Plastic Surgery: Life Choice, Fine Art, and More

Debbie says:

From the BBC, we have this story of a mother who decided to look like her daughter. Twelve thousand British pounds and at least four surgeries later, she achieved her goal.

This isn’t the world’s newest story. When I was 16, I met a mother and daughter who had had hers-and-hers nose jobs to “look like each other.” (The real goal was to “look less Jewish,” but they would never have said that.) Full body mods aren’t new; we just have more and more sophisticated techniques for them.

In this story, Janet Cunliffe had a bad relationship breakup in her late 40s and was feeling bad about herself. Looking at her daughter made her feel better, so she set out to make herself feel better from top to bottom.

I can’t fault an individual for making a choice that gives her self-esteem and satisfaction. At the same time, I’m also aware that whatever she did to keep herself from looking 50, she didn’t change the fact that her body is aging. Unless something much worse happens first, the day is coming when Jane Cunliffe (the daughter) will have to watch her mother get old and eventually die, and no amount of plastic surgery postpones that experience. (Janet Cunliffe is fortunate that her surgery doesn’t appear to have hastened it.)

More and more, we live in a world where, if you have money, you can decide how you want to look. The simple nose job is a thing of the past, and has been replaced by “fine art” plastic surgery, as evidenced by this (videotape and photography only, thank goodness!) gallery exhibit in New York City’s fashionable Tribeca district.

The curator is a plastic surgeon who has training as an architect, experience as a medical illustrator and a busy practice in northern New Jersey. Along with his own work he has selected that of three colleagues: an Italian specialist in pediatric plastic surgery; a partner in the Cosmetic Surgery Center of Maryland and a breast surgery specialist who also paints, sculptures and collects art; and another New Jerseyite, with a particular interest in body contouring, a sideline in painting and drawing, and a membership in the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

Not caring to advertise these surgeons, I’ve taken their names out of that paragraph.

How is their art, which is also their surgery, best described? The human body is their medium, the operating room their studio. The tools of their craft include multifarious cutting, clamping, probing and sewing devices, as well as digital and laser technologies. Most of the work that results is a living art.

For purposes of a gallery display, however, we get photographs and videos of those bodies, often seen before, during and after surgery, in the process of being patched and stitched, augmented or reduced, subtly adjusted or utterly transformed.

Holland Cotter, New York Times art critic, sums up the exhibit:

Personally, I have no problem with accepting the work in “I Am Art” as art. A thing of beauty is a joy, whether forever or for a day, and if a doctor-artist can turn you into one, that’s art to me. And if he can rescue a body from serious ruin and a soul from despair, God bless him; he’s as good as Michelangelo. Does he cater to the rich and charge too much? Check out all the drecky Picassos still selling for huge prices at auction. Do all those nose jobs look pretty much alike? Check out paintings in Chelsea galleries these days.

The big problem with the Apexart show, as least for certain sensitive types, is looking at some of it. Dr. Cohen’s pictures of breast enhancement are as agreeable as lingerie advertisements, but his colleagues deliver some pretty strong stuff. Many artists do their work in private and give you only a final, polished product, leaving the scraps, scrapings and splots on the studio floor. Here you get the whole schmeer — the blood, the guts, the slice, the equivalent of Counter-Reformation paintings of martyrdoms, but with real bodies.

These two stories feel like the same story to me: they’re about wanting the results without confronting the underlying truths. Leaving aside the standard rants about culturally simplified definitions of beauty, prejudice against aging, class divisions in who can have this, and so forth, I’m left pondering two questions:

First is how much does changing our looks, fundamentally changing our looks, really change who we are and what’s in store for us? And second is what does it mean to look at perfectly sculpted bodies without looking at what it takes to get them there? When I saw America the Beautiful I was struck by the clip showing a woman whose simple facelift left her in permanent nerve pain; that story doesn’t get told often enough.

There’s an old dictum that laws and sausages are better if you don’t see how they’re made. Maybe “conventionally beautiful faces and bodies” are being added to that list. In this context, I’m actually rather grateful to the plastic surgeons for including the disquieting bits in their exhibit.

Thanks to Kerry Ellis for the Cunliffe pointer.

14 thoughts on “Plastic Surgery: Life Choice, Fine Art, and More

  1. I’m wondering if you know about Orlan, the French artist whose face and body is her artistic medium. It seems like this exhibit in New York has inverted Orlan’s paradigm–where she positions herself as the artist, and the plastic surgeons with whom she works as the fabricators and facilitators of her art, these folks seem to be defining the surgeons as the artists and the subjects as raw material.

  2. I was going to mention Orlan as well. We studied her in one of my sculpture classes in college with a focus on “The Reincarnation of Saint-ORLAN” which was the series of plastic surgeries/performances the above poster mentioned (

    I actually got into quite a spectacular argument with my instructor. He thought she was a genius, I thought she was crazy.

  3. I … think I need some more time to digest this.
    I don’t have enough brain cells to spare to parse the myriad of issues here.
    I’ll be back.

  4. For some reason when I read this post, I kept thinking about the recent “talent show” phenomenon, Susan Boyle. If this link works you can see and hear her

    I have watched this clip a few times and it continues to move me to tears and a kind of inspiration. But I wasn’t sure whether it was totally relevant to this discussion of pure visual image as a work of art. So I thought about it a few days and still when I look at this plastic surgery post, I keep coming back to what about Susan Boyle moved me (and I think anyone who watches and hears her) so much. It was the sheer force of her voice reaching past the image of an unremarkable middle-aged woman. I’ve seen this many times among people who are not instantly accepted in our visual culture, a lot of us who are fat, old or disabled do it as a matter of course, reaching out, making a connection when people try to dismiss us. Probably why the YouTube clip moved me so much–and why I haven’t been able to rouse myself to watch the “Fine Art of plastic surgery” clip, which I believe would sadden me in a way I’m just not able to endure just now.

  5. Julia and Devi, I never heard of Orlan; I’m checking her out. I have to say I find it somewhat more interesting when the person is the artist and the doctors are the medium than vice versa.

    LittleM, please do come back when you’ve gathered your thoughts.

    Lynne, I’m so conflicted about the Susan Boyle issue. I think she’s wonderful (of course, doesn’t everyone?), but I just don’t get why anyone would be surprised that she “looks ordinary” (whatever that means) and can sing. I think I understand the connection you’re drawing, but to even draw that connection there has to be an underlying belief that talent and beauty are somehow linked, which I just don’t believe.

  6. I think that in our culture, at least, there is an underlying belief that talent and beauty, or at least attractiveness, are linked.

    I also think that there’s an underlying belief that beauty or athletic kill and intelligence are somehow not linked, as if that’s unfair. Witness the many “Susan St James – beautiful AND she has an IQ of 200! Astonishing!” or “Wow, Brooke Shields went to Harvard – who’d expect that?” type articles. I see this too with pro athletes but can’t think of an example at the moment. “you wouldn’t expect a running back to have a PhD but he got a degree in economics!”

  7. Ack! I just composed a long reply to Debbie’s point about Susan Boyle and vaporized it! Essentially, aside from Boyle’s voice and spirit, I was intrigued by the drama she had set up (I think consciously) to shatter expectations and hold the mirror up to the prejudice involved in expecting a singer to look a certain way. Certainly she has dealt with these throughout the time she’s been trying to sing professionally.

    She was using a small window of opportunity to show her talent and by creating a mini drama casting herself as the outsider, underdog she captured public attention more forcefully. As far as the media goes “Man Bites Dog is a story, Dog bites Man is not a story.” I was really impressed, and not less moved by considering how she used the cards she was dealt.

    Also I have to just say about talent versus beauty (or perhaps we mean “conventional packaging” rather than beauty, because “beauty” is endlessly debatable), I couldn’t help but think back to that song from “A Chorus Line” entitled “Dance 10, Looks 3” which brings us back to art and plastic surgery. I think you should be able to access it at:

  8. I find this entire discussion fascinating. I was “supposed” to be beautiful – but have an autoimmune disorder that affects my skin and weight – and I’m very strong and athletic (men and women have a hard time reconciling that; especially when my skin is behaving and I look pretty and hit as hard as a man)

  9. “I can’t fault an individual for making a choice that gives her self-esteem and satisfaction.”

    I can, at least in this case. I’m pretty creeped out by the mother who had plastic surgery to look like her daughter. It feels like a kind of appropriation to me. Whatever is going on in her head, it is far, far beyond “looking at my daughter made me feel good at a difficult time.” If that were the case, all she had to do was…spend time with her daughter. Or look at photos of the daughter on a regular basis. Instead, she adopted her daughter’s appearance.

    If it were a stranger having surgery to look like the daughter, it would look like a kind of stalking. What is it when the mother does it?

  10. Lisa, to me that’s the absolute core issue of all feminist work. You (and I) may be creeped out or disturbed or even repulsed by people’s decisions, and we may believe that those decisions are driven by media and cultural pressures. At the same time, what I’ve learned is that I have to support everyone’s (and especially every woman’s) right to make her own choice, and remember that no matter how much I may think her choice is a) poor judgment, and/or b) formed by social pressures, if I write her off as either stupid or noticeably more malleable than I am, that’s an essential disrespect which undermines not just her but also me.

    I can and I do have my judgments about people’s choices. At the same time, I can’t fault those choices if they work for the person.

  11. We could have a several-books-long discussion about choice, the nature of choice, the intersection of feminism and choice, what support is and what it means to support someone’s choice (which I realize is different from supporting someone’s right to choose).

    I don’t believe all choices are equivalent; I do believe some choices are bad for women. I don’t believe that disagreeing with some choices means I consider the person making that choice either stupid or noticeably more malleable than I am. When it comes to discussions with individuals, saying “I think you’re making a mistake and here’s why” can mean “I respect your ability to consider alternatives.”

    1. We’re probably mostly in agreement here. For me, one factor is that I’m not face to face with her, and I don’t claim to know what went into her choices. All I can know is what they look like to me from where I sit.

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