Magazine article The New Yorker

Proud Flesh; Books

Magazine article The New Yorker

Proud Flesh; Books

Article excerpt

In 1597, Gaspare Tagliacozzi, a professor of surgery at the University of Bologna, published "De Curtorum Chirurgia per Insitionem," an illustrated guide that documented for the first time a technique for performing a rhinoplasty, or nose job. And what a nose job it was. In one of a series of woodcuts, Tagliacozzi depicts a noseless Renaissance gentleman, his ruff untied and his jerkin unlaced, sitting with left arm outstretched, a meaty flap hanging from his biceps; in the next, an elaborate harness straps his arm up and back, so that his face is buried in his upper arm and his hand is extended over his head, as if he were sniffing his armpit and scratching his occipital bone at the same time. The harness would stay on for twenty days, until old arm tissue became new nose tissue--or tissue that might at a distance pass for a nose, which was the best that Tagliacozzi's patients could expect, the likelier prospect being infection, excruciating pain, and death.

Tagliacozzi's woodcuts are reproduced in "Aesthetic Surgery," a lavishly illustrated volume about plastic surgery, edited by Angelika Taschen, that was published in 2005. (The book may be too lavishly illustrated for some tastes: along with a number of fascinating diagrams from medical textbooks of the past four centuries--the before-and-after shots of their time--there are many gruesome photographs of contemporary surgeries in progress, including one of a brow-lift, in which a hairy forehead has been cut away from the skull and folded down over the anesthetized patient's eyes. It looks like something dreamed up by Bunuel.) Tagliacozzi also makes an appearance in "Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession with Cosmetic Surgery" (Doubleday; $24.95), the hybrid memoir-expose by Alex Kuczynski, which credits him with being the first surgeon to realize that improving a person's looks might improve his or her life. The job of the plastic surgeon, Tagliacozzi writes, was "to restore, repair, and make whole those parts of the face which nature has given but which fortune has taken away, not so much that they might delight the eye but that they may buoy up the spirits and help the mind of the afflicted."

Restoration and repair do not much characterize the surgery with which Kuczynski is most concerned: she makes a distinction between plastic surgery, a term that may refer to the repair of a cleft lip or a face disfigured by an accident, and cosmetic surgery, which refers to an elective procedure that is medically unnecessary. Kuczynski's interest lies in this more recent development. If Tagliacozzi's purpose was to restore a semblance of normality to a face ravaged by disease or by swordplay (one of his patients had lost his nose in a duel), so that its bearer might go through the world somewhat less stigmatized, what is the purpose and meaning of cosmetic surgery today?

In her attempt to answer this question, Kuczynski, who writes the Critical Shopper column for the Times, takes a tour through the industry, visiting medical conferences, interviewing plastic surgeons, having lunch with patients, and undergoing her own adventures in the doctor's office. Over the course of a decade, starting at the age of twenty-eight, she received Botox and collagen injections, microdermabrasion, liposuction, an upper eye-lift, and a shot of a mucuslike substance called Restylane, which left her blubbering into a mug of vodka while sitting on her bathroom floor, her upper lip accidentally inflated to "the size of a large yam." (Caveat lector: A decade or so ago, for about a minute, Ku-czynski and I moved in the same circles, and she once gave me a recommendation for a dermatologist, whom I visited for a single consultation. The doctor--possibly the same one who later gave Kuczynski the yam lip--was ten years my senior, and had clear, translucent skin that glistened pinkly, like prosciutto that had been sliced to an inviting, tissue-paper thinness, and she said that if I, too, started undergoing facial peels I could have the complexion of a woman half my age by the time I hit forty. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.