January is the cruelest month. Egos are snowed under by a blizzard of magazine articles, books and TV segments that insist a new year requires a new you. Shape up or give up. Now or never. We may not be able to control much of anything in the new year but, goddamn it, we can lose five pounds.
It isn’t surprising, as ABC’s 20/20 reported on Dec. 19, that cosmetic surgery procedures during this holiday season were up 60 percent from last year. USA Today found in a recent survey that 40 percent of all Americans are displeased with their bodies and would consider some form of cosmetic surgery. Michael Jackson. Jocelyne Wildenstein. Nothing dissuades.
But as Elizabeth Haiken, author of Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery (Johns Hopkins University Press, $24.95), has found, Americans consider self-improvement one of their inalienable rights, right up there with voting and flag waving. In the beginning, plastic surgeons’ only thought was to operate on soldiers disfigured during World War I. According to Ms. Haiken, it was “quacks” who thought to profit by borrowing the surgeon’s reconstructive techniques and lure a culture increasingly drawn to appearance over substance.
Hollywood was in its heyday. Between 1910 and 1930, the population doubled, but the capacity of movie theaters increased by a factor of eight. Theaters were built around the country with the zeal missionaries once held for putting up churches. Americans were seduced with images of beauty, sex and power from Hollywood; everything they didn’t see when they looked in the mirror.
“Nowhere else in the world are there gathered together so many conventionally beautiful people,” Cecil Beaton wrote after a trip to Hollywood in 1930. “This is a town inhabited almost entirely by gods and goddesses of beauty. The girl shutting the window is Venus disguised as a most exquisite Madonna. The newspaper boy is a fair young Apollo. Every cashier with golden sausage curls is even prettier than Mary Pickford. Every sales man is a John Gilbert.”
Venus Envy details the industrial strength with which magazines and tabloids got the news out: Everyone is beautiful at the movies. Home is for the homely. In 1923, when the stage actress and former Ziegfeld headliner Fanny Brice had a nose job, it became a matter of national interest. Brice, opined Dorothy Parker, “cut off her nose to spite her race.” The New York Times asked Ms. Brice to comment. “Everything about me has stopped growing except my nose,” she told The Times . “No woman on the stage today can afford to have a nose that is likely to keep on growing until she can swallow it.” The Times , in an editorial, celebrated Brice’s nose job as a miracle of science helping people get ahead (so to speak). The surgeon who performed the operation in her hotel room, Henry Junius Schireson, became famous, although controversy accompanied him throughout his career. In 1927, for instance, according to Ms. Haiken, he made headlines by suing Lady Diana Manners and her mother, the Dowager Duchess of Rutland, for failing to pay for face lifts he had performed. “Lady Diana emphatically denied the charges and posed for photographs to disprove his story; she said that Schireson had simply treated her mother’s eyes.” Case dismissed.
The promise of plastic surgery excited everyone, not only Hollywood stars. As early as 1916, the social leader Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt expressed her amazement in a New York Times interview. She’d seen what the surgery could do for the injured soldiers at the American Ambulance Hospital in France. “Plastic surgery,” she told The Times , “turns them into normal men again, so that they can live normal lives.” Meanwhile, her friends began to see what help cosmetic surgery offered them. And it wasn’t only for the rich.
In 1924, the New York Daily Mirror ran its Homely Girl Contest. “Who is the homeliest girl in New York? For a great opportunity awaits her,” read the announcement in the paper. “A plastic surgeon has offered to take the homeliest girl in the biggest city in the country and make a beauty of her.” Not only did she win a surgical makeover, the winner also got an opera audition.
Ms. Haiken argues that, like wealth and status, beauty no longer was something you only got through inheritance. It was something you acquired. Beauty was democratic. The “inferiority complex,” introduced in the 1920’s by Dr. Alfred Adler, gave Americans more reasons to consider plastic surgery. It might be therapeutic. With advances in medicine, Americans were living longer by the 1950’s. People retired and launched second lives. Why not second faces? With the “youthquakers” of the 1960’s, it was official: personality, fame-even just 15 minutes of it-“the quality of being somebody,” as historian Warren Susman told Ms. Haiken, was more important than character.
In 1923, when Fanny Brice bobbed her nose, Americans wanted to know why. Nearly 40 years later, Ms. Haiken points out, “when Barbra Streisand emerged on the national scene-ironically, her first significant role was as Brice in the musical Funny Girl -Americans wanted to know why she had not.” Ms. Haiken eloquently describes the public’s appetite for plastic surgery as it relates to its anxiety about the inferiority complex and the desire to gentrify. “A nose job, in other words, could mitigate the damaging psychological effects of prejudice,” she writes. “New immigrants and members of less-favored ethnic groups came to see cosmetic surgery as the most effective solution to the problems created by features that identified them as ‘other’ than the Anglo-American Saxon standard.”
Michael Jackson is the most obvious modern example. “The human costs of this long and sordid history are visible in Michael Jackson’s face,” Ms. Haiken writes. “Jackson’s injured air and defensive demeanor may arise from his conviction that he has altered everything about his face that might conceivably give offense: Why, then, don’t we like him? The answer to that question, of course, has as much to do with Jackson himself as with his face. But the fact that the image of America his face reflects is so unflattering accounts for much of our discomfort.”
In 1958, Pope Pius XII cautioned plastic surgeons to not operate on patients seeking the “power of seduction, thus leading others more easily into sin.” Several years later, Germaine Greer said of cosmetic surgery: “If a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have gone?”
On Dec. 30, the front page of the Star newspaper blew, “Jacko’s Plastic Surgery Nightmare: His Nose Is Dying After 7 Ops-& May Have to Be Cut Off.” According to her friends, Jocelyne Wildenstein wanted surgical help to look so, well, feline, but never mind. Suggestions for restraint are rarely heeded.
Says Ms. Haiken: “Americans look at plastic surgery much as children regard being punished: They are sorry only that they got caught.”