What is significant about much of the rhetoric surrounding the decision to change the body is that it focuses on the natural body as inherently defective or unsatisfactory… The ‘natural body’ is presented as a site for improvement, a starting point which is, almost by definition, inadequate and only ever potential. -Pippa Brush
There are many reasons to complain about rush hour in Los Angeles, not the least of which is being trapped in my car, alone, only to have my self-esteem attacked by the radio I’ve turned on to distract me from the frustration of driving three inches per hour. Imagine this: a woman’s voice bellows from the dashboard of your vehicle, her voice stunning in its urgency: “Summer’s just around the corner! Isn’t it time for you to get that perfect body you’ve always wanted?” Not only that, but apparently, two-for-one specials are yours for the asking. For a limited time only, she informs you, you can “get a combo, a new nose and breast aug for just $5999!” if only you would “call 1-866-577-BODY for a new you!”
“All of this and more,” the woman blares, “from the Genetic Institute for Anti-Aging.” Oblivious to irony, she promises eternal youth and culturally-approved physical perfection from a place called the Genetic Institute for Anti-Aging (GIAA), where anti-aging isn’t achieved genetically at all.
If you live in Los Angeles, you don’t even have to imagine such a situation because it’s likely you’ve already experienced it. The first time I heard one of these ads, I almost rear-ended the car in front of me. Since then, I haven’t been able to turn on the radio without hearing another one, and I’ve started receiving full color cosmetic surgery fliers in the mail. The fliers too warn me of the impending doom of bikini season – “Summer’s almost here!” – and demand that I “Be impeccable!” I’ve also driven by full-color billboards with perfect, headless beach bodies and discovered New Beauty magazine, a publication devoted entirely to “provid[ing] visually stunning, in-depth articles on all forms of cosmetic enhancement. Covering a wide range of procedures offered by cosmetic dentists, plastic surgeons, dermatologists and more…” These messages are so ubiquitous, seem to be so much an organic part of of the LA landscape, one might be tempted to dismiss them. After all, this is L.A. Las Vegas might be Sin City, but L.A. is Plasticity. But ignoring these ads leads to the normalization of the messages underlying them - messages which have serious and dangerous social implications.
The website, www.getyournewlook.com, says the GIAA's goal “is to improve your health and slow down the natural aging process… to restore youthful function and appearance, obtain enhanced quality of life, provide protection from maladies of aging…to help each individual achieve their maximum health potential.” Save for the malady of the wandering husband, one wonders what physical maladies of aging are actually cured by breast augmentation and laser vaginal rejuvenation?But in this rhetoric lies a semantic trick. Beauty is conceptually replaced by health, and this ostensible emphasis on our well-being comes from organizations focused on treating the signs of health, rather than health itself.
The GIAA isn’t the only organization co-opting the language of health to talk about an idealized notion of “ageless” beauty. Many cosmetic surgery clinics and doctors are now practicing “aesthetic medicine.” The term “aesthetic medicine” suggests that aging, far from being a natural process, can, like the flu, be cured. If aging is something of which we can be cured, then a body or a face visibly aging, by extension, must be ill. This rhetoric equates wrinkles with disease and trains us to believe that looking old means being sick. Those who dare to age gracefully, or dare to age at all, are condemned to become diseased. When we come to associate visible aging with illness, we forego the traditional associations of age with wisdom, experience and maturity for notions of contagion, weakness and disability. History and literature have given us such a notion before, with cruel and socially disastrous results. Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed a similar sentiment when he said “Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue,” the converse of which implies that ugliness was the mark set upon vice, and thus our women deemed unbeautiful or nonconformist were hanged as witches and the asylums and prisons were filled with the deformed. On the homepage of GIAA’s website, cut flowers bracket an image of a woman and this command: “Discover ageless beauty;” the current cover of New Beauty magazine asks “Can you achieve ageless beauty?” Perhaps we should ask this question instead: if something is ageless, can it be beautiful at all? A legion of poets, not the least of whom was John Keats, wouldn’t have thought so. “She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die,” Keats said so famously in his “Ode on Melancholy,” referring to the way that the beauty of things depends so entirely on their transience. Beauty, in the form of cut flowers and lotus blossoms, sunshine and sunsets, cirrus clouds and autumn leaves, snowflakes and ice storms, children and yes, young adulthood--moves us precisely because it is fragile, fluid, fleeting, susceptible to change. And if youth is beautiful because it does not last, in our attempt to capture it, do we not destroy what was precious about it in the process?
Today we can purchase new bodies as easily as cars. More easily, in fact, and with less paperwork. We should be grateful, perhaps, for the lack of paperwork, lest prospective partners start asking for CarFax-style reports about our bodies, to check on just how far we’ve tried to roll back the mileage. The voice of the GIAA wants to overhaul every body to trade in or to trade up. In this market, our commodified bodies are our stock in trade. Implicit at the very base of the radio commercial, the fliers and the magazine was the premise that the question of whether or not to go under the knife is moot; the question for a woman is no longer “Should I get surgery?” The fundamental question has become something else entirely; not “Should I get surgery?” but “Where should I get which surgery?”
Here is the true story of a wealthy couple, much of it the stuff of cliché: man and woman become husband and wife; wife puts in 33 years, many of them lean while husband makes his fortune only to promptly leave wife in old age to wed an ex-beauty queen, a woman forty years his junior and possessed of the requisite SoCal face—Botoxed, augmented, tucked and Restylipped. There was, of course, all the usual nasty gossip surrounding the union, the universal acknowledgment that everyone certainly knew what she was after. Despite this, the couple and their public presented to one another a superficial suspension of disbelief, a tacitly manufactured acknowledgment that the businessman and the beauty queen shared a romantic love deeper than the billionaire’s pocket. It came then, as an all the more disquieting shock when, during the wedding ceremony, as the minister recited, “And do you, Penelope, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer…” and upon the word “poorer,” the bride was unable suppress her laughter, a derisive snort. That laugh said, “You’re buying me, you old bastard, and don’t you forget it.” That laugh said, “You’re buying me, and there is no more negotiating the price.”
Months later, men and women at the Orange County Art Museum in Newport Beach were negotiating prices, ostensibly in support of Planned Parenthood. At the Haute Wired Ball, an auctioneer offered designer purses, heli-skiing trips to Vail, hybrid cars, couture jeans and oil paintings to patrons sprawled across the teak seats of $5,000 cabanas. Most of the women in the room looked eerily the same, a legion of Stepford trophy wives who attended the same Botox parties and patronized the same cosmetic surgeons for the same nips and tucks. There’s a hip-hop song that used to get a lot of play on the radio, on MTV and in the nightclubs. It’s called “Gold-digger” and it’s a mix of rap by Kanye West and samples of Jamie Foxx remaking an old Ray Charles song. As the title indicates, the song is about women using and abusing men for their money, a “poor me” anthem for the wealthy man. The climax of the song is a call and response. Call: “If you ain’t no punk, holla’, we want pre-nup!” Response: “We want pre-nup!” When the dj played this song at the Haute Wired Ball, teetering women and manicured men raised their fists in the air, grinned and shouted along: “Holla’, we want pre-nup! We want pre-nup!” At the time, I was delighted in the self-conscious absurdity of the spectacle, that roomful of discounted Penelopes laughing at hapless priests, a whole gaggle of husbands and wives flushed with the catharsis of confession, publicly and giddily acknowledging one to one another and to everyone else that they’d all been bought and sold and combodified for a tangible price.
Later I spent some time researching pre-nuptial agreements in California, and I learned that some agreements specify parameters for the woman’s weight. In some cases, gaining 20 pounds has been specified as legal grounds for divorce and financial ruin. Considering that, the scene at the art museum didn’t seem as funny anymore; rather it seemed a sad explanation for the women’s obvious relationships with their surgeons.
Then again, maybe that wasn’t it at all. Maybe my interpretation of the scene—my dismissal of those women, my assumption that those women were gold-diggers in the first place—combodified them more than anything they’ve ever implanted or injected or cut from themselves. Of course we desire what makes us desirable. But once we’ve bought into this cultural standard of beauty and transformed ourselves into identical figurines rolling predictably off an assembly line, we make ourselves look as if we are the things that can be bought.
Advertising elective cosmetic surgery as if the decision to alter ourselves is as simple as buying a used car turns us all into pre-owned vehicles - our worth negotiable, our parts replaceable. Redesigning and purchasing our body parts is an attempt to increase our market value, to take some control over setting our own sticker price. In doing so, it seems that we, the purchasers, become the purchase.
Our commodified bodies are no longer so much under our control as they are controlled by the changing forces of the market on which we trade them. The commodified body can become a screen onto which other people, like projectors, can run the films they want to see. Once we become combodities, we can - like objects - be collected, possessed, returned, traded up, or relegated to a “proper” place in which we belong. Figuratively, a world like that is one in which we’re all trapped in our cars in L.A. during rush hour, defenseless, alone.
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons. “Briefing Papers: Plastic Surgery for Teenagers.” 2008.
22 January 2008. http://www.plasticsurgery.org/media/briefing_papers/Plastic-Surgery-for- Teenagers-Briefing-Paper.cfm.
Bhattacharya, Dr. A.K., “Plastic Surgery Plus.” http://plasticsurgeryplus.net/enhance.htm.
22 January 2008.
Brush, Pippa. “Metaphors of Inscription: Discipline, Plasticity and the Rhetoric of Choice.” Feminist Review, No. 58, International Voices (Spring, 1998), pp. 22-43.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” 1836. American Transcendentalism Web. 23 January 23, 2008. http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/naturetext.html#1
The Genetic Institute for Anti-Aging. “Anti-Aging.” 2007. 22 January, 2008. www.getyournewlook.com/anti-aging.html.
Keats, John. “Ode on Melancholy.” 1819. The Poetical Works of John Keats. 1884.
New Beauty Magazine. “About NewBeauty.” Sandow Media 2008. 22 January 2008 www.newbeauty.com/about.html.
Ollivier, Debra. “Designer Vaginas.” Salon. Nov 14, 2000. 23 January 2008.http://archive.salon.com/sex/feature/2000/11/14/vagina/index.html
 For a related article see Debra Ollivier’s Salon.com piece entitled “Designer Vaginas.” Olliver says, “In a moment of unguarded candor, [Dr.] Matlock himself [of the Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation Institute of Los Angeles] suggests that a tight vagina might help you keep your man from running after younger women when he leans forward and asks, ‘Why not have the best sex you can at home? Why not? You tell me why these 40-, 50-, 60-year-old men are running after younger women? They want these women with these nice, hot, tight –‘ he puts his hands out here emphatically for me to finish the sentence. ‘Why is that?’ he persists. (Which begs another question: Is surgically modifying your vagina the answer?)”
 The American Society of Plastic Surgeons claims that “Adults tend to have plastic surgery to standout from others;” despite this, the obvious result of widespread plastic surgery is that we all begin to look the same. For example, collectively, 83% of female breast augmentation patients, across boundaries of age, weight, height, ethnicity, or frame, request a breast size of 36C or D (Bhattacharya).