Depending on where you sit, television programs about plastic and cosmetic surgery are either the worst bane ever to ever hit the airwaves or the most thrilling entertainment you can find anywhere on the dial. A pop culture professor says the appeal of The Swan, Extreme Makeover, Dr. 90210, the soapy Nip/Tuck and others is due to Americans’ fascination with reinventing ourselves. Another expert maintains the appeal is actually a modern, high-tech retelling of Cinderella.
Daily, cosmetic and plastic surgeons face patients who have seen a particular operation on television and must sort out some commonly held myths about rejuvenation surgery.
According to several plastic surgeons, the first consultation usually goes something like this: “Yes, we do that procedure. No, it is not completed in twenty minutes. No, you will not spend two weeks in bed recuperating with a nurse at your beck and call. No, cosmetic surgery will not make your life a dream. No, we can’t make you look like Brad Pitt or Angela Jolie. No, we can’t do five different procedures in one session.”
A Quick Fix
But who can blame Jane and John Q. Public for being mislead? Reality shows often portray cosmetic surgery as a quick fix so more Americans than ever are taking the message to heart and going to see about that nip and tuck they’ve had in the back of their minds. Somewhere between 9.2 million and 11.4 cosmetic plastic surgery procedures were done in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the leading plastic surgery professional groups.
But much more than vanity, ego and narcissism are at work behind the appeal of the shows, say human behavior experts. “Americans are, and have always been, fascinated with reinvention,” Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture told CosmeticSurgery.com. “Settlers left the Old World for the new while waves of poor immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries also reinvented themselves. We again reinvented ourselves by moving West. In essence, the history of the United States has been one, big makeover show.”
Meredith Jones, lecturer and Ph.D. candidate, interviewed plastic surgery patients and their surgeons before and after their surgeries to find the appeal of the shows. It’s all in her Ph.D. thesis, “Makeover Culture: Landscapes of Cosmetic Surgery.”
A “Magical” Transformation
“Often, cosmetic surgery is seen as a ‘reward’ for hard work and for suffering in some way,” Jones says. “The lives of contestants and subjects on “The Swan” and “Extreme Makeover” are often presented like the Cinderella story wherein a woman has been selfless and hardworking. We then see them as the meritorious poor who are rewarded with a ‘magical’ transformation.”
And that, says Jones, removes cosmetic surgery from notions of vanity and frivolity in the minds of many viewers while linking it with labor, progress and merit.
Adds Sander Gilman, an Emory University professor who has studied the history of plastic surgery and written two books about the field: “By the year 2020, nobody will ask if you’ve had aesthetic surgery, they will ask why you have not had plastic surgery.”
Today, he says, it has become normal to be around people who opt to change their looks. But soon, the question will become, “Why are you walking around bald, fat or flat chested?
If you follow the scientific press or even the comments of plastic surgeons in magazines and newspapers, it’s no secret what most think. Surgeons see the shows as a distortion that plants in the minds of viewers that the field provides unrealistic quick fixes.
“The average person today getting cosmetic surgery is not a bored, rich lady but a working mom who just wants a single procedure to improve her appearance somewhat,” says Valeria J. Ablaza, M.D., F.A.C.S., a plastic surgeon at the Plastic Surgery Group. “But many programs show patients having months of surgery and winding up no longer resembling their former selves. Plus, the crazier the circumstances of the person’s life before surgery, the better it is for television.”
In response, Dr. Ablaza and her partner, Allen Rosen, M.D. have penned “Beauty in Balance,” a tome written to counter the effects of “Extreme Makeover” and “The Swan.”
Yet another plastic surgeon reacted — and took to the airways — when he first saw the plastic surgery drama, “Nip/Tuck.”
“I could not believe that show was portraying plastic surgeons as immoral, unethical, hypersexual beings,” says Robert Rey, M.D., one of the reality surgeon-stars seen on “Dr. 90210.” “I was highly offended and decided right then and there I would go on television to show what life is like for 99.99 percent of plastic surgeons who are honest, moral and monogamous.” Dr. Rey has been on “Dr. 90210” since July, 2004.
Adds Dr. Ablaza: “’Nip/Tuck’ is a black comedy that satirizes plastic surgery, the surgeons and the patients.”
According to Robert Kotler, M.D., another plastic surgeon