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ROSA BROOKS

Saving the economy, one face-lift at a time

September 11, 2008|ROSA BROOKS

Call them the forgotten victims of the economic slump.

Over the summer, 53% of the cosmetic surgeons surveyed by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported that their businesses were suffering as a result of the recession. That may not sound too terrible to you -- but the figure translates into untold thousands of Americans forced, by hard economic necessity, to soldier on without liposuction, breast augmentation or face-lifts.

As national unemployment and home foreclosure rates continue to rise, media commentary has been singularly unsympathetic to the plight of the nation's cosmetic surgeons and their too-broke-for-Botox patients. "Hardly the stuff of tragedy," wrote Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in an article for this paper. In the online magazine Slate, William Saletan agreed: "Excuse me while I celebrate."

To Saletan, economic hard times are forcing an overdue "reaffirmation of the distinction between necessary and unnecessary procedures." He scoffs at surgeons who try to peddle cosmetic surgery as "an investment." Cosmetic surgery is "not health. It's not even disposable property."

But spare a little sympathy for those who now find cosmetic surgery unaffordable. In many ways, it's completely rational for Americans to think of cosmetic surgery as an "investment" -- maybe even a necessity -- and yearn for it, particularly during times of economic stress.

After all, we live in a society that rewards beauty (and penalizes ugliness) in a multitude of ways, often using the medium of cold, hard cash.

The benefits of physical attractiveness start early. Research suggests that nurses in maternity wards spend more time with the cute babies. Even parents, God help us, apparently take better care of cute kids than of ugly ones -- mothers of newborns smile and coo more if they have an attractive infant, and in a 2005 Canadian study, researchers found that parents with unattractive children were less likely to bother to buckle the little tykes' seat belts on supermarket carts.

When it comes to the workplace, the benefits of attractiveness continue. Attractive people are perceived as smarter and more effective in the workplace than their less attractive counterparts, and attractive job applicants are more likely to be hired than their less attractive competitors.

(Look at Sarah Palin, a former Miss Alaska runner-up, lauded by Republican supporters as "the hottest VP from the coolest state." At the Republic convention, Palin slyly compared herself to a pit bull -- but you can bet that John McCain would never have made her his running mate if she'd actually looked like a pit bull.)

And researchers can put a dollar figure on the "beauty premium" (or the "plainness penalty," if you prefer). A 2005 Federal Reserve study found, for instance, that attractive people -- in all occupations -- earned 5% more an hour than the physically average, while the truly unattractive earned 9% less an hour than everyone else.

Even if you're utterly devoid of vanity, some selective plastic surgery might be a sound economic decision. Say you're one of the unfortunate people who finds yourself bogged down in the low-earning "unattractive" category. Maybe your belly has sagged since that third baby, and no amount of exercise or dieting seems to change it. Maybe your chin recedes, or you've unwisely committed one of the worst sins known to American society and allowed yourself to get old and wrinkled. Whatever the cause, why shouldn't you decide that putting down $5,000 for a nose job or liposuction or $2,500 for a "chin augmentation" is a smart long-term investment?

If you can go from unattractive to "average," you've potentially got a lifetime 9% income boost right there! Not as impressive, it's true, as the nearly 20% average income boost you'd get if you acquired a master's degree, but most cosmetic surgery isn't as expensive as a master's degree either.

Once the exclusive province of the rich and vain, cosmetic surgery has increasingly become a product for the masses. (In 2005, one survey found that 30% of cosmetic surgery patients had annual household incomes of $30,000 or less, and another 41% had household incomes between $31,000 and $60,000.)

There's also increasing evidence that people are turning to cosmetic surgery less from vanity than from economic anxiety. Last year -- the beginning of the current economic slump -- the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery noted a trend: Two-thirds of its members reported seeing patients (men and women in equal numbers) who sought cosmetic surgery "to remain competitive in the workplace."

Yes, it would be much better to live in a world in which looks didn't matter. But we don't. So for now, let's rejuvenate our sluggish economy with a new economic stimulus package: Tax breaks on cosmetic surgery for low-income Americans!

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rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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