Cosmetic surgery as clothing

[14 October 2006]

By Rob Horning

I’m always a little wary about getting into gender issues because I don’t want to lapse, as may be the male tendency, into a paternalistic, patronizing attitude about them: My friend Carolyn has fond grad school memories of being lectured to about what it means to be a woman by some male student who had read a little Cixous and Irigaray (“Don’t you see, Carolyn? All women wear the mask”); I definitely don’t want to be that guy. I’m not entirely sure which is worse, blundering through a discussion of such issues in ways that reveal my tunnel vision or ignoring them altogether—but then again ignorance never stopped me from proclaiming opinions on other subjects, so why should it stop me here?

In yesterday’s WSJ was a review of Beauty Junkies, a book about the cosmetic surgery industry and women who are “addicted” to having work done. Reviewer Alexandra Wolfe (who judging by her status as a WSJ critic and by her forthcoming book about “the culture of entitlement” is probably fairly conservative) sums the situation up this way:

These days, dots on the derriere are just one clue among many—including the shiny sheen on stretched cheeks, the ever-alert eyes and the perky, unbouncing breasts—that someone has “had a little work done.” Beauty Junkies captures the sad fate that has befallen the feminine ideal: Since women can achieve an approximation of attractiveness through one procedure or another, they all end up looking vaguely like the same person: an aging porn star. In the end, the book leaves the reader not only aware of the emptiness of cosmetic surgery’s results but also conscious of the vacuity of our current concept of beauty itself.

Though I would toss out the reference to the feminine ideal, that seems an apt description of what is so creepy about cosmetic surgery: it permits women to eschew their natural looks in favor of a technologically produced fashionable alternative. The standardizing technology of the surgeries and injections and so on allow the beauty of any person to be judged by the same set of criteria, rather than each person evoking her own criteria to explain her unique beauty. And it makes of this standardized “beauty” a proxy for money and class—those with the income and the access to the right surgeons can achieve the robotic look Wolfe describes and will thus be held to be beautiful by society, though they are clearly hideous to any person marvelling at their plasticity close up. Aesthetic beauty has no objective reference point (there’s no universal “feminine ideal”); it always derives from the imperatives of signifying class. Cosmetic surgery forwards that aspect of the ideology encoded in beauty; it makes it a choice but presents that choice as a natural fact (much like class is supposed to be, blue blood is proof of a natural and God-intended superiority). Cosmetic surgery extends fashion’s domain from their clothes to their very bodies, which in turn allows the outward expression of their natural self to be altogether eradicated. Carolyn’s grad-school friend might say they are completely and perpetually safely behind “the mask.”

My defensive preface to this post comes in here, because I don’t want to sound as though the women who get plastic surgery are either dupes, victims or shallow collaborators with an oppressive male order. As Pandagon blogger Amanda Marcotte is always pointing out, “you can criticize the power inequities that the garment is evidence of without attacking women who are better off wearing it than not, for whatever reason. And same thing with make-up or high heels or shaving or whatever. That women feel they have to act more or ‘do’ femininity to achieve perfectly reasonable goals, like be attractive or to get a job or whatever is not a sign that those women are somehow awful. It’s a sign that they are in a socially inferior position and have to put up with more shit to get half as much.”

But this isn’t so much about gender, I guess, as it is about technology standardizing behavior and expectations as it presents more “choices.” Women have more choices and options than ever in how to conform to an oppressive standard of beauty; isn’t that great? What freedom. The choices are actually coercive in practice; they destablilize one’s sense of self and intensify feelings of insecurity, they intentionally create the impression of inadequacy. When consumer choice colonizes a realm of everyday life, it absorbs it into the play of the cycle of fashion and the zero-sum rigor of manufacturing class distinctions, the requirement of consuming conspicuously. That’s why Marcotte’s prediction that the pressures of self-presentation men and women will be subject to will be distributed more equally seems both plausible and extremely depressing. “Grooming standards are going to go in this direction, I suspect. As women gain power, we’re going to grow weary of tap dancing for men, but on the other hand, men are going to start tap dancing for us. I’ve got no problem with this; in the abstract sense, a lot of things marked feminine are joyful in themselves, but only problematic because they’ve got the baggage of inferiority attached to them. Ornamental dress and grooming isn’t really a problem, unless you have some sort of grudge against color and beauty.” I guess I do have a grudge against color and beauty, because in consumer society those concepts aren’t for themselves but are tools of producing, displaying and reinforcing inequality—now they reinforce gender inequality, but should they shift in the way Marcotte anticipates, then they will express and uphold class inequality. The “baggage of inferiority” is always attached to beauty once it becomes subject to fashion—that is, once it becomes an on-demand product; ultimately that’s the whole point of “feeling beautiful” as opposed to simply being beautiful: to make yourself feel superior and others inferior. And its byproduct, that we all feel insecure over just where we rank in the beauty hierarchy, just makes us that much more cooperative with the existing social order.

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