‘Saving Face’: On Battling Social Death

This is not to dwell on narcissism, but to explore how beliefs and assumptions of appearance are put to work in this culture, and how it produces newly-anxious and increasingly insecure subjectivities.

In Jennifer Egan’s second novel, Look at Me, one of the main characters is a model who survives a car accident that could have almost left her dead, except she is alive—just with a different face. After undergoing reconstructive surgery that involved 80 titanium screws “implanted in the crushed bones of my face to connect and hold them together”, as well as after she had been “sliced from ear to ear over the crown of [her] head” and had her skin peeled and her cheekbones reattached and her jaws reconnected through incisions made inside her mouth, she is able to head out into the world again as someone who has been “fixed”.

But as Egan explores the possibility of what some might consider a fate worse than death—being alive, except just not as the self you formerly knew—the question of identity in relation to one’s appearance becomes the central fact that governs the character’s life post-surgery. Egan has written the character as a self-sufficient, witty and deeply cynical woman, but one whom the reader slowly grows to realise she never knew pre-surgery: Was she always as cynical? Was she as witty when she had a beautiful face and could use it as a calling card, as it were?

When the character heads out to her old haunts and finds herself among the people she once knew from her work in an industry that revolved around images and exceptional faces don’t know who she is, she realises she is effectively undetectable, an undercover agent in her own (former) life: “How could I be caught, when I didn’t look like anyone? As a model, of course, I’d carried my face like a sign, holding it out a foot or so in front of me — not out of pride or vanity, God knew; those had been stamped out long ago, or at any rate, disjointed from my physical appearance. No, out of sheer practicality: here’s what I am. Calling card, handshake, précis, call it what you like; it was what I had to offer to the world where I had spent my life.” Is she still who she is without her (former) face?

Heather Laine Talley, a professor of sociology at Western Carolina University, explores some of these similar questions in her study and analysis of facial reconstructive surgery and what she calls the “disfigurement imaginary” in Saving Face: Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance. As the title suggests, the book is less interested in cosmetic surgery done as a matter of simply “improving” one’s appearance, although Talley does caution her readers from the start to avoid accepting reductive explanations such as those as a “normal” or natural state of things that boils down to mere “human nature”. She points out that while cosmetic intervention is “characterized as ‘elective’ surgery, studies of beauty culture seem to suggest the contrary–beauty feels essential or requisite in this day and age.” I

n her book, however, Talley primarily focuses on reconstructive surgery as a form of intervention that is framed, marketed, and sold as necessary, and in some cases, life-saving. Her sociological approach means that ideas of beauty and physical acceptability are often interrogated at length throughout the book. As such, her areas of focus are diverse enough to incorporate the surgeries featured in reality television shows like Extreme Makeover, as well as facial feminisation surgery for trans women, medical mission work like Operation Smile, and the emerging medical industry of facial transplantation.

Much of Talley’s work feels vital in an age when smartphones are now being marketed as tools of self-exposure and branding: Nokia, for example, sells one of its phones as a selfie phone, and the focus has shifted from the “sharing” marketing talk of just a few years ago to the self-presentation culture of the present. The idea, as Talley points out, is not to dwell on the narcissism of modern people and their intensely regulated, often frantic attempts to manage and discipline their own appearance and those of others, but how those beliefs and assumptions of appearance are put to work in this culture, and how it produces newly-anxious and increasingly insecure subjectivities.

Much of Talley’s analysis is framed through the concept of the face as a sociological object, and as such what she calls the disfigurement imaginary is at work in a culture where facial reconstructive surgery and related interventions are at work to posit a form of medical procedure as necessary: “In relation to aesthetic surgery, the rationale to intervene, the designation of acceptable risks, and even what benefits are accrued to a patient are informed by the meanings attributed to facial difference, specifically a ‘disfigurement imaginary’ or a shared way of thinking about facial variance and intervention itself.” The chapter titled “Facial Work” is an exhaustive exploration of this premise, as understood through the sociological concepts introduced by Erving Goffman in the ’50s.

Talley’s chapter on Extreme Makeover is of particular interest in the way that she shows how the people featured on the show are (obviously) understood not to be attractive by conventional Western standards of beauty, but whose otherwise normal-seeming faces are reconstituted as somehow disfigured and in need of intervention. Faces that could have been seen as ordinary, in another time, or by different eyes, become faces in need of work under the gaze of the capitalist media, pharmaceutical, and biomedical industries—and these seemingly ordinary faces and bodies are thus made to reflect the disfigurement imaginary and presented to themselves, as well as to their audience, as something in need of work.

People who “choose” to have cosmetic surgery are seen as free agents acting in their own best interests (despite studies, as Talley points out, that show the contrary, and here Talley cites Susan Bordo’s important work as pushback against postmodernist feminism, or post-feminist narratives of individual choice and resilience). But Extreme Makeover posits its potential subjects as people in need of requisite intervention. Because of Talley’s sociological background, she is understandably concerned with how cultural and social norms and behaviours intersect in forming what slowly crystallise into beliefs or assumptions around makeovers and facial intervention. As she points out, “Extreme Makeover trains the audience about how to view, assess, categorize, and manipulate appearance–their own and, perhaps as importantly, others.”

This is true, but this is certainly true of all media. Observe, for example, how the circulation of media (in a very controlled manner) about Western white male journalists beheaded by ISIS, for example, are presented in a way that trains much of the Western public to accept US and NATO “intervention” (i.e., war) in the Middle East as required or necessary. As such, it seems that her chapter on reality shows would have benefitted from a deeper engagement with how capitalism shapes its subjects. As Gavin Mueller explains in his article “Reality T.V. and the Flexible Future: (Jacobin Magazine, the insecurity and precarious position of the participants is the point of the show in terms of how it trains its audience to view itself: “Reality TV gives us the model for reconciling us to the inevitability of our jobs, a flexible future of being constantly on the job and yet bereft of any security. It’s a situation best summed up by Heidi Klum’s chirpy slogan: ‘Once day you’re in, the next day you’re out.’”

As Marxist-feminists like Maria Mies and Silvia Federici have pointed out, capitalism needs resources in order to keep expanding. On the terrain of the body, then, it might have been interesting for Talley to explore how facial reconstructive surgery works as a profitable industry by constantly refiguring the human body as a resource to be exploited, improved upon, and worked on. In this way, workers under capitalism can never relax or feel too comfortable in their own skin—people must be made to constantly work on themselves so that the exploitative labour processes under capitalism is normalised and obscured.

In this sense, Saving Face doesn’t just pay lip service to intersectionality by citing class, race, gender, and sexuality as factors that affect different people differently—Talley is committed to keeping these issues front and centre in her discussion of the medical mission work of Operation Smile, for example, or the ways in which facial feminisation surgery is marketed to bodies that are subtly configured as disfigured and thus “deviant”, such as those of trans women. Operation Smile can be understood as yet another instance of white savourism, in the sense that it’s mostly young people and children of the global South, whose faces are already rendered atypical or exotically (or disturbingly) “other” in the Western white gaze, who are constantly refigured as people with faces in need of repair by benevolent Western capitalism (while obscuring how it is Western capitalism’s destructive tendencies that might have lead to the circumstances where more and more children are born with “birth defects” in poorer parts of the world).

Ultimately, Talley’s discussion of the disfigurement imaginary and its implications in facial reconstructive work is rich and yields many insights. Unlike the standard academic analysis, however, Talley also makes an effort to factor in her own feelings and thoughts about beauty and appearance, and how beauty culture has had an effect on her, particularly as a woman. This factoring of her own personal assumptions and struggles does not have have the effect of obscuring the analysis at all; in fact, it creates an intimate reading experience, in the sense that the reader is not able to explore the subject from a distance — one’s own (often quite alarmingly racist, or misogynist, and biased) assumptions of beauty culture are made an integral part of the story.

Indeed, the gaze that is filtered through celebrity culture and spectacle, as it turns out, implicates both you and me—the same gaze that people use to worship and judge celebrities in what they wear is the one that people learn to train onto ourselves and their best friends, the gaze that decides what not to wear, what’s in or out, what’s “trashy” or “slutty”, what gets a job, what gets a mate or a hook-up. People may have gotten better at not using the wrong words, but the gaze is still rooted in these assumptions that are deeply misogynist, racist, and contemptuous of the working class and the poor. (The gendered aspect of this is what Alison Winch calls “the girlfriend gaze”, and which she explores at length in her article,”The Girlfriend Gaze“, Eurozine.)

That the modern beauty-conscious gaze reflects the capitalist order of the world is no surprise, but a deeper understanding of who benefits and profits from keeping people anxious about their appearance would have made Saving Face a more clarifying read. After all, cosmetic and facial reconstructive surgeries are often presented as life-saving, but they are also expensive and completely out-of-bounds for most people without “shortcuts” like unsafe and often life-threateningly dangerous improvised “cheaper” procedures, badly-trained doctors, etc. For many, appearing on a humiliating reality show is one way to not have to pay for these medical and cosmetic procedures in a time when private for-profit healthcare makes it impossible to fight illness without going into debt, much less to appear youthful, beautiful, and as smooth as a digital image in order to keep one’s job and maintain one’s “competitive” edge.

It’s no surprise then, that in Egan’s prescient novel, published in 2002 before the proliferation of social media and reality TV, the model who managed to get by on her pretty face finds herself, post-surgery, with a face that is no longer exceptional, and her career choices diminished. She signs up for a humiliating process, in an online project that combines the worst of Facebook and Big Brother, in order to make some money and to continue to exist. Whether anyone else is able to see her and her struggles, unremarkable-looking as she is, is another matter entirely.

As Susan Bordo warned us in the ’90s with her essay, “Material Girl: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture“, liberal feminism or post-feminism that focuses on individual representation and “agency” as resistance is one that posits a “diverse” world, but only symbolically: it dazzles us with a “spectacle of difference”, Bordo says, that effaces material inequalities and makes it harder than ever to fight for changes that matter. Saving Face can be read as an intervention into beauty culture and liberal feminism’s championing of it, while also striving to shake up contemporary beliefs about ugliness, disfigurement, and the ways in which more and more people are battling “social death”.

RATING 6 / 10