I have a friend who has just had a baby. Actually, she had the baby five months ago, a detail that is relevant because it means the baby has had time to develop recognizable facial features. The baby also has had visitors who are into noticing noses and eyes and chins and so forth, and trying to figure out which parent the baby favors. They have decided that the baby has his mother's nose. There wouldn't be anything particularly striking about this, expect for the fact that not even the mother has her own nose anymore and this whole thing is putting her on something of a spot.

This would not be a problem in, say, New York, where changing one's nose is a rite of passage. A major topic during freshman orientation week at the colege I went to in Manhattan was who did whose nose, for how much and how do you like it? The only people who drew special attention were a set of identical twins, one of whom had gotten her nose fixed while the other had not. iIt was generally ackowledged that they did the campus a favor by providing a way of telling them apart.

My friend, however, is not from New York, and it never occurred to her until seven years ago that she could change her nose, which she diagnosed early on in her life as being too large. It grew to unmanageable proportions the day she walked into her daughter's kindergarten class and some child was possessed with the revelation that "Jennifer's mother has a big nose."

"I said I cant't face this the rest of my life," said my friend, and soon she was in the office of a plastic surgeon who discovered that, lo and behold, she had a deviated septum. Surgery for a deviated septum is covered by health insurance. Surgery for large noses is not. With her new deviated septum, my friend was able to get her nose fixed for a mere $600. A steal, she says.

She had it done. Quickly. Without telling anyone except her husband, and her twin sister. "You feel embarrassed that people will think you're being silly o vain to think so much about one part of you." And if she had trouble being open about her self-improvement, so did the people around her. Should they say she looks terrific, implying perhaps that she didn't before, or should they pretend not to notice anything was different?

"When you first get it done people don't come up and say, 'Oh, you've got your nose changed.' You expect them to say it looks good or it looks bad, but most people don't say anything. Maybe in certain places where people get that sort of thing done all the time they do, but in the world I live in they didn't react to it.

"I think you want people to notice. I really do, because even though you are scared to death to walk in, you feel so exposed when they don't react. I walked around for six months or a year feeling like I didn't have a face. People would pass me by sometimes and wouldn't say 'hi' to me. If I hadn't had my nose changed, I had had my nose changed, I wouldn't have thought n anything about it, but since I had had my nose changed, I felt they know me, but maybe I don't look like myself."

Self-improvement has its hidden costs. Who among us has not had to walk into an office with a mustache shaved off for the first time in 10 years or with long hair cut short or brown hair turned blond? "You look like Dolly Parton," said a young colleague of mine one time, and I have a good enough grasp on reality to know that he could only be referring to my hair, which had turned blonder over the weekend.

There are ways of commenting and there are ways of commending but probably the worst comment is to say nothing at all. Radical changes are bound to be noticed and if they aren't, the changee is immediately going to assume that he are she either looks too terrible for words or is so unimportant in the office pecking order that his change doesn't get noticed.

This is not to say that changing one's hair color and changing one's nose are of precisely the same magnitude. With one, you can always wash in a bottle of rinse if it doesn't work and wait for your old color to grow out. Changing one's nose is not only more permanent, it's more traumatic. There are bruises and swellings.

But for my friend, this is all behind her, now, so far behind her that she has even decided that a person's nose size doesn't matter and that large noses may, in fact, give a person's face character. At the same time she has also decided that when a person doesn't like her nose, there is nothing wrong with changing it. There is, after all, nothing wrong with self-improvement.

She says she wouldn't give much thought to her nose except for the fact that her twin sister has had hers changed recently and for the fact that people keep finding this striking resemblance between the baby's genetically acquired nose and the mother's surgically acquired nose, she's not quite sure how to handle it. Sometimes she just chuckles. Sometimes she tells them that it is not her original nose, and sometimes she says nothing at all.

"I don't really care to have people speculating how I would be different."