Why do we feel bad about the way we look?

Laurie Essig’s new book, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection, includes a chapter on how we learn to want cosmetic surgery. She quotes Joan Rivers, from her book Men Are Stupid . . . And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman’s Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery:

My abiding life philosophy is plain: In our appearance-centric society, beauty is a huge factor in everyone’s professional and emotional success—for good or ill, it’s the way things are; accept it or go live under a rock.

Heidi Montag cultural texts promoting cosmetic surgery

Essig comments:

But Rivers is a TV star. TV and movie stars have always utilized the miracles of cosmetic surgery to look good in the two-dimensional spaces they inhabit. How did the rest of us learn to desire a perfectly plastic body? How did ordinary women and men with ordinary lives and ordinary bodies learn that they need plastic? The answer: the plastic ideological complex, a set of cultural texts that are both highly contested and yet tightly on message. It is itself so ubiquitous that it might even be described as hegemonic. In other words, the “need” for cosmetic procedures is impossible to avoid. Through advertising and TV shows, movies and magazines, we learn to want cosmetic intervention in our aging faces and imperfect bodies. This need is now so firmly implanted in our cultural psyche that it has become “common sense” to embrace cosmetic procedures. Why wouldn’t we want to look more beautiful, younger, thinner, more feminine, better? The question is no longer will you have plastic surgery, but when.

Accept plastic beauty or go live under a rock. Rivers isn’t just joking; she’s also doing the serious work of enacting the ideology of plastic, an ideology that we can no longer avoid. Even if we did live under a rock, whenever we crawled out from underneath it, we would be assaulted by images of perfectly plastic beauty on billboards and the sides of buses and on TV and in movies and even the nightly news. And then there are those damn magazine racks, an unavoidable gauntlet of Dos! and Don’ts! that must be passed through each and every time we buy our food.

A conspiracy of capital to make us feel bad

Essig goes on to discuss books, magazines, the self-help industry, and plastic surgery on TV (Dr. 90210, Nip/Tuck, Extreme Makeover, The Swan, I Want a Famous Face). Here are some excerpts from the chapter’s conclusion:

The effect of the plastic ideological complex is to make plastic surgery “necessary” in order to achieve the fairytale promise of the American dream—an economically and emotionally secure future. …

As our lives have become increasingly filled with two-dimensional images of beauty and prestige, we have all learned to try to make our three-dimensional bodies more like photographs—imitations of an imitation—so that we all become reproductions without an original. We can refuse to participate in plastic, but we’re still trapped in it.

Like Carl Elliott’s comment in Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream: “You cannot simply opt out of the system and expect nobody to notice how much you weigh.”

Essig continues:

Cultural texts teach us that our bodies are ugly and that the only way to fix that ugliness is through consumption: the right lipstick, the right hair color, the right boob job. A variety of scholars have shown that exposure to advertising featuring ideal human forms tends to make people feel worse about themselves than advertising showing no human images. … We the consumers are not dupes of plastic beauty, but warriors in the battle over the meaning of our bodies. Obviously, making the “choice” to have cosmetic surgery happens because we can read the writing on the wall: get cosmetic surgery or crawl under a rock. …

Joan Rivers asks, “Is it better to have a new face getting out of an old car, or an old face getting out of a new car?” The answer, of course, is to take a “lease on the clunker” and get the new face. And how do we know Joan is right? Because we have consumed enough cultural texts to know what is expected of us. I agree with the postmodernists and feminists that we might interpret these texts in perverse ways, we might use them for our own pleasures, but that doesn’t mean there is not a conspiracy of capital to make us feel so badly about the ordinary ugliness of our bodies—an ugliness that all bodies will eventually inhabit—that we will buy plastic beauty. And that conspiracy exists all around us, in a myriad of cultural forms.

Essig is not critical of cosmetic surgery nor of those who pursue it. She simply wants to understand why it has become so prevalent. A worthy pursuit.

Essig regularly writes blog posts for The Chronicle of Higher Education. They’re always interesting. You can find links to her most recent posts on Twitter @LaurieEssig.

Update 3/28/11:
Why do we feel bad about the way we look? Because “beauty … rules the world,” we’re “cursed with unattractiveness,” no one should be “average,” and cosmetic surgery promises “eternal beauty.” A PR and marketing website offers this advice in a post called “Cosmetic Surgery: A Ray of Hope for the Unattractive.”

It is true that personality captures the heart, but it is beauty that draws attraction. The fact that beauty in the flesh rules the world in today’s time, has made it essential for everyone to stay pretty for a lifetime. Beauty is indeed bestowed by God, but with the revolutionary developments in the field of medical sciences, even the doctors have become capable of furnishing it.

Though specifically concerned with maintaining normal appearance, cosmetic surgery has grown with the passage of time. Nowadays, the term largely refers to restoration and enhancement of appearance beyond the average level, through surgical and medical techniques. Promising eternal beauty, cosmetic surgery is certainly a boon for those cursed with unattractiveness.

Related posts:
Imagine a future without cosmetic surgery
Feeling sorry for plastic surgeons
The death of Wang Bei: Cosmetic surgery as a moral choice
Bibi Aisha: Fixing what can be fixed
Surgery at a deep discount
Even dictators need a facelift
Why are there so many cosmetic surgeons?

Resources:

Image: The Glamourous Life

Laurie Essig, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection

Joan Rivers, Men Are Stupid . . . And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman’s Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery

Carl Elliott, Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream

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