||[Feb. 8th, 2004|10:57 am]
Taking the scalpel to an impossible standard of beauty|
By Julia Baird
February 7, 2004
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The American media have dubbed it Botoxgate. John Kerry, senator for Massachusetts, having just scored a critical win in the New Hampshire primaries, was pedalling his way confidently through a maze of media interviews. Then a Boston radio announcer cut to the question which had floated on the internet for a week: "Can you categorically deny the reports that you have used Botox or other kinds of cosmetic surgery or cosmetic enhancements to your appearance?" Kerry responded, "Absolutely, I've never even heard of it."
The scoop had plastic surgeons across the US attempting to furrow their brows over the before and after shots posted on the Drudge Report web site. If the reports are right, the majority view was that he was lying. How could he not know, asked commentators, if his wife had told Elle magazine she is partial to the odd poisonous injection? The media pounced, Howard Dean made snide remarks and The Tonight Show's Jay Leno asked: "Does anybody care? I think the only thing people care about is whether Howard Dean has had all his distemper shots."
It's a shallow story in what has been a silly week, with the outrage after Janet Jackson's breast was bared when Justin Timberlake ripped off part of her leather bra at the Superbowl. The "wardrobe malfunction" excuse was delicious. It was a manufactured stunt, her nipple was covered and she looked like a dozen other starlets who regularly and monotonously bare their bits in public. But the Kerry story was interesting because of reactions like Leno's. Plastic surgery is now considered part of good grooming, a career move, a bid to project youthful energy and confidence. It is also popular among male executives because it conceals emotions: anger, fear, stress.
The 67-year-old Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, blamed his wife for the decision to have surgery. Despite the disappearance of his wrinkles and suddenly stretched skin, he claimed to have had only eyelid surgery. Asked if he was vain, he replied: "I merely strive to be agreeable."
There's still something disconcerting about it. Would we care if John Howard was having Botox and a face peel in a bid to make voters forget he is at retirement age? Or if Mark Latham had a nose job and hair implants to woo the female vote? If Carmen Lawrence had an eyelift and collagen injections in her lips? Yes, we would. Australians have never warmed to overt signs of vanity.
But we are starting to equate surgery with success. TV shows like Extreme Makeover - now auditioning for an Australian version - lure the insecure and vulnerable with promises of freedom, success, an apparent agelessness. Most candidates are women - rows of Eliza Dolittles who don't need elocution lessons in order to enter society but dermabrasion, teeth whitening and breast implants instead.
These procedures are increasingly being seen just as part of the normal upkeep, which women now begin in their 20s. Because of this, we are beginning to forget what women really look like. A browse through a pile of 1970s Playboys is a sobering reminder of the retro-nude.
Untamed hair, breasts which sit down on women's chests rather than nestling into their necks, white limbs, curvy hips, shapely legs. Normal-looking women, not the modern muscled cyborgs who puff up their chests, stuff their lips, and suction-cup their eyes out of their skulls. And, even more worryingly, pay for designer vaginas, usually after giving birth.
More and more crannies and crevices of our bodies are open to the kind of scrutiny which comes from knowing "perfection" could only be three months' salary and a few bruised wounds away. One friend, 29, told me last week she was thinking of having liposuction on her big toe. Another, 30, had Botox the week before she was due to give a speech. We are normalising an aesthetic which is achievable only with a scalpel or syringe.
It's hard to rail against plastic surgery, even though so many do, because it is sold as a tool of empowerment. Why spit on beauty as an oppressive ideal when you can buy it?
In a keynote address to the International Congress for Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons last year, the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson argued, "As a form of pain relief the use of surgery to reduce social pain is arguably as valid as that to reduce physical pain."
But the question then becomes, how do we define social pain? In the recent Miss Ugly Contest in China 50 women lined up for the prize of $16,500 worth of plastic surgery. The 26-year-old winner reportedly complained, "My small eyes, flat nose and poor skin have been such a burden to me that I have no self-confidence to compete for better opportunities in life."
You can't easily condemn or patronise women who allow surgeons to smash then repair their bodies because they are trying to hold their heads up in a world which deifies Playboy bunnies. This is why some women have made the dubious claim that plastic surgery is a triumph for, not a failure of, Western feminism.
But when it becomes compulsory annual maintenance, being agreeable starts to take on a whole new meaning. We are all "before shots" now.