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Flesh WoundsReview - Flesh Wounds
The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery
by Virginia Blum
University of California Press, 2005
Review by Viorel Zaicu, Ph.D.
Nov 14th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 46)

This book must bemuse some of our fellow citizens who think only in terms of market and appearance. As any other element acting in a free market, one has to be a "marketable" person: Good (looking) enough for being hired, watched on TV, married or simply better liked by the family and friends, aesthetically speaking, and that beyond makeup. To rise an eyebrow hearing that, to question these trends, and to try to get under their glossy skin might seem uncannily, unhelpfully, probably denoting misanthropy or whatsoever could serve someone to put the author in a corner of nowadays' beautiful social life. In fact, the reader will learn that the price for such beauty is high, not only financially, that the risk is not as negligible as it might seem, and that many "good" public appearances stand in fact for what might be called a disastrous intimate life or individual development.

Although it is hardly fitted to a brief review, this book has a relatively simple story. Launched in the late19th century, plastic interventions on the body reached a high level of democratization on the eve of 21st century, when even those from lower middle-class (at least in the West) can have fairly complex surgical jobs, more complex than, for example, extirpating a mole. "How different, ultimately, is cosmetic surgery from the story of, say, Sleeping Beauty, who goes to sleep a young, isolated maiden and wakes up to love and perfect happiness forever after?" [p. 4] asks the author. There are many questions one may ask before and after a surgical intervention on the body, and the author gives many. If it doesn't work, can I regain my old face? This is probably one of the most important questions that one should ask before proceeding. Being a more and more important part of the beauty industry, cosmetic surgery has lots of backlashes. There are risks, beyond that of making the patient uglier (or looking "like an alien," as one has noticed). There are also strong reasons to question the necessity of such brutal interventions, and here a balance between psychological gains and physical ones is reached by sheer subjectivity.

After posing problems and rising questions, the author makes a more complicated subject using quotes from the interviews with plastic surgeons, commenting on novels and movies, magazine ads and the usual star-hunting activity of the press. This results into a panoply of cases, which can lead the curious reader to an entire array of data regarding the implied sides, the relations and the trends created in this field. Once the plastic surgery has become affordable to middle-class people, almost every flaw, ethnic or simply unwanted trace can be hidden, and for many people touched by "the culture of cosmetic surgery" it must be hidden. Docs seems to have a pill for making you uglier (in order to catch you as a patient), they are often in competition with each other, and their tools to show in preview how you will look after surgery are more and more sophisticated. Again, there are sides. Some doctors blame the former surgeon; others have conditions for "doing" the patient; here one surgeon is "specialized" in celebrities; there another tries to convince relatives that they need plastic surgery. It became very hard to tell where the limit of necessity is in this domain, as the experts have very different professional standards, provisions, skills and perspectives.

Another good observation is that we have 85 % of the plastic surgeons are males, and 89 % of their patients are women. At least these were the numbers in 2000. It seems a suitable distribution for this domain, as on the route from psyche to body and back women are more undecided than men, and always in search for more exciting things. According to statistics, in 2000 roughly 2 millions "risked death" for the sake of their appearance. Yes, as the author keeps emphasizing, there are risks in these operations. Maybe not the same kind of risks as one takes when crossing the street, but risks nonetheless. The Hollywood problem is another interesting core of the book. Plastic surgery is not a niche domain anymore. TV shows, serials, and big screen movies took care of the subject and, given that, changing your look through cosmetic surgery it is now a tritely action. There are many movies in which some of the leading characters are cosmetic surgeons, opening faces, making lifts, etc. In other words, they "do" patients. The magazines are replete with the most recently surgical improvements of the star shapes. More than that: we have the Internet, and the computer games. Now one can shoot stars, or "peacefully" just steal their beauty. Why? To become a celebrity. From here on things get complicated, and it becomes harder and harder to give an explanation for the psychological mechanisms driving people in the vicious circle of surgically acquired beauty (or ever-lasting youth), which demands more and more, as soon as one makes the first step. It seems, indeed, that it is all about making people "marketable."

However, the author avoids drawing conclusions and issuing diagnoses on the state of society. We can find, here and there, very interesting conjectures, for example: "Plastic surgery functions as an apparent cultural solution to the very identity crises it embodies," but no comment on the large concepts implied: in this case, "cultural solution" and "identity crises." There are numberless jargon terms, like the old "lift" or the new (by sense) "doing." If I were to find a weak point in this endeavor, I would criticize the artificial stopping of the implicational chain. The author doesn't cover, for example, the fields of jokes (and there are a lot about hiding the age, especially with women-subjects) or that of job market, focusing rather on aesthetics, but not as an aesthetician, but as a social critic. It's true, the further you go following such implicational chains, the wider the work becomes. Besides, any reader can trace some of these implications by themselves. Thus, it might be said that the book does not offer sufficient arguments that we live in a "tyrannical" culture of cosmetic surgery, but for sure there are enough leads to get the reader in every corner of the culture affected by trying-to-be-beauty-with-any-price trends. And there are a lot such corners.

As an outraged feminist, as she calls herself, Virginia Blum succeeds in depicting a "state of the culture", as far as the human bodily aesthetics is concerned. She has embarked on not so easy a mission, that of studying the society under scalpels' beset. The result is a book soaked by information on the subject, with many interconnections between them, clever questions and subtle emphasis on the hot topics. Perhaps a more elaborated logical blueprint of her endeavor would have served some readers better, taxonomically speaking. Nevertheless, the book is well structured, and the chapters naturally interlinked and increasing in attractiveness page by page. In conclusion: A well-written book, deeply comprehensive, full with wise looks and turns of the problems raised by the culture of cosmetic surgery, this book will probably be revisited, definitely not for "cosmetic surgery," but for a necessary limb upgrade imposed by nowadays' stupendous technology.

 

 

2006 Viorel Zaicu

 

Viorel Zaicu, Ph.D., Bucharest, Romania

 


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