Essig (Sociology/Middlebury Coll.; Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other, 1999) looks at the American obsession with plastic surgery and the cultural and economic forces that drive it.
“In the first decade of the twenty-first century,” writes the author, “Americans had more than 10 million surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures”—at a cost of around $12.5 billion annually. Few Americans, it seems, especially aging women who make up the bulk of cosmetic-procedure customers, have not at least contemplated breast implants, liposuction, face-lifts, Botox injections and even vaginal rejuvenation. Plastic surgery is no longer seen as a luxury but a necessity. The reasons for this are complex and interconnected, writes Essig. As photography, the beauty industry, advertising and celebrity culture developed, an unreal and unobtainable image of (white) female beauty was internalized and thus sought after by most American women. While improvements in medical technology made plastic surgery safer and cheaper, two seminal events from the Reagan era contributed greatly to its mass popularity—allowing doctors to advertise their services and the deregulation of credit. Suddenly, plastic surgery was more visible to potential customers, who could pay for their plastic procedures with credit cards. Massive consumer debt ensued, not only for plastic surgery but for any consumer product that might make us happy. As the American economy declined in the late-’90s, many searched for personal solutions to problems that were essentially structural. If we could not remake the economy, we could remake ourselves, a line of logic that followed the quintessential American ethic of the endless possibility of personal reinvention. Thus, we have become trapped in an endless cycle of debt. The author suggests that we should resist the endless demands for perfect beauty and demand the regulation of banking and medical industries.
Will likely be controversial, but Essig offers fascinating and troubling insights into the American psyche.