A nose is a good thing to have. Just try and imagine your face without one and you’ll immediately see that I do not lie. Perhaps this is why the first advances in cosmetic surgery took place in the field of rhinoplasty.
But reconstructive surgery is hardly the first thing that pops into your head when you think “rhinoplasty” (unless it’s Michael Jackson’s missing nose, in which case – good point!) or plastic surgery in general. You’re far more likely to imagine a long line of socialites and assorted celebrities, waiting patiently to have offending bits of their bodies shaved and sculpted into more pleasing lines. And these days, your neighbor down the street is just as likely as Pamela Anderson to be amongst those waiting for a consult.
Because let’s face it, we all have issues about our bodies. And by “we”, I don’t mean “we women” – I mean all of us. It’s why more and more of us flock to gyms, stuff our fingers down our throats, starve ourselves, swallow steroids and invest in “fairness creams”. Everybody wants to be Angelina Jolie and Aishwarya Rai or Brad Pitt and Hrithik Roshan.
Not the actual Jolie or Roshan mind you – we might not even recognize them if they passed us on the street sans bodyguards – but the airbrushed ones that gaze limpidly at us from the pages of a glossy magazine idly perused at a supermarket checkout counter.
If only we looked like that, had a waist like that, hair like that, lips like that, skin like that, muscles like that… how much happier we’d be. How much better we’d be. The whole world’s a bitter schoolyard and the surgeon’s scalpel is that knight in shining armor we always wanted.
Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession with Plastic Surgery is New York Times reporter Alex Kuczynski’s attempt to understand our modern day obsession with the body beautiful. In part, this is a personal quest: in her mid-30s, Kuczynski isn’t exactly over the hill but she finds herself increasingly drawn towards cosmetic surgery, especially Botox. A sort of professional risk incurred while covering the Styles beat at the NYT.
It is her realization of her growing addiction that gives her the insight to pen this book:
Often when I see a woman who has visibly had too much plastic surgery, I see in her face a needy quality, a desire to be loved that is never quite fulfilled, the need to be approved that is never quite met, the woman who wants to feel important and be recognized but is never quite valued enough. I don’t plan to age into that woman. I did enough to myself to soften some edges and I try not to regret any of those things. In fact, I did enough to make me realize how grateful I was for the existence of cosmetic surgery. Even the exploding lip. Especially the exploding lip. Because it made me stop and think. And think and stop.
The story of cosmetic surgery, as she writes it, is an old and fascinating one. There’s Sushruta, an Ayurvedic surgeon in India circa 600 B.C., who finds a rough and simple way to stitch the gaping hole of a nose cut off as punishment. There’s Gaspare Tagliacozzi, an Italian professor at the University of Bologna in the 16th century, whose then-innovative yet macabre methods of reconstruction, perfected on duelists with decidedly mixed results, found takers well into the 20th century and the First World War.
The Great War, as it was called, was the most brutal humanity had ever fought. But with science advancing by the day, it also managed to save a lot more people from injuries that would once have meant certain death, only to leave them with shattered faces. Plastic surgery wasn’t an elective for these men. It was a necessity.
By the 1920s, however, the work of those pioneers was well on its way to becoming fodder for the obsession of our times – the drive to look thinner, prettier, rounder, longer, whatever cranked your handle until everybody looked more or less like everybody else.
Ironic, that an age that practiced segregation would spawn the seeds of the time when everybody would end up with a common beauty ideal. By the 1920s, Hollywood and advertising were already fathoms deep into the plastic surgery business.
Get a nose job, a boob job, a face lift, a tummy tuck – and you’ll get a job, marry a millionaire and become a movie star! It’s magic!
Magic that more and more people wanted. It was a symbol of upward mobility – poor people masked their “defects” with big hair and ever increasing pounds of make up; those who could afford better headed straight for the surgeon’s scalpel.
Hollywood and the glamour industry had a lot to do with it back then as they do now. A lot of people either forget or don’t know that the original big daddy of cosmetic giants, Max Factor, was in fact the brainchild of an actual Hollywood make up artist by the name of Max Factor. When he opened the first Max Factor shop in Los Angeles, the list of attendees thronging his shop read like the who’s who of Hollywood.
It isn’t surprising that people who spend most of their lives under the harsh scrutiny of lights and cameras depend upon a little manmade help to maintain their looks. All you have to do is turn to any gossip site and you’ll see posts by the dozen about Britney Spears’ fat ass, Paris Hilton’s fake boobs and Nicole Kidman’s ‘marble’ forehead (a common result of repeated Botox injections). Even the men get their time under the microscope these days – witness John Travolta’s wig, George Clooney’s alleged liposuction and Patrick Dempsey’s Botox.
But in this day and age, the rich and the famous aren’t the only ones who want a little help. You and I would like some too.
Kuczynski takes us on an insider’s trip: to L.A. where the ladies go on “beauty safaris” to South Africa (see the animals, then go under the surgeon’s knife for a fraction of what it’d cost in the States, come back home a brand new you!); beauty conventions where more and more people are trying to tell you what’s wrong with you (how did our mothers survive without mapping their porphyrins? Come to think of it, what the hell are porphyrins?); to the guy who’s invented a program that tries to find out the scientific basis of attraction (hint: symmetry is a huge factor); to the plush offices of New York doctors who take the fat out of your ass and inject it into your lips (ha ha, you’re a kiss ass!); to the tragic lives of people who try to make a quick buck off the Botox craze by manufacturing their own (please, don’t get any ideas. Not unless you have a taste for extremely complicated murders)… It’s a fascinating world.
And it’s one that’s ‘new’ enough, in spite of its long and varied history, for us to still grapple with it in terms of right and wrong, black and white, rich and poor, East and West.
Ultimately, most arguments for cosmetic surgery pivot on the notion of choice — whether the indiviidual has the choice, and the right, to perform what some perceive to be self-mutilation in the name of happiness. And, really, the most ignorant if human conditions is the act of imposing tyranny on over another person. The New York social figure Jocelyn Wildenstein chose to look like a cat and found a surgeon who created a feline expression on her face. (Main pic above) It was her choice, and by all accounts, she is extremely happy with her appearance. I think she looks frightening. But who am I to say that she should not have had her surgeries? None. What dominion over her life can other human beings presume? . . .It is up to the man addicted to Botox and the stripper with the enormous breast implants to discover when enough is enough.