Kill me, but make me beautiful. It may be an ancient Iranian saying, but women here are taking it as seriously as ever. They want smaller noses...

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SHIRAZ, Iran — Kill me, but make me beautiful.

It may be an ancient Iranian saying, but women here are taking it as seriously as ever.

They want smaller noses.

They want highlights in their hair, even though the Islamic government calls for it to be covered by roosary, or a headscarf, in public.

And they’ll do just about anything to remove the hair from everywhere else on their bodies.

In dozens of interviews over the past three weeks, a clear majority of women said this pursuit is not some Western ideal of beauty, but an Iranian one that has existed for centuries. Iranian women, they said, care a lot about the way they look.

And contrary to what many Americans may think, Iranian women forever have pursued a Barbie-like image, regardless of what their government has mandated.

The fallout of “flaws”

“Shame on me for thinking this way,” said Elmira Mihandoost, a 20-year-old who was touching up her peach-colored lipstick as she awaited an appointment with her plastic surgeon earlier this month. “I always said everyone should be natural, but look what I’m doing now. I’ll take any pain to eliminate all flaws.”

While the Iranian government and its Islamic clerics are waging a high-profile campaign to pursue a program of nuclear enrichment, most women in this country of 70 million are fighting on another front: the eternal pursuit of beauty.

Here in Shiraz, a city of nearly 4 million, people say about half the women have had their noses redone or want to — even when there’s seemingly nothing wrong with their looks.

“So many women are doing it now that it makes sense for doctors to become plastic surgeons,” said Ali Akbar Khosravi, a plastic surgeon in Shiraz and one of 136 now registered to work in the country.

A big surge in surgeons

It was 4:30 on a recent overcast afternoon, and the office of Darius Sarikhani, among the most popular plastic surgeons in Shiraz, was packed. Men and women waited on blue plastic-covered sofas for the doctor, who said he sees about 100 patients a month but still has a waiting list of up to three months for just a preliminary appointment.

“I’m so busy these days,” Sarikhani said. “I used to be an ear, nose and throat doctor, but because of the demand, I’ve moved to plastic surgery.”

When asked about his clientele, the doctor said about 20 percent of his patients are Iranians who live abroad and come to him to save money. Just this summer, he had patients from the U.S., Canada, Sweden and Turkey.

Costs, he said, rise by about 10 percent every year, but business is still brisk. Peak ages to get nose jobs are 18 to 24 and 35 to 40, he said.

“The first peak is when girls are trying to look their best and care to hook a husband,” Sarikhani said. “‘The second is when they feel they’re getting old and fear losing their husbands. In the past four years, the number of nose jobs has risen because surgery is more advanced, and we can make them look nicer. It’s become ordinary here.”

A quest for perfection

Mihandoost said her nose isn’t big, but she wants to have a small bump at the top of it shaved off to perfect her profile.

“I don’t know why it’s so important to me, but it is. I guess it’s for attention,” she said, tugging on her blue and brown tiger-motif headscarf. “My parents could do something better with the money — like buy a bigger TV — but because they don’t want to break my heart, they’ll pay for it.”

Many young Iranian women, who are generally supported by their parents until they marry, seem to care less about splurging on a first car and more interested in spending exorbitant sums on beauty. Part of the reason, Mihandoost said, is that young men here want doll-like women.

Janfeshan, a trendy young man who goes to college with Mihandoost and studies architecture, said nose jobs have become routine for many.

“If a girl is ugly, she has to do something to make herself acceptable,” Janfeshan said, as he sat in the waiting room beside Mihandoost for moral support. “They should do it for themselves and for their men.”

Money, pain vs. beauty

The cost of plastic surgery here is cheap compared with the cost in the United States, but the work often eats up a greater percentage of a family’s resources because the average yearly personal income is still below $10,000.

Nose work, on average, costs about 1 million toman — the equivalent of about $1,000.

“It was a lot of money for us to spend on my daughter Sarah’s nose,” said Parvin Hosaini, who has lived alone with her three single daughters since her husband died 12 years ago.

Her daughter redid her nose seven years ago, for about $200, which Hassani said was a lot of money then. “But she hated herself when she saw that nose. Beauty and her peace [were] worth more than the money.”

A market for makeup

That phrase — beauty is worth more than the money and pain — echoed in dozens of interviews and certainly was not limited to plastic surgery.

Iranian girls also “are especially into makeup,” said Mehri Malek, a well-known beautician in Shiraz.

“They’re into looking chic even though they’re forced to cover up,” Malek said. “I travel a lot to Italy and Turkey, but still I think we make ourselves the most beautiful and care the most about our looks.”

Malek said it takes about four hours to prepare a bride, for example. It costs the equivalent of about $250 for the process, and Malek sees about 50 brides each week in the summertime, when most weddings in Iran are held.

Shops like hers — in fact all beauty salons — are women-only and hidden from view, but they’re always packed.

They’re not for everyone

Upstairs in the plastic surgeon’s room, decorated with traditional Iranian paintings of women holding pomegranates, Sarikhani analyzed Mihandoost’s nose.

He gave her one look and shook his head.

“I won’t do it. Yes, your nose itself might look nicer. But you’ll lose the beauty of your face,” Sarikhani said, matter-of-factly. “Your eyes are large. Your lips are thin. Your face is arranged the way it is for a reason, and it’s beautiful.

“If we touch it, you’ll look disproportional.”

Mihandoost — who, like most Shirazi girls never leaves the house without a full face of makeup — tried to argue, but Sarikhani wouldn’t hear it. And soon, the young woman was more accepting of the doctor’s decision.

“From the bottom of my gut, I’m glad,” Mihandoost said. “I’m happy everyone says I’m pretty the way I am.

“I think so, too.”