Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Anthony Elliott: Quick fix brings long-term legacy

Face too wrinkled? Breasts too small? Thinking of cosmetic surgery to turn back the years that have taken their toll?

If you have considered going under the surgeon's knife to be nipped, tucked and stitched up, you're one of the many who see surgery as the fastest way to transform their lives.

Several recent academic studies reveal a dramatic rise in cosmetic surgery throughout the United States and Europe (particularly France, Spain, Germany and Turkey), and Australia and New Zealand are fast following suit.

The middle classes are rushing to embrace the culture of nip and tuck.

Cosmetic surgery is fast becoming a lifestyle choice. This social trend is nowhere more powerfully reinforced than through today's fad for television makeover shows.

Programmes such as American ABC network's Extreme Makeover, which uses plastic surgery to "redesign" women, as well as various cable offerings including Cosmetic Surgery Live, The Swan and MTV's I Want a Famous Face, are creating a new emotional climate of personal vulnerability.

To what extent, as a society, should we be worried? Do advances in cosmetic surgery promote consumer choice, as argued by surgeons and their professional associations, or are we witnessing the emergence of a dangerous addiction?

Growing evidence suggests that the rush to undergo the knife is often at the cost of knowing about the long-term consequences of wounds and the healing process. Some studies indicate that the emotional costs of quick-fix cosmetic surgery can ruin lives, and indeed are sometimes lethal. These negative outcomes can be destructive: loss of personal identity, confusion, depression, breakdown and even suicide.

To what extent is reality TV to blame for the growth of cosmetic surgery? Many patients acknowledge that makeover programmes have persuaded them to go under the knife.

Others see the fault in celebrity obsession. The shape, size, diet, addictions and surgical enhancements of celebrity bodies are now topics of public obsession. However, today's reinvention craze - centred on cosmetic surgery - is symptomatic of something much larger than the influence of commercial media or celebrity culture.

One key factor in the rise of surgical culture is "want-now" consumerism.

In our quick-fix society, people want change and, increasingly, they want it instantly. Cosmetic surgery offers the promise of instant transformation.

More and more, cosmetic procedures - from Botox and collagen fillers to liposuction and breast augmentation - are reduced to a purchase mentality. There's an emerging generation of young people - whom I term the "Plastic Generation" - that treat cosmetic surgery as on a par with shopping: consumed fast and with immediate results.

Today's surgical culture promotes a fantasy of the body's infinite plasticity.

The message from the makeover industry is that there's nothing to stop you reinventing yourself however you choose; but your surgically-enhanced body is unlikely to make you happy for long, for today's surgical enhancements of the body are only fashioned with the short-term in mind. They are until "the next procedure".

But there's also a deeper set of social forces at work in this branding of cosmetic surgery as a consumer choice. The root of the problem is driven by globalisation - which is creating profound personal vulnerabilities.

Globalisation, and the speeding up of the world, brings with it major changes.

The economic facts of globalisation, where employment is more fluid and everything moves incredibly fast, has increased personal pressures to the point where people need to be seen to try to "transform" and "reinvent" themselves.

Driven by the fear of not measuring up to such cultural ideals, people desperately attempt to "refashion" themselves as more efficient, faster, leaner, and inventive than they were previously.

Society in the era of surgical culture is fundamentally shaped by this fear of disposability.

Not all that long ago, anyone who wanted cosmetic surgery would have been recommended therapy in the first instance. Today, by contrast, there is a widespread acceptance that surgical culture is beneficial and even desirable.

This cultural shift has not been heralded by advances in psychological understanding. But the flipside of today's reinvention craze is fear of personal disposability.

For those seduced by the promises of the makeover industry, the danger of cosmetic surgery is a form of change so rapid and so complete that identity becomes disposable. The wider social costs mean we are all debased by this soulless surgical culture.

* Anthony Elliott is professor of sociology at the University of Kent, UK. His book The New Individualism, published by Routledge, is written with Charles Lemert.

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