Women who get foot facelifts to be able to wear their $500 Jimmy Choo shoes. Men who lie to several doctors in order to make sure they get Botox shots every eight weeks. Young women modelling themselves on porn stars. People willingly having themselves injected with corpse flesh and collagen derived from the stem cells of an infant’s foreskin to get Angelina Jolie-like lips. Makeover subjects who all end up looking the same, conforming to the same dull beauty ideal. Bel Air wives who spend all day looking after their own bodies. Women who pose topless at websites in order to earn money for breast implants. Dentists who insist that they, too, are entitled to perform plastic surgery so as to be able to cash in on the beauty fad. Quacks selling bootleg ‘Botox’ that ends up ruining several people’s lives. These are just a few of the people described in Beauty Junkies, a look at America’s $15 billion cosmetic surgery industry by New York Times journalist Alex Kuczynski, herself a former beauty junkie who needed a pretty harsh wake-up call to realise that maybe, maybe, she and several million Americans were taking their obsession with looking good a bit too far.
Kuczynski quotes some staggering figures to prove that America is well and truly obsessed with cosmetic surgery. She cites famous and less famous surgeons, talks to extreme beauty junkies as well as ‘regular’ people undergoing surgery, describes mind-boggling new beautification techniques and demonstrates quite ably that in today’s America, looks are everything, to the point where girls do not want to be good – just look good. Needless to say, much of the book focuses on extremes, but even so, one gets the feeling that these extremes might one day become normal – that they’re harbingers of what is to come for America as well as the rest of the world. It’s a scary thought.
What I enjoyed most about the book was the chapter in which Kuczynski traces the historical origins of plastic surgery, in an age when it had nothing to do with getting bigger boobs, but everything with being made somewhat socially acceptable. Kuczynski describes sixteenth-century nose jobs which were awfully uncomfortable to the patients and frequently resulted in noses falling off in cold weather, disastrous late-nineteenth-century attempts to fill facial lines, and early-twentieth-century techniques to restore the faces of WWI soldiers who had had their jaws blown off in combat. It’s fascinating stuff and I wish she had devoted a bit more attention to it. Instead, however, she very quickly takes us to the present day, describing all manner of obsessions, excesses and nasty experiences (including a few of her own) to convince us that things have got a little out of hand. Well, we knew that, didn’t we?
My main problem with Beauty Junkies is that it is incoherent and unfocused. Kuczynski has some interesting, well-researched stories to tell, and she undeniably has an easy-to-read writing style, but the way the stories are linked together is not particularly smooth. It is clear the book started out as a collection of newspaper articles rather than as a scholarly endeavour, making it rather less successful as an in-depth analysis of a cultural phenomenon. Furthermore, it seems Kuczynski cannot make up her mind as to whether the book is to be about herself or not. She brings up her own experiences far too many times for Beauty Junkies to be an objective read, but too few times to make it a proper memoir. Instead it’s a rather curious mix of research, gossip and ego-babble – definitely interesting, but not as revealing and effective as it could and should have been.