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"Facelift" is a term that encompasses a variety of surgical procedures intended to restore sagging facial skin to youthful smoothness. Conventionally, incisions are made around the frontal hairline and ears allowing the facial skin to be detached by inches and "buffed" underneath, then "lifted" in an upward pull, trimmed, and sutured. The aftermath includes bleeding, swelling, bruising, and sometimes regret and depression at electing to undergo this surgery. The facelift represents the consumer potential of post-World War II society to purchase beauty and success in addition to material goods. The decades since the 1950s have seen the term facelift generalized to include specific surgical facial enhancements, from eye-lid and jaw-line lifts, to nose reshapings and lip implants. Hi-tech tools of the 1980s and 1990s have produced specialty procedures, including laser hair removal and collagen and body-fat injections.

By the 1990s, the facelift was but a core element within a North American growth industry of medical procedures, out-patient clinics, and cosmetic products, all of which can be subsumed under the wider term "beauty culture." Beauty culture is nurtured by the print media, particularly glamour and lifestyle magazine genres (for example, Vogue and Cosmopolitan), sold in drugstores and convenience stores across the continent. Such mass-marketed magazines create and promote the illusionist images and ideology of beauty culture, often using teen models in advertisements and fashion spreads to emulate the sleek look of worldly women. Commonly, these magazines also feature culturally correct articles on the pros and cons of cosmetic surgery and related procedures. Drug and department stores, as well as specialty "anti-aging" shops, carry out the magazines' pervasive double-coded system of "dos" and "don'ts," selling treatment products, creams, and lotions whose packaging adopts the familiar language ("lift," "firming") of the surgical facelift and of advertising rhetoric.

Beauty culture underlies the American entertainment industry, with pop stars such as Michael Jackson and Cher reinventing themselves as plastic icons, as if they were born into their altered bodies. Over the course of their numerous surgeries, Jackson and Cher have become self-parodies; respectively, specimens of racial bleaching and frozen glamour. Cher was the central player in a television infomercial endorsing so-called revolutionary face-care products, the hypocrisy being that Cher's appearance is not the result of these potions.

The surgical lifts, implants, and failed body alterations of popular culture figures have been fodder for tabloid television and newspapers, circulating a mixed message of celebrity surveillance and social warning. They reveal both the lure and baggage of the American star system in movies, pop music, and television. Pamela Anderson's Barbi-doll iconography has only shifted laterally between beach babe (Baywatch), centerfold (Playboy), movie vixen (Barb Wire), and sex object (x-rated "honeymoon" video with Tommy Lee). The processes of retaining a seemingly ageless public face have been taken up by figures in American political culture as well as by middle-class women, men, and even teens who can afford the procedures. When she was the First Lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan's perpetual startled expression in media images gave the impression of either too many facelifts or overdetermined surgery. The presumed power of looking white and Western is being adopted by women of China who, despite poor wages, pursue for themselves and their daughters the eyelid surgery that gives them the "fold" that Asiatics genetically lack. Skin bleaching among Chinese women is another signal that the West, especially American popular culture, sets global standards of beauty and achievement.

In 1982, filmmaker Michael Rubbo's documentary, Daisy: The Story of a Facelift addressed the processes and implications of the facelift in twentieth century culture. What he finds in his middle-aged title subject, Daisy, is a nostalgic desire to redress personal and emotional insecurity by making herself romantically fit, through a facelift, for a phantom suitor. The facelift scene in Rubbo's documentary is performed on a man who, like Daisy, also seeks an improved image for his personal security. Both Daisy and this man adopt the same path, cracking the gender assumption that only women are the subjects and consumers of the facelift. What we as privileged viewers observe through Rubbo's camera in the surgical theatre is a drama that resembles the gruesome imagery associated with the horror film. Rubbo's research prompted him to conclude that in North American the face is our most "mobile body part" … "a moving image" in the desire for uniform, look-alike faces rather than unique physical character.

At the end of the twentieth century, when both visible and hidden piercings and tattoos are commonplace, it should not be surprising that even female genitalia must pass the test of the voyeur's gaze, as North American middle-class and "trophy" women apparently are flocking to cosmetic surgical clinics to undergo the labial "trim." This replication of the high production photographic look established by Playboy in the 1960s implies that the public and private body in contemporary culture is a series of discrete components that can be standardized in the industrial manner of auto-parts manufacturing.

—Joan Nicks

Further Reading:

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women. New York, William Morrow, 1991.