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STYLE & CULTURE | BOOK REVIEW

The American psyche gets a surgical makeover

Flesh Wounds The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery Virginia L. Blum University of California Press: 356 pp., $29.95

September 09, 2003|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

Who in Los Angeles in this day and age hasn't thought, if only for a fleeting moment, about the allure of cosmetic surgery? With the wave of a surgeon's wand you could erase those deepening crow's feet, lift that brow, augment those breasts. Gone the tire around the middle, the sagging thighs, the tired eyes. The ever quickening march of time, as inscribed on your body, stopped in its tracks. It is our duty, one might argue, in this bikini-clad, sun-soaked culture, to look our best. Whether nature failed to properly endow us or the ravages of time have stolen what was once ours, there's no reason we can't measure up.

"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?" asks Virginia L. Blum in "Flesh Wounds," her academically focused look at the culture of cosmetic surgery. By examining elements that play a role in the decision to undergo cosmetic surgery -- the effect of celebrities on our personal aesthetic, the desire to erase ethnic markers, the enterprise's ever-increasing popularity -- her book attempts to make sense of a culture in which surgery presumes to make people feel better about themselves but, she argues, often makes them feel worse.

The flip side of deciding to undergo plastic surgery, of course, is the inherent threat in not doing so. "[I]f you don't intervene now while there's still time," the thinking goes, "you will lose. Something. Everything. Love. Money. Achievement." Blum reminds us that it is much easier to thrive in the world when one is good-looking. To this end, in 2000 roughly 2 million people (according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery) "risked death for the sake of their appearance."

"I feel young but I look old" is one of the most common reasons for seeking surgery. Yet what does this statement mean? For Blum it suggests "a radical split between the 'I' who feels and the 'I' who appears in the mirror." Plastic surgery, she tells us, "functions as an apparent cultural solution to the very identity crises it embodies." She explores the reasons patients and surgeons cite for surgery, then takes those statements apart to show us the contradictions. With regard to the "feel young, look old" reason, for example, she argues that while the patient is ostensibly searching for "a match between the internal and external," this is just a "rhetorical trick" disguising the deeper creed by which our society operates -- "that we cannot feel young unless we look young."

To her credit, the book does not set out to argue that plastic surgery is good or bad, right or wrong. The author herself underwent a nose job as a teenager and has long been fascinated by cosmetic surgery. Through her descriptions of visits to surgeons and viewing before-and-after photos, readers will experience the very human pull of wanting to look our best as that impulse butts up against our desire to embrace ourselves entirely, just as we are.

Blum considers the stories we've been told -- in literature, film and television -- about the necessity of being beautiful, examining (among others) "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Being John Malkovich," "All About Eve," Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and Fay Weldon's "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil." Though her tone tends toward the scholarly, it is leavened by her accounts of interviewing surgeons and watching them work and her reflections on the shifting cultural standards of beauty.

"Now that we've started to appraise our own faces and bodies with the carefulness formerly reserved for screen actors ... all of us seem to have flaws." This "Hollywood effect" makes attractive women seem and feel unattractive alongside women of extraordinary beauty. Blum offers as an example Judy Garland, who "was often cast as the ugly duckling -- but how many women would look adequate next to Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner (in the 'Zeigfeld Follies')?" she asks. The higher the bar is raised, the harder women (and her book limits most of its discussion to cosmetic surgery on women) will have to work to reach that bar. "Little by little, we are all becoming movie stars -- internally framed by a camera eye."

As our culture focuses increasingly on external appearances, more pressure is brought to bear on women to be movie-star beautiful, driving some of us to serial surgeries and creating, in essence, an addiction to surgery -- because as soon as one part of you is brought into line with your ideal image, another parts seem less than perfect. Yet time, that tyrant responsible for what cosmetic surgeons call the "aging deformity," keeps moving forward. We may scramble to stay ahead of it, but in doing so we enter into a kind of Faustian bargain: In the long run, Blum reminds us, time, collaborating with our fallible human bodies, will have its way.

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