Laurie Essig’s American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection is a study in contrasts. It’s downright depressing at times but has humor, as well. Often, it’s as slickly written as the plastic society it details, but just as often the book strikes a conversational tone. It’s funny, disturbing, and provocative—until the end.
The subject is not a light one: “In case you haven’t noticed,” Essig states in the introduction, “we Americans are increasingly becoming all of these things: made of plastic, shaped by plastic, fake like plastic, deformed by plastic, made beautiful by plastic, paid for by plastic. We are living in a plastic place and time.”
Essig gives plenty of examples to back up most of these assertions. She relates, “A regular Allure feature ‘Clock Stoppers,’ advises women to look out for age spots, use makeup to look younger, and consider cosmetic intervention long before they are even middle-aged. In one ‘Clock Stoppers,’ a cosmetic surgeon warns young women to limit facial expression, since it will lead to lines in the face.”
Her point is made again when she notes seeing mothers and daughters on “facelift/boob job double dates”, and when she interviews professional women who believe that cosmetic surgery is a career investment. Plasticity comes across very clearly when Essig talks about an entire room full of plastic surgeons bursting into “thunderous applause” when confronted with the idea that “The ideal body is unlikely to happen in nature”.
If you buy into Essig’s argument, and she does present convincing evidence that in the United States plastic surgery is part of the new normal, the question then becomes: How did Americans get to this point? Essig starts at the beginning and goes back to a time when “a body that was different was always more powerful and often more dangerous than an average body. Freakish bodies required explanations. A cleft palate might be punishment for gossiping. Conjoined twins might signal good luck for an entire village” and moves forward to a culture where “other bodies came under scrutiny: the fat, the aging, the not fully white”.
Essig interviewed, or at least attempted to interview, numerous plastic surgeons as she researched her book, but as she notes “It’s not easy to speak with American plastic surgeons—literally; these are seriously busy people”. Essig also interviewed patients and reports that some Americans have plastic surgery because they think bigger boobs or a more youthful face will provide greater job security. After talking with both groups, she realizes:
Not only did I imagine myself as different from plastic surgery patients, I also thought that plastic surgery patients were different from me. I thought they’d be so much more attractive… so much more engaged in the task of ‘looking good’…Nothing could be further from the truth. Plastic surgery patients look extraordinarily ordinary. They wear bad clothes, get bad haircuts, their dye jobs often reveal gray hairs, and they have excess weight in all sorts of places.
While the primary focus of the book is the United States, Essig also notes that plastic is going global. Plastic surgery, according to at least one surgeon, “is like pineapples. Some countries produce pineapples more cheaply than others (and thus we buy our pineapples from those countries), medicine too is now determined by who can do what procedures at the lowest cost.” And thus, cosmetic tourism and cosmetic surgery travel agencies, along with black market cosmetic procedures, become part of the economy.
Of course, as the above passage indicates, the book isn’t just about plastic surgery—it also looks at the US economy. However, the book doesn’t seem to discuss financial issues quite as much as the title and book jacket suggest it will. Essig makes comments like “Plastic money covered up the fact that most of us were getting poorer… Plastic surgery was paid for with plastic money, but so were a lot of other things. We became obsessed with creating perfectly smooth and shiny plastic surfaces”, slips in thoughts about subprime mortgage rates, and talks about “consuming” beauty and the actual monetary costs of plastic surgeries and weddings. She makes clear that many choose to have plastic surgery because they think it will make them more employable and that many people are more than willing to go deeply into debt to finance plastic surgeries. Still, at times the book seems to focus more on Americans’ quest for physical perfection than the economy.
Essig’s sense of humor (she has to have one to include an Allure editor’s suggested quip for American Plastic: “Buy a copy of this book so Laurie Essig can have the facelift she wants and is trying to talk herself out of”) along with a slight sense of the ridiculous keeps the book (and the reader) from falling into an abyss of hopelessness. Despite the seriousness of the subject and the consequences of American’s decisions regarding plastics of all kinds, it’s almost laughable to believe that the television show Dallas, with its ‘perfect’-looking stars, contributed to any type of sustained cultural change.
Along with the humor is honesty. Essig admits, “I use organic and cruelty-free cosmetics and hair dye. I try to buy clothes that weren’t made in sweatshops. I try to work out for strength rather than thinness. But who I am kidding? I’m as insecure (and vain) as the next person, and the amount of money I spend on my ‘wild-mushroom-derived’ anti-wrinkle cream can only be described as obscene.” And while some may criticize or claim that this undermines her argument, Essig maintains “I refuse to believe that our only choices are either to give up completely on looking ‘good’ or to submit to heroic medical intervention.”
In the end, Essig calls for change; she calls for regulating banks and medicine, and she calls redefining beauty: “If human history shows us that beauty is hardwired into our brains, it also shows us that culture defines what beauty is.” She calls for personal responsibility, and she attempts to provide hope, but after a 170 or so pages of plastic breasts, cards, people, and porn, a brief chapter dedicated to change and hope probably won’t leave most readers feeling reassured. Then, again perhaps a book that contains a chapter called “The Mirror and the Porn Star” shouldn’t end with warm, hopeful thoughts.