Becoming the Other Woman: The Psychic Drama of Cosmetic Surgery

By Blum, Virginia | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Becoming the Other Woman: The Psychic Drama of Cosmetic Surgery


Blum, Virginia, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


BODY SHOPPING

I entered the beauty salon in search of my interview subject. Rows of bodies leaned back into the hands of technicians whose powers seemed close to supernatural. Beauty and fashion magazines were scattered around like breadcrumbs toward iconic images. Patrons might leave momentarily gratified with an imaginary piece of Jennifer Aniston or Meg Ryan scissored into their locks. I was interviewing patients and surgeons for a book on the cultural meanings and significance of cosmetic surgery. The woman spoke with me as the conditioner soaked through her hair. She was telling me what she didn't like about her nose. Grabbing a magazine from a nearby table, she pointed to the supermodel on the cover and exclaimed, "Ooh, I love that nose, I want that nose." I ask her why. "It's straight. It's straight and thin. Not the cheekbones. I have the cheekbones. I love the tip--well, I don't know," she said, standing back now, assuming more aesthetic distance, "it's still not thin enough." She was disappointed in her plastic surgeon, who hadn't given her quite the nose she had imagined or requested. She wanted a more pronounced bridge and she wanted the bridge straight. She showed me what she wanted on the face of the model that is purveyed as a consummate model to the rest of us. Whoever she is at the time: Nadja Auermann, Cindy Crawford, Charlize Theron, or Julia Roberts--she is the Other Woman, the yardstick for our imperfection. Such imperfection is inevitable for the postindustrial, twenty-first century Western woman who is always evaluating her appearance (intimately bound up with her identity) in relation to some standard that must be Other in order to function as a standard.

When you don't like a body part, the rest of the world looks like an array of perfect examples of just what you lack. Moreover, once you've bought and paid for an improvement, you want the "best." American women are savvy, demanding consumers. British plastic surgeons have told me very bluntly that they don't envy their American counterparts. "Patients there have such high expectations," one surgeon practicing in England informed me. He was relieved not to be held to such standards--and, moreover, grateful not to have to cope with a patient population that views him as just one more stop in a shopping mall of consumer services. When you buy a body part for aesthetic reasons, you automatically compare yours to others who have better or worse. Even if you are pleased with a surgical result, you will see the rest of the world as so many possibilities. One patient, although delighted with her eyelid surgery, instantly compared her result to the "after" pictures I showed her from a plastic surgery journal: "Oh, yeah, [she is] a whole lot better [than her "before" picture]." Long pause. "I think my eyes look a little droopier than that. Beautiful." This response is not solely about wanting the best for your money; it is, more importantly, about women constructing women's body images in relation to other women.

What do these stories about the surgically altered body mean for contemporary Western women? Further, what stories about female identity fuel the surgical stories? My particular reading of what I call elsewhere "the culture of cosmetic surgery" concerns the ways in which the social practice of surgery participates in or even fulfills specific psychical urgencies; hence I call plastic surgery a psychic drama. For some time, cosmetic surgery has been a compelling cultural story, but only recently has it been moving into the mainstream from what was generally seen as outlandish or "extreme." For plastic surgery to become culturally widespread (and thus ultimately normative), it must be sustained by a number of social, economic, cultural, and psychical forces. For example, the rise of health maintenance organization constraints on U.S. medical fees led many surgeons (ob/gyns, for example) to supplement their practices by pursuing patients' discretionary income. …

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