Buy Me Beautiful

Open any of the glossy American weeklies — In Touch, the Star, Us — and you are likely to find speculation on what sorts of plastic surgery celebrities may have had. Jessica Simpson’s ass: real? Lindsay Lohan’s breasts: reduced? Usually these plastic surgery “controversies” erupt from serendipitous paparazzi photos that seem to show something anomalous. Typically, the magazines’ photo editors will then find two photos, usually taken from different angles, and shot in different light, are compared to reveal some shocking change, and readers are expected to be credulous enough to ignore the fact that what’s revealed is almost certainly the product of perspectival illusion. (It’s similar to my favorite recurring Us feature, the sidebars in which a “body language expert” analyzes the status of a relationship — this summer, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes — based on a picture that has frozen the couple in some uncomfortable pose.)

But the readers of these magazines aren’t stupid. So why are they willing to suspend disbelief in order to be captivated by plastic-surgery gossip of the most contrived kind? Perhaps it’s because the topic of celebrity plastic surgery permits us to entertain two contradictory values simultaneously, with each assuaging the anxieties raised by the other: plastic surgery evokes our common dream, perpetually stoked by the consumer culture intent on preying on our fear of mortality, of staying young forever through the sheer force of will (and capital), promising that success could give us the power to reverse time. At the same time, the pretense of exposing plastic surgery as a shameful secret allows us to cherish our own (presumably plastic-surgery free) authenticity.

Often following these plastic surgery features are service pages hawking beauty products: spreads that detail how celebrities allegedly achieve their glowing looks (which are, again, usually the product of photography and retouching). This is appropriate, since plastic surgery is beginning to be thought less as a medical procedure and more as a beauty product. The invasiveness of the surgery urges us to resist that classification, as does the notion of the sanctity of the body as some repository of ineffable selfhood. But the fact that the body can be seen as the essence of self is precisely what makes the surgery so attractive, just as it had made tattoos and piercings so intriguing 10 years ago. In our consumer-driven society, what we buy shapes our selfhood more than what we do and how the things we own define us. But as culture works harder to convince us that we are what we consume, and as we begin to suspect that is in fact true of so many people around us (never ourselves, of course), altering our bodies becomes a more significant and enduring alteration of identity, a more radical and authentic way to shape our selfhood then buying a Vespa or a tennis racket or an album by Four Tet. Plastic surgery is an attempt to take possession of ourselves, make our body our own, and find some deeper way to connect with something essential about ourselves.

But far from returning us to some pre-consumerist authenticity, body modification only reveals how deeply alienated we are by the notion of consuming our way to selfhood. Since we didn’t choose and buy our body, we don’t feel it really belongs to us or speaks for who we really are. So we have to make efforts to commodify it and buy it, through tattoos and eyebrow rings, nose jobs and fat-suctioning surgeries.

Commodification is not merely taking natural resources and transforming them into things that can be owned. It’s also the process of enabling self-aggrandizing fantasy narratives that revolve around objects — commodities allow you to enjoy dreaming about doing something, rather than actually doing something. Plastic surgery is a way to consume your own body as fantasy, to introduce it into that glossy-weekly realm in which celebrities are consumed. It’s a way to not see what is really, there yet see more than what is really there – simultaneously, when you look in a mirror: You don’t see what is there, because you see the fantasy for which you have prepared yourself, you see what still yet needs to be done; surgery doesn’t perfect one’s image, it merely allows one to better see the gaps between reality and one’s ever-evolving ideal. One surgery opens the door to more surgery, the same way replacing a sofa leads to a need to replace every single piece of furniture in the living room. (Economists sometimes call this the “Diderot effect,” after the 18th-century French philosopher’s oft-quoted essay, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown”, in which the Enlightenment philosophe laments that his fine new gown required him to upgrade everything else in his study, so that that the gown wouldn’t seem garish and out of place.)

Plastic surgery enables you to have desire for yourself, to see yourself as that ever-elusive object of desire rather than to accept yourself as a given, as an integrated part of the you which does the desiring. Body modification refuses to let you desire with your body; it makes you desire for your own body, which is now apart from you, a thing you own, a garden you tend. The plastic surgery phenomenon may simply be the initial manifestation of the commodification of health itself: In The Consumer Society (Sage, 1998), first name Baudrillard notes that a notion of body as prestige object develops, creating “a virtually unlimited demand for medical, surgical, and pharmaceutical services,” with the consequence that “health today is not so much a biological imperative linked to survival as a social imperative linked to status.” In other words, feeling healthy will become entirely subordinate to looking good, since we will no longer be able to distinguish between the two: we won’t be able to understand how one could feel good without looking good because the distinction will have been entirely lost.

In The Consumer Society Baudrillard claims that since it’s both capital and fetish, the body is “the finest consumer object”: “One manages one’s body; one handles it as one might handle an inheritance; one manipulates it as one of the many signifiers of social status”. By becoming a status symbol, the pleasures we once might have derived from our body slip away. “The ethics of beauty, which is the very ethics of fashion, may be defined as the reduction of all concrete values – the use values of the body – to a single functional exchange value, which itself alone, in its abstraction, encapsulates the idea of the glorious, fulfilled body, the idea of desire and jouissance, and of course thereby also denies and forgets them in their reality and in the end simply peters out into an exchange of signs.” Our bodies are thus no longer useful to us the more we try to shape them to our own ends — which are actually not our own ends at all, but the imperatives we’ve absorbed from culture.

Because there’s no value to a truly unique commodity in a system of emulative consumption — where keeping up with the Joneses grants objects much of their perceived value — plastic surgery is an attempt not to look how you feel you should, so much as it is a way to look more like everyone else. The things worth owning are the things your betters have: in this case, better breasts, better lips, better bone structure. The point is to look not like yourself, whatever that might have been, but to own the body and facial type invested with social value — never mind that that changes faster than you can possibly change yourself. The point is in the pursuit, and the always renewed purpose and the ever more articulated fantasies it permits. Thus, plastic surgery evinces the drive to conformity that is inherent in a consumer society. It’s not enough any more to have the same stuff, but now it’s more and more mandatory to literally look exactly the same as everyone else, too.

Last year, when news of the Miss Plastic Surgery beauty contest broke, I wondered whether the women should even be considered the competitors; it seems a competition among surgeons, with the women reduced to objects exemplifying their skill. The woman is incidental to the surgery, after all. But then, the women in conventional beauty contests are incidental to their own beauty, which is largely out of their control and is probably something they occasionally feel to be an alien force that tyrannizes them. The fake-beauty contest is only a purification of the natural-beauty contest, revealing much more clearly the underlying premises, while making it a real competition, one in which will and determination are more obviously in play. Instead of God as the artist, a human is; this seems like an improvement, a leveling of the playing field, a removal of the arbitrary quality of natural beauty.

But in a culture fixated on surfaces, all beauty has the tendency of making the woman who bears it irrelevant, objectifying her against her will, determining the course of her personality’s development by so definitively shaping how people respond to her. The typical thinking on plastic surgery is that it makes beauty more tyrannical, as one has no real excuse (poverty, morality, or dignity are not good enough) for not being beautiful once you can choose to be through elective surgeries. Staying beautiful along the always-repressive lines dictated by current fashion becomes a cultural duty, an evolution of the traditional patriarchal strategies for keeping women subservient.

But plastic surgery also demystifies beauty to a degree, reducing it from an inexplicable quasi-holy blessing to a far less ambiguous signifier of wealth and privilege. Beauty’s meaning becomes simple, obvious. As beauty becomes a choice, it becomes measurable in dollar terms. Beauty becomes a commodity like any other, and thus just one fetish among many, rather than culture’s master fetish. No one these days would something as silly as Keats did and mistake beauty for truth.

Just as automakers have their concept cars that they preview at auto shows to generate interest, surgeons can have their floor model women who exemplify the latest surgery techniques. Perhaps the plastic surgery beauty contest can drive technological advances, which could in turn shape new aesthetics. What is beautiful can be separated from the natural all together, and we can start to appreciate as normal, as ideal, as beautiful, women with three breasts or eight-inch-long necks. This might ultimately undermine any universal notion of beauty, and free everyone to feel beautiful in their own imagination. Somehow, I don’t think this is how it will work out.

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