Friday, February 18, 2011

American Plastic

I'll declare up front: I don't want live in a world where every woman looks like Barbie and every man looks like Ken, and honestly, I've always thought of plastic surgery as icky. On to the analysis.

In her 2010 book American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards and Our Quest for Perfection, Laurie Essig, an assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury College, describes how two of the most important aspects of life in the United States have become plastic: our money and our bodies. Capable of being molded into anything we desire, we have come to view plastic as the solution to all our problems whether it be financing with easy credit to support our lifestyles or perfecting our "imperfect" appearances.

Essig explores how plastic money and plastic surgery have become intertwined over the last 30 years; not only are people spending themselves into debt to achieve cosmetic perfection, both concepts are superficial solutions in place of drastic structural changes. Why demand change to gender, income, racial, and social inequalities when you can shop with borrowed money and get a makeover?

Essig discusses a number of reasons Americans (and other nationalities) elect to undergo plastic surgery, but all those explanations boil down to inadequacy. People feel inadequate about their looks, they fear the more attractive and youthful workers get the best jobs, they believe looking younger will instill more confidence, and/or hope they to attract or keep a romantic partner or spouse. The media, with its photo-shopped and airbrushed models and actresses in magazines and film, project an impossible-to-obtain standard people strive for and feel miserable about if they can't.

Those are reasons we've all heard from other books and documentaries critical of America's obsession with celebrity and glamor, but I've always thought most people consider that obsession a guilty pleasure; we should know better, but we still do it anyway. Essig reveals how normalized and acceptable plastic surgery has become to attain this standard. Many people she interviews -plastic surgeons and patients- believe not only is cosmetic surgery more acceptable, it's inevitable. Magazines reveal how many stars go under the knife, and television shows such Dr. 90210 and Nip/Tuck (whose creator is critical of plastic surgery) present all these cosmetic procedures as increasingly normal. Everyone is doing it, so it's best to go with the movement rather than get left behind.

The numbers support the normalcy argument. In 2000, 5.7 million cosmetic procedures were conducted in the United States, an increase of 173 percent in three years. By 2004, that number exceeded twelve million. Even in the recent economic turmoil, Essig admits she wrongly believed plastic surgery would decline, but the number stayed constant and continued to grow. Cosmetic surgery is no longer a luxury for the wealthy. Many middle and lower class people see it as an "investment in themselves," and many surgeons and doctors are more than happy to offer different financing methods to enable their patients to go into thousands of dollars worth of debt to "feel better about themselves." Sort of like how banks and subprime mortgages enabled people to buy homes they couldn't afford.

Plastic surgery has become another avenue of economic consumption enabled by loose lending standards of financial institutions. Never mind the barrage of advertising for cosmetic procedures constantly tells people they're old, ugly, and inadequate and only by getting Botox injections, breast implants, or face lifts will they "beautiful" and "happy." Essig traces back to Ronald Reagan and the rise of neoliberalism and its market-driven economic approach: deregulation of the financial world, allowing doctors to advertise (it had previously been banned because many doctors didn't want to appear to be snake-oil salesmen), trickle-down economics, and the emphasis on individual choice and freedom. No one is forcing people to go into debt by having procedures to look younger and more beautiful, and never mind undergoing those procedures won't necessary ensure they'll feel better, get a promotion, or a spouse; it's their choice.

This economic tie-in gives American Plastic a unique spin on a topic already heavily covered and dissected. I definitely would have liked more examination of it; Essig spends a lot more time than necessary going after the superficiality of American culture, and I was more interested when she examined the history of plastic surgery and how it connected to economic deregulation than when she went at length about why it's popular. It's interesting, and there were some arguments -such as the increasing normalcy of it-I hadn't hear before, but with the book being under 200 pages, I thought it was a little too much.

Overall, I really liked the book, and it presented a lot of thought-provoking ideas. It examines the forces that gave rise to plastic surgery and those sustaining it while simultaneously paralleling the excesses and pitfalls of the a completely unregulated free market. Definitely worth reading.

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