By Alex Kuczynski
One of the odd laws of a consumerist society is that wants are actually more powerful than needs. Surgery, even many forms of plastic surgery, is usually a need. Cosmetic surgery, a term which refers to elective procedures to improve the appearance of otherwise healthy individuals, is a want. And judging from the numbers, it’s a want that’s putting needs in the shade.
At least that’s one explanation for the explosion of the cosmetic surgery industry detailed in Beauty Junkies. The statistics are worth quoting. Cosmetic surgery in the U.S. is a $15 billion a year industry. In 2004 nearly 12 million surgical and non-surgical procedures were performed. Since 1997 there has been a 465 percent increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures, and a quintupling in the number of patients seeing plastic surgeons. Nor is there any indication things are slowing down.
There are a lot of reasons for why this is happening. The baby boomers, for example, are getting older – and they don’t like it one bit. But mostly it has to do with America being an affluent society. Money makes things easy, and the mere fact of spending money gives us a sense of instant accomplishment. So why shouldn’t we just pay for a quick fix for our appearance rather than go through all the hassle of healthy living and exercise? That we are willing to spend so much on cosmetic surgery has led, in turn, to more and more American doctors and dental surgeons opting out of the health care system and dealing with insurance companies to go where the real money is made. Nose jobs. Liposuction. Breast augmentation. Botox.
The class argument is unavoidable. Indeed, the desire to be one of the “beautiful people” is itself part of the psychology that fuels the industry. Looks matter. Cosmetic surgery is a kind of upward mobility, the showcasing of big boobs and smooth skin a form of conspicuous consumption. Author Alex Kuczynski, herself a beautiful person, New York City media personality, and self-confessed beauty junky, is unapologetic about this. “Those with enough disposable income and time can pay for the full lips of a teenager and the smooth eyelids of a twenty-year-old, while those who don’t have money and time are relegated to the unfortunate, unkempt masses.” “The economic argument – that it’s unfair that the well-to-do get to buy things that make them more beautiful – yields to cold fact. The rich do get things the poor don’t.”
Of course, what they are “getting” in terms of cosmetic surgery might kill them. There are a lot of hacks out there, and Kuczynski relates a number of horror stories illustrating the dangers of going under the knife, including her own experience with an injection that gave her an upper lip swollen to the size of a “large yam.” Overall, however, she defends the industry. It’s all about choice. And “really, the most ignorant of human conditions is the act of imposing tyranny over another person.”
Fair enough. But ignorance and tyranny take many forms in the beauty industry. The very term beauty junky – that is, an addict – suggest that this is perhaps not all about choice. Addiction speaks to the sense of personal emptiness, emotional fragility, and fear for which the $15 billion-a-year beauty habit offers a fix. Nor is it true to say that “in the end, it all comes down to sex.” Sex involves two people: beauty and the eye of the beholder. For the beauty junkies the only beholder is the one in the mirror. What it call comes down to is the self, which turns out to be nothing more than a product. As one beauty addict confesses to the author:
All we have in this life is ourselves, and what we can put out there every day for the world to see. The world is not going to see my great record collection or the stuff I have at home. They’re going to see me. And Me is all I got.
This is merely pathetic. If the cosmetic surgery industry were all about choice we would at least expect more variation in its expression. The construction of a uniform appearance as social code would not be such a duty. But consumers have no real power, even in the much-ballyhooed “free market”; their only function is to buy. Near the end of the book Kuczynski attends a panel on the subject of “women and power” featuring prominent older women with successful careers as politicians, journalists and CEOs. On stage they appear to be a row of beauty industry products “compelled to hew to a bizarre, unattainable ideal of styled, nipped, serene beauty.” Here is the bottom line for women and power: “Looks are the new feminism.”
Oh brave new world!
Review first published online December 12, 2006.