Perfume is not enough: The shocking shift in Iranian beauty standards

An Iranian woman poses for a photo during a visit to the botanical garden in Shiraz. (Photo by Paul Keller)
An Iranian woman poses for a photo during a visit to the botanical garden in Shiraz. (Photo by Paul Keller)

Despite a conservative culture, plastic surgery and eating disorders are all the rage in Iran. Is Western culture to blame?

I am the first person in my family to be born in the United States. It wasn’t until I was 10 years old that I went to back to Iran for the first time.

Looking back at pictures of myself then, I looked like a typical Iranian girl, with one, singular eyebrow spanning the full distance directly across my face, and thick frizzy hair.

The author at age 10, during her first visit to Iran. (Photo courtesy Mahroo Keshavarz)
The author at age 10, during her first visit to Iran. (Photo courtesy Mahroo Keshavarz)

In the United States, I stood out like a sore thumb, especially amongst my suburban, blond-haired classmates.

For the first time, while I was in Iran, I finally felt like I fit in because the majority of the girls that were my age looked just like me. And they were considered beautiful.

As I got older I continued visiting Iran. The last time was just last September.

While I was there, I noticed that none of the friends that I had grown up with during my visits all these years looked very much like me anymore.

The reason was shocking: They’d all had plastic surgery to alter their noses and chin, liposuction to remove invisible areas of fat in areas that I won’t mention, and breasts that no longer move when the rest of their bodies do.

I had only been away from Iran for less than a year, but suddenly they all looked very different from me. I was completely confused.

Beauty standards in Iran have changed dramatically in the last century. (Photo from Payvand.com)
Beauty standards in Iran have changed dramatically in the last century. (Photo from Payvand.com)

And despite the major physical alterations they’d made to themselves, many of them were still dissatisfied with their appearance.

They would obsessively talk about weight loss and their next plastic surgery. Women who were skinny by any standard were constantly rushing off to nutrition appointments and aerobic classes. Girls under 19 had already gotten lip injections and nose jobs. It made me sad to think of their young faces changed so drastically before they even reach adulthood.

I had a lot of conversations that went like this:

Iranian girlfriends:  “Are you going to get work done while you are in Iran?”

Me:  “Work done?”

Iranian girlfriends: “You know…like liposuction. I know a doctor that will do it less than an hour and it only takes a few days to heal. He’s really good and won’t leave you with a crooked belly button like what happened to Fatimeh. And while you are here, you should lighten your hair, thin your eyebrows….”

I had never seen so many women so openly critical of each other and invested in their own appearance.

It reminded me of my own self-critical thoughts about the way I looked growing up. But I had never gotten to the point of developing an eating disorder or deciding to lighten my hair, and there was no way I was going to thin out my eyebrows.

When I asked my Iranian friends if they were worried about eating disorders, they told me that anorexia and bulimia were “new” disorders in Iran and doctors are still trying to figure out treatments.

Iran has one the highest rate of nosejobs per capita in the world. (Photo by Paul Keller)
Iran has one the highest rate of nosejobs per capita in the world. (Photo by Paul Keller)

I flashed back to my time at Redmond Junior High, where the hallways were plastered with posters about self-esteem and eating disorder awareness, explaining how to approach a friend if you thought they had a problem.

We even had school counselors come to talk to us during health class about the seriousness of nutrition and how to keep a well-balanced diet. Most of the Iranian girls I had met were on strict protein diets, eating chicken breasts every day for lunch and dinner and taking snack breaks with cucumbers.

A study published by the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that, even way back in 2001, women in Iran had an equal or higher prevalence of eating disorders than first and second generation Iranian immigrants in LA.

The hypothesis was that Iranian women living in Iran would have fewer body image issues, since they lived in a conservative culture where they weren’t inundated by unrealistic images of idealized female bodies on billboards, magazines, and television, as the women in the US were.

Women recovering from nosejobs are a common site on the streets around Iran. (Photo by Paul Keller)
Women recovering from nosejobs are a common site on the streets around Iran. (Photo by Paul Keller)

But that just wasn’t true.

“These results suggest that exposure to Western cultural influences may not be as strong a risk factor for eating disorders and body image concerns as previously thought,” the study concludes.

“In addition, these results suggest that having one’s body covered the majority of the time does not necessarily protect against body image concerns and eating disorders.

So if it’s not Western culture telling Iranian women they should change the way they look, what is it?

In my experience, it might just be other Iranian women.

During my last visit I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office when random woman came up to me and asked me if I was married. I told her I wasn’t, and she said, “Oh. You should meet my son. But you are a little chubby around your thighs. You just need to lose a little bit more weight and then you can get married and have children.”

This from a total stranger.

Teens in Tehran keeping it real. (Photo by Mohammadali F.)
Teens in Tehran keeping it real. (Photo by Mohammadali F.)

Iran’s strict rules for the women to wear hejab and cover their arms and legs can also mean a woman’s face becomes the focus of perfection.

Being an Iranian girl with a very prominent unibrow growing up in America, visiting Iran meant a refuge where I was free to be exactly who I am, embracing all the traits that make me look Iranian.

But now when I ask my friends why they keep getting work done, their answer is, “Why not?  If you don’t like the way you look and you can change it, then go and change it. As women, we can only show our faces and it should always look put together. Perfume isn’t enough!”

23 Comments

  1. Mahroo! I love this piece and think it brings to light some of the complexities of Tehrans subculture and our experience as Iranian women! Hope you keep writing!

  2. Is it possible that the mandate to cover up intensifies women’s consciousness of their appearance? After all, if one’s appearance, as a woman, is powerful enough to cause men to do sinful things, and violent things, perhaps the whole notion of female appearance is overdefined, overcharged. Perhaps this intensifies the idea that women are defined by their appearance.

  3. Loved your essay. I visited Iran in 2011 after 14 years. Many members of my family young and old ~told~ me I should color my silver hair and if possible lose 10 kilo then I would look like my 1997 :/

  4. You are right , but nowadays i’m seeing women in Iran that care more about their body rather than their face , in the last two years , many gyms has been made for girls in my neighborhood and girls are getting more active , so little by little beauty is shifting more on body than face , however Women recovering from nosejobs AREN’t much a common site on the streets around Iran , it makes people think that half of Iranian girls are doing nosejobs , there are girls that doing nosejob thats for sure but not as many that Internet statistics suggest , it makes Iranians look without self esteem , and that only beauty matters in Iran !! :)

      1. I wanted to know which is the best place for tourists in Iran x I wanted to visit in the summer or maybe sooner x I have seen pictures Iran is beautiful x

  5. to me streets of iran are art galleries,i walk in them and despite the fact that I am an straight girl I just admire the beauty and good sense of fashion of Iranian girls.

    1. The women are very beautiful but what about their personalities does it match the beauty on the outside x im curious to know what are Iranian women like personality wise? This is not to put anyone down x we all know personality is the main attraction because looks will fade x

  6. I think because of alot of limitation that people and especially girls have in Iran they try to show themselves ;they make up a lot, nose job…. They want to empty themselves they want to forget the.sadness and the problem in this way. But again iranian girl are the mooooost beautiful girl in world. ماه رو خانوم خسته نباشی زیبا بود.
    I just fifteen years old

    1. I agree with this. Since they are not able to show off their bodies very much, the face becomes the most important feature, and that is what they focus on.

  7. Hi
    Im ali and im almost 18 years old. I live in iran but ive had a trip to usa when i was 8.
    The things youve written, sadly, are completely true.
    But the worse wich is happening in iran, is that many men are doing almost the same things. Men are picking their brows, having nose jobs, and other kinds of plastic surgerys. Place of males and females is being changed.
    Sadly, older generations values arent the values of new generations.
    Values of most groups arent the same, kids and adults, males and females, poors and riches, students and teachers and etc. And this difference between values, is cauing many of our societys problems.
    I wish oyr problems all get solved.

  8. I am interested in knowing where really most of the Iranian omen have unibrow?
    Is it a common trait? Is it considered a beauty feature? I am told a woman with unibrow is considered beautiful in Iran(and Tajikistan). Is it true?

    1. Nope. It’s not a good trait. It used to be a long time ago, but not anymore. I hate my thick eyebrows. This is coming from a Persian girl, btw.

      1. But then again, everyone has a different taste. Some may like unibrows. I can’t speak for everyone in Iran.

  9. I meant : I am interested in knowing whether really most of the Iranian women have unibrow?
    Sorry for the typo.

  10. Hey I am iranian and live in iran.so I know that more than 50percent of what u said was wrong.and I really appreciate it if u just stop saying gossips about iran while u don’t have enough information about it.and stop saying bad things about ur own country to the world while it is a lot different if what the fuck u think or who the fuck ur friends are.u can not judge about iran just by a group of iranian girls u know.iran has so many different beauty standards ,cultures and the way they think about beauty even in each city.and u judge about them just by a group of ppl u know.that is a shame .sorry 4 u.

  11. And by the way I see some ppl saying that do iranian girls have unibrow and is it a beauty standard?there are a few girls in iran that have unibrows maybe about 15 percent and no it is not a beauty standard at all and iranian hate unibrows.nowadays one of the iranian beauty standard about eyebrows is thick eyebrows and even those girls in iran who don’t have thick eyebrows they try to have it with cosmetics.about skin color beauty standard in iran…I really can’t say anything taste are so different about it…so many gals try to become tan and so many othe ones try to avoid sun.wa have all skin colors and eye colors in iran naturally so taste are so different too.the other beaty standard here is colored eyes here and I am telling iranian have so many different taste I am just saying the most common ones.the other thing is big eyes,big or average lips,small noses better(if it is big but it suits ur face so that is ok too),mostly they like light hair colors (but so many gals and boys here love dark hair color too).dimple is one of those beautiful things here and also chubby cheeks.and about the body shape :they like big butt and bust but thin waist(curvy body shape).hope that could help

  12. what says the other people is more important than what i know about myself !
    iranian have custom of putting a color and design on every thing as well like their face,their connections,the miserable governors they have,the darkest facts that can be true about a culture every F.U.C.K.ing things !!!

  13. I live in Iran since i was born and i’m telling you something…Not only the young Iranians, but also the majority of Middle Eastern peoples, are no longer under their own control. What else do you expect from a generation grown up with Barbie dolls and Bratz cartoons?! Iran was fed this way.

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