A BBC look at plastic surgery

image by LiveU4

I should preface this post by noting that plastic surgery isn’t within the purview of my research. But it most definitely is relevant to the what sorts project — our expert being Cressida Heyes.

So, here is a review of Louis Theroux’s “documentary” on plastic surgery, as practiced in that shrine to superficiality: Los Angeles. The diacritical marks around documentary should alert the reader to the program’s various weaknesses. Anyone familiar with Theroux’s work will likely be aware of his tendency to go ‘native’ in the pursuit of a sensational ‘angle.’ Theroux maintains an ironic air throughout his exposé, but then (somewhat disappointingly) subjects himself to liposuction … presumably to lend a more authentic gloss to his treatment of plastic surgery. (He then continues to exhibit an ironic attitude towards his thorough implication in the object of his inquiry, perhaps to mask his total lack of objectivity).

Nevertheless, what Theroux does succeed in demonstrating is the normative function of the imperative for “perfection”, avowed by each of the surgery addicts whom he interviews. Of course, “perfection” here refers to an extremely bland notion of what counts as beautiful; and many of his interviewees are evidently wounded individuals: from having been called ugly by their step-father, to attempting to recover from a failed relationship. What is striking is the enthusiastic, complete, and totally un-ironic faith that each of these people has in the power of plastic surgery to heal their damaged self-esteem.

Theroux is also able, at a couple of points, to get some revealing statements from the plastic surgeons he interviews: one of whom admits that he contributes to (and depends upon) a cycle of poor self-esteem in women, where he offers a “solution” that also perpetuates the problem. Another, who had chosen plastic surgery over a career in ER, expresses regret for some of his patients’ over-enthusiasm for surgery. In the main, however, the surgeons present themselves as ‘do-gooders’ who, every day, make people happy about themselves—and do so for less money and more expediency than a psychotherapist.

Theroux might have visited, however, some less reputable practitioners than he did, to achieve better balance for his documentary: the surgeons women go to who aspire to, but can’t afford, the plastic surgery of their wealthier neighbors. My sense would be that it’s not a well regulated industry—although others might know more about this than I do.

He also might have spent more time and care interrogating the notions of self that persist throughout the program relatively unchallenged—as well as the question of what it means for a community that such a stylised and homogenous understanding of beauty is given so much social value. For one thing, because the film maker himself underwent surgery (ostensibly for the the purposes of filming the documentary), there was no real alternative offered by the presentation: either in terms of the kinds of positive relationship one might have to one’s body; or different standards of beauty; or different understandings of what constitutes happiness or fulfillment.

Secondly, it was left ambiguous whether a point was being made about a culture specific to Los Angeles—hence, the film would represent a tongue-in-cheek British anthropology of the Americas, by now fairly familiar to the genre. Alternatively, does the point apply more generally to an over-evaluation of the visual, and of a ubiquitous and offensively exclusive visual at that, which is evident in England, Canada, Australia, and Europe, as well as the city that produces much of our visual media.

All in all, Louis Theroux: Under The Knife is by far an inferior production to another of Theroux’s documentaries, The Most Hated Family in America, which looks at homophobic religious zealots who choose to protest America’s tolerance (you heard me) toward gays by picketing the funerals of soldiers deployed to Iraq … but that would be another post.

NB: image by LiveU4, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/liveu4/134980839/. share alike, creative commons agreement

3 thoughts on “A BBC look at plastic surgery

  1. Thanks for drawing my attention to this, Jo, although (as you imply) it sounds like a rather fish-in-a-barrel approach. The more interesting kind of documentary would find people who are ambivalent, who regret their surgery, who have unconventional surgical aesthetics, or who are more at odds with their local culture than LA residents! Most of all, I am often surprised by how often even purportedly critical commentaries on cosmetic surgery often miss out the incredibly obvious feminism-101 analysis: if it’s the case that, as the automatically-generated-related-post-link says “the ugly truth is looks matter,” shouldn’t we invest at least some of our efforts in exposing and challenging that truth? For WSPSTB, I think another relevant question is the extent to which cosmetic surgery is implicated in negative attitudes towards the bodies of disabled people–an issue that feminists have not (yet) done much to highlight, either.

  2. Thanks Cressida: an excellent point, which was probably left a bit too implicit in my ‘analysis’.

    I agree, it would have been far more informative, and interesting, if he had spoken to people who were disappointed in their plastic surgery—either because it had been ‘botched’, or didn’t give them the sense of belonging, perfection, beauty, and well-being that they had anticipated.

    I’m sure there are plenty of people he might have interviewed with that point of view … although the people he interviewed seemed to be overly investing in loving the results of their surgery—perhaps because otherwise they might seem foolish and, dare I say it, vain.

    At bottom, what remained utterly uninterrogated were implicit assumptions about what makes a person valuable, and a life worth living. IMHO, at least, breast size should not even come into that equation.

    And even if one were to accept that by manipulating the body’s outer appearance a substantial and life-improving transformation might occur, the possibilities, and the standard(s) of beauty, presented by this documentary were far too narrow. There are far more interesting and creative things that one might do with plastic surgery, to explode the received notion of beauty rather than consolidate it.

    Take Orlan for example (http://www.orlan.net/) … People are generally horrified by what they see as the limits of plastic surgery revealed by her (as well as surgery-zealots such as Michael Jackson and “janice” http://www.onlinesurgery.com/blog/janice.jpg), but just as monstrous is the reduction in acceptable modes of appearing that the plastic surgery industry both trades upon and contributes to.

  3. Pingback: What’s Hot at What Sorts: take three! « What Sorts of People

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