The story of how credit and cosmetic surgery have created a subprime mortgage crisis of the body.
In this provocative book, sociologist Laurie Essig traces the history of plastic surgery, tracks the effect of fashion and porn on our desire to “fix” ourselves, and explores our image- and youth-obsessed culture. In over two hundred interviews of plastic surgeons and surgery recipients, Essig creates an unforgettable portrait of contemporary America. American Plastic is a powerful and original commentary on the relationship between cosmetic surgery, credit, and culture.
“Laurie Essig provides a freewheeling, interdisciplinary commentary on the special connections between culture, economics, and the cosmetic-surgery industry. Through fieldwork with consumers as well as providers, she explores with humor and understanding the willingness of Americans to take on high-interest loans to reshape their bodies. If you know nothing about the medical-credit world, this is a revealing and provocative book.” —Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls and Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa
“Since Dustin Hoffman heard that memorable ‘just one word,’ plastic has re-made American society. In a stroke of brilliance, Laurie Essig brings together plastic credit cards, bodies, and gender identities by telling the story of how economic insecurity has intersected with the celebrity culture and the neo-liberal ideology of choice. Essig’s well-researched and original analysis deserves our serious attention.” —Juliet Schor, author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth
“American Plastic is a playful but deadly earnest reportage on plastic America—the fateful collisions of cosmetic surgery and credit (which pays for most of it), beauty and pornography (which now defines beauty), and technology and perfection (which technology affects to make possible). Capturing the many meanings of plastic and plasticity, Laurie Essig portrays a society which, on the way to trying to remake the female body, is unmaking its core reality in ways equally devastating to women and the economy. Women will read this book, men need to.” —Benjamin R. Barber, author of Jihad vs. McWorld and Consumed, Distinguished Senior Fellow, DEMOS
“A fascinating, original, and engaging exploration of the connection between plastic surgery and our economic crisis. Laurie Essig illuminates the dark side of the promise of perfection and offers inspirational strategies for change.” —Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., creator of the Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women film series and author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel
“American Plastic is an incisive analysis and critique of the rise of the cosmetic surgery industry. Challenging the underpinnings of contemporary Neoliberalism, which spawned an unregulated ‘cosmetic industrial complex’ that is fueled by rising economic inequality and socially irresponsible consumer lending, Essig illuminates the political, social, and economic costs of the uniquely American quest for ‘perfection.’ Its narrative ying and yang of boob jobs and credit cards gives new meaning to ‘plastic peril.’”
—Robert D. Manning, author, Credit Card Nation, and Director, Institute for Consumer Financial Services
“Will likely be controversial, but Essig offers fascinating and troubling insights into the American psyche.”—-Kirkus Reviews
Cosmetic Surgery and Sex
By the 1920s, Americans were obsessed with the actress Fanny Brice’s nose job. The mixture of sex and race in Brice’s career is impossible to fully separate, since it was her Jewishness that made her “funny” (as immortalized by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl ), but it was the fact that Brice wanted to look “beautiful”--which is to say fully female and white--that made her undergo a nose job in 1923.33 Since then, the bodies that we want to imitate are not just two-dimensional and therefore unreal, but surgically altered before they’re even photographed. We now imitate bodies that never existed. Through prestigious imitation, plastic surgery has spread from being a necessity for matinee idols to a necessity for the rest of us, as we are all trapped in a two-dimensional visual culture that rewards bodies that look good on-screen. Because women were the first shoppers and continue to dominate consumption, accounting for about 80 percent of all purchases, they were also the most obvious audience for advertisers.34 Advertising taught women--and then men--to want to look like bodies that cannot exist “in nature.”
So it was that being a woman in the twentieth century often required not just cosmetics, but cosmetic surgery. Both the first professional meeting of plastic surgeons and the first Miss America pageant were held in the late summer of 1921 because both wanted the same thing: clearly gendered, classed and raced beauties.35 The obsession with the female body continued to dominate cosmetic surgery throughout the century. The Depression came and went, but it did nothing to slow the growth of the cosmetics industry aimed almost exclusively at women.36 Cosmetic surgery continued to spread, reaching the upper middle classes in addition to the rich and famous.
World War II left a longing for large breasts in its wake, a longing that fed a growing practice in breast augmentation. Why Americans suddenly became obsessed with large breasts is an interesting question. Some theorize that it was the deprivation of the two wars and the Depression that caused a desire for women who looked full and abundant. Others theorize that it was the “foundation garment” industry that first invented the bra in the 1930s, with its cup sizes that required all women to fit into them or feel like a misfit. Surely 1950s anxiety over producing a “normal” girl, which increasingly fed into young girls’ desires for large breasts, shaped this obsession with “the sweater girl.”37
The year 1959 proved to be a watershed year for cosmetic surgery, since that was when Barbie was introduced to the American toy market and an entire generation of young girls A short history of plastic 17 grew up worshiping a form impossible to achieve without surgical intervention. As M. G. Lord points out in her biography of Barbie:
In Barbie’s early years, Mattel struggled to make its doll look like a real-life movie star. Today, however, real-life celebrities-- as well as common folk--are emulating her. The postsurgical Dolly Parton looks like the postsurgical Ivana Trump looks like the postsurgical Michael Jackson looks like the postsurgical Joan Rivers looks like . . . Barbie.”38
Women and even young girls became increasingly obsessed with having large breasts. “We must, we must, we must improve our busts” was chanted over and over again as a fervent prayer for C cups. Psychiatry named distress over small breasts “a significant problem.”39 Popular magazines and beauty advice books also “worried” about the size of women’s breasts.40 A variety of advertisements and articles offered breasts as a means of escaping the confinement of women’s postwar roles. For instance, the Maidenform “I Dream . . .” campaign, introduced in 1949, was the first advertising campaign to feature a woman in her underwear. The ads had women “dream” they went to Paris or won a political election or even just went shopping in their Maidenform bras. The Maidenform “Dream” campaign is “a classic example of wish-fulfillment psychology, as the fantasy situations of the ads fed women’s hunger for independence, romance, personal achievement, and even power and influence.”41
Ever anxious to please the public, plastic surgeons began experimenting with breast augmentation. Earlier surgeons had tried paraffin and fat injections, but the results were not good, and often deadly. In the early 1950s plastic surgeons tried medical- grade sponge implants. The sponges made the breasts look a bit like the padded bras that were also popular. The sponges didn’t really work, since they tended to harden and were often impossible to remove because surrounding tissue usually filled in and embedded the porous sponges. Increasingly, doctors and patients turned to silicone injections directly into the breasts, a highly dangerous practice that was allowed to continue for decades. By the early 1960s, the silicone implant had been invented, as well as early attempts at saline sacs that could be filled to capacity once inside the woman’s breasts. Although hardly perfect--for instance, the ridges usually could be felt through the skin--these implants were more or less stable, possibly safe, and, unlike earlier implants, did not result in disfigurement and scarring if they needed to be removed.42
Part I: American Plastic
1 A Short History of Plastic
2 The State of Plastic
3 Plastic People and Their Doctors
Part II: Boob Jobs and Credit Cards
4 Learning to Be Plastic: Magazines, TV, and Other Cultural Scripts
5 The Mirror and the Porn Star: Ideal Forms, osmetic Surgery, and Everyday Aesthetics
6 Broken Plastic
Part III: The Quest for Perfection
8 . . . Is Futile?
- Read a review of Laurie's work in Spirituality & Practice
- Read an interview with Laurie on Salon.com
- Read Laurie's blog at The Chronicle of Higher Ed’s Brainstorm blog
- Read an excpert of Laurie's book published in The Atlantic, "How Reaganomics Fueled the Boob Job Boom"
- Listen to interview with Laurie on WPR's Joy Cardin Show