But suddenly I wished she were here.
I thought about my friends, and how I would tell them about this. It would be humiliating. My friends always derided people who “cheated,” whether it was getting a prescription for Adderol that they didn’t need, having their parents donate huge sums to colleges so they’d get in, or throwing up all their food so they’d be skinny. Like Amy, who had the perfect body — she was thin and toned and had perfect, lush breasts — but threw up noisily in the bathrooms in the gym so everyone knew it didn’t really count.
“Okay, take your time,” the doctor said, ready to move on to his next patient. “It’s a big decision, but I think it would look really great.”
I walked out of the office in a daze, my hand in my pocket, clutching the folded print-out. Halfway across Central Park, I slowly crumpled up the print-out and tossed it in a garbage bin, tears dripping down my defiant, undersized chin.
I cared more about what my friends thought of me than what my mom thought. It was too late for her, but maybe not for me.
Sarah Beller is a writer living in Brooklyn. Some of her work can be found at thehairpin.com, thefix.com, takethehandle.com and xojane.com.