ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2715 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218-4319.
CAREER: Writer and corporate communications specialist.
Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1998.
SIDELIGHTS: In Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery author Elizabeth Haiken takes a look at the Western world's obsession with the pursuit of beauty through cosmetic surgery. Haiken outlines the historical evolution of plastic surgery without making suggestions about its future implications and directions. But according to Sunday Times book reviewer Zoe Heller, Haiken does her readers a service by going beyond the traditional treatment of the subject. Instead of railing against plastic surgery from a feminist standpoint, the author admits that women have been more than passive victims in the growth of the industry since the early twentieth century. Haiken looks at the history of the phenomenon that has been dominated by male surgeons and has catered largely to female patients. Heller found Haiken's treatment not that of an irritable feminist, but of a historian reporting on her troubling and sad research results.
Elective cosmetic surgery was practiced in the early 1900s sparingly; most reputable doctors reserved these efforts for victims of wars or accidents. But a few individuals, who were considered quacks, offered what were the beginning face lift efforts. Other doctors could not escape noticing the demand for these services or the potentially lucrative trend that was developing. As the number of doctors practicing elective cosmetic surgery grew, these doctors also started to focus on other parts of the body such as breasts or thighs. According to Haiken, the perception of cosmetic surgery has traveled further from being perceived as narcissism, making it easier for those who desire it and can afford it to justify it in their minds. Between 1982 and 1992, people who said that they approved of plastic surgery increased by fifty percent and disapproval ratings fell by sixty-six percent.
While Haiken makes no predictions about the future of cosmetic surgery, she does offer some suggestions for combating the trend. Women should take "collective action," says the author, and a standard that defines beauty internally. Haiken suggests that women contribute their annual cosmetic budget to women's social causes instead. But Haiken also acknowledges the deep roots that contribute to a woman's feelings of inferiority about her appearance. These feelings come, not only from society, but from formative interactions that people (particularly women) have in adolescence when they are busy measuring themselves up to the so-called beauty of others. It is particularly important, suggests Haiken, for fathers to help instill confidence in their daughters in regard to appearance.
Taking examples from real life, Haiken uses the stories of two well known celebrities to illustrate her points about Western society's comfort, or discomfort, with their personal looks. Barbra Streisand is presented as an example of a person confident enough to live with her nose, even while living in appearance-obsessed southern California. Michael Jackson went the other way to advance his career and presents a picture of what Joan Jacobs Brumberg of the Nation called "racial discomfort." Brumberg noted that Haiken also describes another interesting aspect of cosmetic surgery; it has gained face in the late twentieth century by attaching itself to the self-help and self-improvement movements. Southern California appears to be a leader in this area, where many children are routinely shuffled to plastic surgeons in an attempt to improve their self-esteem. Brumberg cited instances in southern California of widely available and massively advertised plastic surgery opportunities. She called southern California the future of plastic surgery and a place that propagates the "cult of beauty and youth." A reviewer in the Economist declared Haiken's treatment of cosmetic surgery "entertaining," but warned that the trend is not likely to "go away" soon.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, November 1, 1997, p. 443.
Economist, February 14, 1998, review of Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery, pp. R15-R16.
Entertainment Weekly, January 23, 1998, p. 58.
Journal of the American Medical Association, July 24, 1998, p. 2006.
Lancet, January 31, 1998, p. 377.
Library Journal, October 1, 1997, p. 110.
London Review of Books, November 27, 1997, pp. 11-12.
Nation, December 29, 1997, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, review of Venus Envy, pp. 38-40.
Sunday Times, June 28, 1998, Zoe Heller, review of Venus Envy, pp. 1-2.
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (November 21, 1997), Michelle Goldberg, review of Venus Envy.
Wisconsin Public Radio—To the Best of Our Knowledge: The Quest for Beauty,http://www.wpr.org/book/980111c.htm (April 8, 1999).