A less pithy title – and what I really mean – would be “Imagine a future where aesthetic cosmetic surgery wasn’t motivated by the images of celebrities/advertising/porn and by the dissatisfaction with normal bodies that these images create.”
In the concluding chapter of her new book, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection, Laurie Essig suggests we might try using reality-check groups before going under the knife. We could weigh our decision, benefit from the input of friends, then opt for lipo if we were still determined to pursue perfect beauty relentlessly at any cost.
The purpose of such groups would not be to dissuade members from getting cosmetic surgery. It would simply introduce some objectivity. You might decide you really should get that facelift or breast augmentation, but “you will at least be making a far more informed and realistic choice than if you sit at home alone and watch plastic surgery shows while you try to pay your bills and fantasize that if only you looked better you’d have more money because your career would suddenly take off or Prince Charming would finally show up, haul you up onto the back of his horse, and ride off with you.”
The beauty solution
As part of her research for the book, Essig attended a number of conferences for plastic surgeons. One of them was in East Berlin, a meeting of the International Confederation for Plastic, Reconstructive, and Aesthetic Surgery.
The secretary-general of that organization, Dr. Eisenmann-Klein, delivered a speech on the future of cosmetic surgery. She quoted William Mayo (of Mayo Clinic fame) on “the divine right of man to look human.” She cited scientific studies that show the brain is hardwired for the “survival of the prettiest.” Currently 87.5% of cosmetic surgery clients are female, but – according to the good doctor – “the good news is that men in industrialized countries were becoming less satisfied with their bodies.”
When Eisenmann-Klein finally came to the denouement of her talk and announced, “The ideal body is unlikely to happen in nature,” the surgeons responded with thunderous applause. Their industry would continue to grow. Their personal wealth was guaranteed. A plastic future was the inevitable result of biology and history and technology.
Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish or maybe it’s because I’m just not that pretty, but the equation of “beauty” with worth, the notion that medical science would cure the ugly among us, and that all of this was progress, made me squirm. It sounded a lot like eugenics, and, maybe because this was Berlin, echoed the Nazis’ Final Solution. Some of the surgeons in the room also felt uncomfortable with the idea that “beauty” is on the march and we must all submit or be crushed; I could see it in their faces. But most of the surgeons were cheering. There were some whistles, and a number of those in the audience jumped to their feet. Few in the room seemed to feel the historical weight of cosmetic surgery’s role in erasing the “ugly” Jewish nose from sight, or “fixing” Japanese eyelids, or “helping” African Americans slip into whiteness.
Cosmetic surgery and the neoliberal agenda
I especially appreciated Essig’s comments on the relation between cosmetic surgery and the ascendance of the neoliberal agenda in the 1980’s.
Today we take it for granted that we need cosmetic surgery to get a good job and succeed in our careers. Here’s Essig’s answer to the neoliberal canard that the only solution to social issues, such as inequality and economic insecurity, is for individuals to take responsibility for their own welfare:
We can also be realistic about our own futures. Getting a facelift or boob job is not going to change the structure of our economy and society. We cannot solve downward mobility for most Americans, unequal pay for women for the same work, or lack of opportunity for poor and working-class Americans through individual forms of consumption. Structural problems require structural solutions. Boob jobs and lipo are not going to bring about economic and social justice.
The futility of resistance
The penultimate chapter of American Plastic is titled “Resistance.” It describes a motley collection of behaviors that resist the call to standardized beauty: performance artists, those who choose to have a limb amputated, those who have surgery to look like an animal (lycanthropy), those who have surgery to make their gender ambiguous. There are also those who enjoy showing us how celebrity surgery can go wrong.
The final chapter is called “… Is Futile?” The answer is undoubtedly “Yes, for most of us resistance is futile.” We can’t really imagine a future without cosmetic surgery. But Essig offers a perspective that’s an alternative to following the herd. (emphasis added)
We have some choices to make. We can actually express some agency. We can even resist. We can change our definition of what looks “good.” If human history shows us that beauty is hardwired into our brains, it also shows us that culture defines what beauty is. Even a cursory look at other times and places shows us that. If you don’t believe me, pick up a National Geographic or a history of fusion. Or just look around you. Isn’t “urban” beauty different from “rural”? Or what’s beautiful to teenagers versus fifty-year olds? And how about class differences in beauty? Are sexually desirable working-class men really the same as rich studs? And what about national differences in beauty? Aren’t French beauties different from Americans [sic] ones? And what about sexual identities? Aren’t gay bars crowded with people who look different from those who go to straight bars? Whatever beauty is, it is most certainly not one thing. We must resist scientific and popular culture claims that beauty is universal and that we should all strive to look the same.
Feeling sorry for plastic surgeons
The death of Wang Bei: Cosmetic surgery as a moral choice
Character, personality, and cosmetic surgery
Bibi Aisha: Fixing what can be fixed
The politics behind personal responsibility for health
Healthy lifestyles serve political interests
Health care, climate change, and the myth of the free market
Image: The Atlantic