The Good, the Ugly, and the Simply Awful

If you’ve had about as much as you can take of perpetually youthful celebrities with perfect skin, there’s relief to be found at the popular website, Awful Plastic Surgery, which might as well be called, since, like the most salacious tabloid newspaper, it exposes the industrial and chemical artifice behind all those pouting lips, chiseled chins, and sparkling smiles.

Awful Plastic Surgery juxtaposes photographs of surgically embellished celebrities with pictures of their former, “natural” selves, not only to foreground the amount of “work” they’ve had done, but to show how much better they looked before these elective enhancements. Habitués of the site may already familiar with the slang terms used for surgical procedures, but for the ingénues among you, here’s a brief glossary (although, I should add, the terms are remarkable self-explanatory). A “trout pout” refers to lips that have been made swollen, puffy, and fish-like. A “bat brow” is a stretched forehead that results from an over-tight facelift. “Chiclet teeth” are implausibly bleached veneers. “Chipmunk Cheeks” are caused by obtrusive facial implants, and stiff, obvious, one-size-fits-all breast implants are known as “Shelf Boobs”, “Bolt-Ons” or “Frankenboobs”.

It’s odd that cosmetic surgery is more popular than ever, since the outcome is not always what one had hoped. Of course, the best plastic surgery is completely unobtrusive; this site compiles evidence only of procedures that makes their victims look, well, awful. At least, fans of the site seem to think so. “Photos are captioned “Why, Jen, Why?” or “Jessica, Noooooo!” “Oh no, not Janine Turner!” Reader comments are widely critical and unsympathetic. “She looks different in the eye area,” complains one reader about Nelly Furtado’s suspicious new look, “and it’s not an improvement. Her expressive eyes were my favorite thing about her.” “He should have left his nose alone; the old look was much more handsome,” comments a reader on one unfortunate celebrity nose job. “Small noses are for women or trannies.” “The change has ruined his facial harmony and is not an improvement,” adds another.

Clearly, it’s easy to mock celebrities for wanting to remain attractive and young-looking, but maybe we should try to be more sympathetic. After all, the livelihood of those in the public eye depends on their being looked at. It’s no surprise, then, that those on both sides of the camera have acquired a clinical, critical eye for fine distinctions of physiology, scrutinizing the form and shape of the human face in Talmudic minuteness. We admire celebrities who seem to be “aging gracefully,” while the truth is, most of these have probably had a little work done — it just may be more subtle and less obvious than the monstrosities featured at Awful Plastic Surgery: discreet, regular botox injections rather than a sudden bat brow.

What’s rather more difficult to understand is the popularity of cosmetic surgery among those whose careers do not depend on them being in the public eye. Today’s trends in cosmetic reconstruction are much more advanced than the simple face-lifts and nose jobs of yesteryear. While procedures like breast enhancement, liposuction, and brow-lifts will always be popular, more advanced forms of surgery are now available for the man or woman who has everything.

Ironically, Awful Plastic Surgery, like many free websites, carries randomly generated ads purportedly “matching” page content; in this case, ads for cosmetic surgeons, whose specialties are described in detail, often with graphic “before and after” photographs. In ladies of a certain age, apparently, the most fashionable kind of procedure is vaginoplasty: the construction of a “designer vagina”. According to one surgeon, “reduction surgery repairs stretched or oversized vaginas, preserving the rosy ‘curled’ edge of the labia. Surgery can also restore the elasticity that may have been lost after childbirth.”

Younger women, apparently, favor abdominoplasty, the restructuring of the stomach and reshaping of the belly button, which fashion has made into an erogenous zone among the hard-bodied. This way, “outies” can be turned into “innies” (a “T-shape” is considered ideal.) Feet can also be restructured to match your favorite shoes. If you never leave home without your Manolos, the pinkie toe can be amputated for a streamlined fit; if you prefer sandals or bare feet, the toes can be aligned to look neat and appealing in meditation and yoga classes.

It’s been argued that the reason we follow these trends with such hubristic fascination is because cosmetic surgery gives the lie to evolution. In her book Survival of the Prettiest, Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, explains that beauty attracts us because symmetrical good looks are a reliable marker of healthy offspring who will live to procreate. Cosmetic surgery, she suggests, is the most fundamental lie you can tell to a potential breeding partner, suggesting that you’re a fine, youthful breeder, belying the secret truth concealed in your genes. Perhaps this helps to explain our obsessive dismay at the practice, and our gleeful fascination with those who take plastic surgery to extremes, apparently oblivious to the bizarre distortion of their features.

On the other hand, hypocrites that we are, we’re also fascinated by celebrities who’ve allowed themselves to change naturally or, as the tabloids put it snarkily, “let themselves go”. We mock them for being false, and sneer if they’re natural. Fame – ain’t it a bitch?