I love my nose. I’ve always been supremely proud of it, to the point where it’s almost a fault. As a child, I was somewhat obnoxious about it.
“I have an African nose!” I used to walk around saying. “You see how it curves so beautifully out of the arch? You see the symmetry of the sides? Look at this bridge, free of crookedness or bumps! My nose is perfect, and beautiful!” Even thinking back on those days, I can’t help but laugh with glee at the tremendous amount of satisfaction my perfect nose gives me.
The funny thing is that all this nasal confidence came completely by accident, due to a childhood misunderstanding of ‘big words’.
In elementary school, we had this program called WINGS, which I guess was sort of our public school system’s version of the ‘gifted children’ class. We all went to regular classes, but at certain times of the day, or on certain days of the week (depending on which grade you were in) all the WINGS kids would go to a classroom downstairs to learn about other things. We did advanced math; studied Greek mythology and ancient societies; looked at abstract art; played chess; all that great and random stuff. The class was taught by Ms. Leonard, an African-American woman who still visited her family on The Continent and would sometimes take breaks to talk about it. Looking back, Ms. Leonard was probably the first person outside of my family to ever give me somewhat of a grounded and positive representation of Africa. I did not fully appreciate her at the time. She was a little too testy for someone who worked with children, and we were never completely comfortable in her classroom.
One day in WINGS, we were talking about mummies. It was the Ancient Egypt section of class, and I was excelling. I was super into learning about ancient societies, Egypt in particular, and I was very much being a know-it-all explaining the mummification process, pyramids, and the systems in place to trap and confuse pyramid robbers.
“That’s right,” Ms. Leonard was saying. “People throughout time have broken into and stolen from a number of pyramids. In fact, it was in the news a little bit ago that some men found mummies in one tomb, and hacked off their noses.” This seemed like a very strange, randomly rude thing to do. We wanted to know why the noses had been hacked off. “Well, African people in particular are known to have very prominent noses,” she told us, “And the men were attacking that.”
Understand that I had no idea what the word prominent meant at the time. Ms. Leonard was actually telling us about a hate crime. Whoever broke into the tombs saw the noses sticking out on the mummies, and hacked them off to make them smaller and respectable, effectively ‘fixing’ the large ‘African nose’ problem. It’s beyond disrespectful, and pretty disgusting.
I thought that prominent meant something like stately, and important. So to my understanding, Ms. Leonard was telling us about a different sort of crime, still disrespectful, but of jealousy. In my mind, when the vandals saw the magnificent noses on the mummies, they recognized that their own noses were unimportant and worthless in comparison, and out of jealousy for the gift God had given the mummies, they hacked off the noses to feel better about their own. It made sense to 9 year old me.
In the car going home that night, I retold the story to my mom.
“And then they just hacked the noses off, Mom!” I said, “Because the mummies had African noses, and they didn’t like that! Imagine if that had been me. I mean, look at my nose. It must be pro-mi-nent. I have an African nose too, right?”
I could tell that my question had made my mom confused and slightly uncomfortable, and I wasn’t sure why. She made some noise in between agreeing and disagreeing, and I realized that she must have been embarrassed about her own nose, which was very nice on its own, but rather small in comparison to mine. Looking in the rear view mirror, I began to compare my nose to my mother’s. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how amazing my own nose was. If someone were to come up and want to hack it off out of jealousy, I wouldn’t be surprised. Maybe my mother wasn’t just embarrassed, but worried that this might actually happen. Bad things happened to beautiful people all the time, people with noses much less perfect than mine. And it was, I decided, a perfect nose.
“Oh, that’s okay,” I told her, as she still hadn’t completely responded. “You don’t need to worry; you can just be happy for me!” I went inside the house, and have loved my nose ever since.
I loved my nose because somehow the idea got into my head that it was something to be proud of. It was only in that one not-even-discussion, too. I had never thought about noses before. No one ever said anything else about noses for years after, until we read Tintin comics in a French class, and people began to talk about how racist Herbés drawings of black people were. By the time I realized that this was something that might cause people shame and hurt, it was too late for my self conscious to switch gears. I simply decided that all the racists out there were particularly stupid in this area, and I even felt a little sorry for what they must obviously have lacked.
Sometimes I wonder, if my vocabulary had been better back then, would I love my nose today? If someone had said something negative about big lips to me, would that have stuck, also? I was lucky to grow up in a world with Angelina Jolie and J. Lo, paving the way for me to accept my larger body parts and understand them as things to be desired. It’s just scary to think about the little ways in which our perceptions about right and wrong; good and bad; attractive and unattractive have been shaped. There are so many insidious influences waiting to warp us as we grow up. This is how we have so many social institutions that we can barely understand.
Thank goodness my nose escaped, perfect and safe.