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Cosmetic surgery and ugly ducklings

A recent issue of Configurations (vol. 15, 2007, pgs. 1-99) focuses on those plastic surgery transformation television shows, especially Fox’s The Swan.  Introducing the essays that follow in the issue, Bernadette Wegenstein cites the crazy wider statistics:  (a) since 1997 the number of plastic surgery procedures in the United States has increased 446 percent; (b) in 2006, 7,915 Botox injections and 16,477 rhinoplasties were performed on adolescents, and (c) in 2006, 3,181,592 Botox injections were made.  A lot of this jump corresponds to the popularity of the makeover shows – ABC’s Extreme Makeover (2002), FX’s Nip and Tuck (2003), E! channel’s Dr. 90210 and MTV’s I Want a Famous Face and Fox’s The Swan (all premiered in 2004) – in 2004 (the peak year for these shows) surgeries increased by 44%.  In The Swan’s third season, the producers received 500,000 applications from people wanting to be selected.

The Swan received most of the attention in this collection, I suspect because it connects to the fairy tale we all know so well (whereas the MTV show is just creepy and the act of watching someone who wants to look exactly like Cher feels like voyeurism).  The childhood fantasy that one is trapped in a life she or he finds miserable, and that someday someone will come along to acknowledge the awful misrecognition that produced such a trap (babies switched at birth!  you are really a princess from Monaco! and so on), is among the most influential in our culture and helps to explain everything from the way our culture fetishizes superheroes (whose true fantastic nature is obscured from all but a few confidants who know the real secret) to the still popular Hollywood/modeling agency fantasy that fame and fortune happens when one is discovered serving cheeseburgers by an agent who sees the true Brad Pitt under all the acne.  These myths imply that you don’t have to really do anything to be fabulous except wait around to be discovered.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a better person, and as these essays note, many of those appearing on these shows are clearly working through issues of severe trauma and disparagement, and one can’t help but want to see their lives improved (and part of the success of the shows is how they position audience members as supportive friends).  Personal maturation is in part achieved by bumping up against one’s physical and intellectual limits and struggling to become a better person as those constraints are undone or acknowledged, facing inevitable loss and joy to come to terms with what one can become.  But of course the same shows perpetuate some dangerous mythologies, such as the ideas that external physical transformation can do anything but only briefly forestall the normal mechanisms of aging and deterioration, that quick and intensive periods of professional intervention can correct years of sedimented bad habits, or that one’s true individuality is best attained by reshaping one’s body under the scalpel to look like a million others or some mythical collective ideal type.  It doesn’t help that so often the transformations are described as the outcome of necessary humiliation and overly-hyped emotionalism.  Wegenstein is on target when she asks whether “the desires on display in our makeover culture represent ‘the best or the worst of our nature,’” and the essays do a good job of exploring both sides – Pamela Oresan-Weine argues, for example, that while such TV shows send the wrong message to those fantasizing about, say, a nose-job as the cure to all that ails them, they may send a more beneficial message to wider audiences, which are reminded “that one’s true nature may not, at first, be easily recognized by self or other, but that one’s value will become apparent if one endures.”  Transformation shows can be a lesson in tolerance.

I have education on my mind as I write this both because I work in a university, but also because just this morning I read another review of the new Charles Murray (the Bell Curve author) book whose main claim is that the problem with American higher education is that, in the name of total transformation, too many kids are lured into colleges and universities who have no business being there and who too often simply lack the aptitude to succeed once they arrive on campus.  As I read about the strengths and weaknesses of total transformation TV shows, the parallels to education emerge in interesting ways.  When one of The Swan analysts calls positive attention to the fact that contestants succeed because they “are surrounded by a panel of experts who hold them in mind, think about what they need, what is best for them,” it is hard not to think about the similar role teachers can play.  And when that same author argues that personal maturation is partly the result of youthful narcissism coming to terms with one’s limits, any teacher will recognize the process from having watched students struggle to learn with confidence.  Although Stanley Fish probably doesn’t agree with Murray on anything, his new book also warns against the dangers that are produced by overclaiming the benefits of education.

Even as I kept returning to the analogical relationship between transformational cosmetic surgery and transformational education, I chafed against it since I tend to hate what those shows implicitly promise but love the promises of education.  After all, reality shows lie by implying that transformation is easy (most of the difficult and long process of weight loss and nutritional change is kept off camera).  Then again, riding the Atlanta subway this morning, I saw a large advertisement for one of the city’s best business schools implying that wealth is only six college courses away.  And so one wonders.  Many college teachers I know have grown concerned with the “entitlement culture” that dominates their students’ mindset, where students seem to feel they deserve an “A” because of how hard they worked on an assignment (regardless of the quality of their work) or special consideration just because of who they are and how busy they are otherwise.  All kinds of culprits are named when I hear this complaint, but to some extent the national fantasy that college serves as the final validating point of entry into a life of fame and fortune (which is preached at almost every “follow your bliss” commencement ceremony in America and in every university promotional flyer) likely also plays a part, this despite the important essential truthfulness in the advertisements.

Ultimately the thought experiment of contrasting Barbie-doll surgery TV shows to the experience of, say, the typical public university, leads also to important distinctions, and my point is not to disparage education by claiming that it is no more or less transformational than a breast augmentation operation.  Cosmetic surgery reshapes the body, education the mind, and the benefits from the latter are usually more lasting.  Surgery forces the body into ever tightening constraints (as proved, I think, by that woman who has had more than twenty operations to look like Loni Anderson but now looks like a trauma survivor), whereas education opens possibilities and enlarges identity.  But the dangers of one are also to some extent the dangers of the other, and the comparison is a useful reminder that education is not easy, transformation takes real and extended work, wisdom is both a function of surpassing one’s limits and also recognizing them, and that personal change is never purely individualistic bootstrap work, but relies on a network of support (teachers, coaches, families) available to both recognize talent and support its maturation when the hard work seems hardly worth the effort.


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