Making the Cut: How Cosmetic Surgery Is Transforming our Lives

April 2, 2009

There is no doubt that elective cosmetic surgery and related non-invasive procedures are on the rise and more accessible than ever, largely because of the increased presence in mass media (in the form of advertising and makeover reality TV programmes such as Ten Years Younger, The Swan, Extreme Makeover, I Want a Famous Face, and so on). How one perceives the increase and normalisation of cosmetic surgery as a cultural phenomenon is dependent upon, among other things, one's politics, one's age and appearance, and one's gender. In Making the Cut: How Cosmetic Surgery Is Transforming our Lives, Anthony Elliott approaches developments in cosmetic surgery culture in the same way most newspaper reporters have - through mock moral outrage and repeated use of words such as "crazed" and "obsessed". While this book is a good read with some clever analysis and juicy titbits, it is sensationalist and almost entirely unwilling to engage with what should be a central component of any evaluation of cosmetic surgery culture: gender.

Elliott combines a thorough examination of media texts from across the globe with qualitative research in the form of interview data to create his argument, that cosmetic surgery culture is inextricably linked with a new global economy. His consideration of cosmetic surgery culture, specifically "surgical tourism" (the trend of Westerners travelling to places such as Malaysia for deeply discounted surgery paired with spa-like recovery experiences), the transformation of conditions of employment for middle-class workers that require incredible flexibility and ruthlessness in an increasingly technologised workplace, and the influence of the neoliberal ideology of individualism on the growing expectation that people will have cosmetic surgery as a form of maintenance, are all useful contributions to the field of study.

However, Elliott fails to move the study of trends in cosmetic surgery beyond its initial shock value, something the book's chapter titles indicate clearly: "Drastic plastic: The rise of cosmetic surgical culture"; "Celebrity obsession: Fame, fortune and faking it"; "Want-now consumerism: Immediate transformation, instant obsolescence"; and "Making the cut: Cosmetic surgical culture in the global electronic economy". Coupled with his methodological decision to create "fictional stories" out of his interview data, which "condens[es] the specifics of narratives", Elliott reduces his subjects to one-dimensional caricatures in such a way that it prevents sustained critical analysis that does anything more than point out the obvious (ideological) problems associated with the new atmosphere of cosmetic surgery.

When Elliott does acknowledge the gender issue inherent in cosmetic surgery culture, he also brushes it off: "In any case, and whatever the cause of the massive discrepancy between the sexes in terms of cosmetic consumerism, women account for roughly 90 per cent of cosmetic surgery patients in the United States." By ignoring this massive discrepancy throughout the book, his argument is less nuanced than it could be. Similarly, he discounts the work of several feminist scholars by arguing that their jargon-filled theory is not close enough to the "real thing" of cosmetic surgery culture, and yet he borrows heavily from the body of work he so flippantly disregards (see the work of Virginia Blum, Susan Bordo, Deborah Covino and Kathy Davis).

What the author does well is describe the trends of consumer society that affect cosmetic surgery culture, the heightened appeal to individualism and immediacy, and the fears of ageing and mortality that creep into the continuing barrage of products and procedures on offer. Readers will appreciate his commitment to approach cosmetic surgery culture as it exists in media representations of "real people", which reflects the ubiquity of cosmetic surgery culture and its ability to reach beyond celebrity culture and major urban centres. It will be interesting to see what effect the global economic downturn has on cosmetic surgery culture, and whether the recent media flurry over national protectionism (in the US specifically) has an impact on the trends Elliott traces.

Making the Cut: How Cosmetic Surgery Is Transforming our Lives

By Anthony Elliott. Reaktion Books, 160pp, £14.95. ISBN 9781861893710. Published 15 April 2008

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