Beau­ti­ful debt

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY LAU­RIE ES­SIG Lau­rie Es­sig is a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege and the author of “Amer­i­can Plas­tic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Per­fec­tion.”

Charg­ing your plas­tic surgery won’t make you happy for long.

B5

It’s only a week or so into Jan­uary, and I al­ready feel fat and broke. I’ve tripped over all my res­o­lu­tions and self-im­prove­ment plans for the year ahead. No re­fined sugar? Out the door with that Jan. 2 avalanche of dark-choco­late-cov­ered cher­ries. I haven’t been to the gym yet. And as for spend­ing less and pay­ing off my credit cards? I can’t even think about it un­til the post-hol­i­day sales are over.

This doesn’t mean I will give up. Nor will ev­ery­one else who finds that when it comes to res­o­lu­tions, willpower falls short. In­stead, we must re­mem­ber the sage ad­vice that Mr. McGuire gave to young Ben Brad­dock, played by Dustin Hoff­man, in “ The Grad­u­ate”: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. . . . Are you lis­ten­ing? . . . Plas­tics.”

In our case, two va­ri­eties of plas­tic are com­ing to­gether to give us hope — plas­tic credit cards and plas­tic surgery. These plas­tics feed our in­se­cu­ri­ties even as they daz­zle us with prom­ises. If there’s one thing we Amer­i­cans are bril­liant at, it is de­lud­ing our­selves into think­ing that we can make the fu­ture bet­ter than the present. And credit and plas­tic surgery of­fer tan­ta­liz­ing short­cuts.

Nine­teenth-cen­tury so­ci­ol­o­gist Max We­ber traced this Amer­i­can ob­ses­sion with self-im­prove­ment to a “Protes­tant ethic” that be­came the mo­ti­vat­ing force of cap­i­tal­ism. Bet­ter­ing our­selves, in­creas­ing our wealth and well-be­ing, is the most sa­cred and Amer­i­can of acts.

But that was then; this is now. To­day, we imag­ine our wealth as a re­sult not of hard work, but of good luck and good looks. And we imag­ine that the best way to achieve a more beau­ti­ful self is not through the eter­nally elu­sive dis­ci­pline and self-con­trol, but through surgery.

Ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety for Aes­thetic Plas­tic Surgery, Amer­i­cans are still turn­ing to cos­metic pro­ce­dures de­spite the eco­nomic down­turn. In­deed, 2009 saw only a 2 per­cent de­crease in the num­ber of cos­metic pro­ce­dures in the United States com­pared with the year be­fore — and a look at the past 13 years shows an in­crease of 147 per­cent. (Li­po­suc­tion re­mained the most pop­u­lar pro­ce­dure for men and the sec­ond most pop­u­lar for women, right be­hind breast aug­men­ta­tion.)

In re­search­ing this sub­ject over the past few years, I spoke with 137 peo­ple con­sid­er­ing cos­metic surgery. Most of these pa­tients were fe­male, white and mid­dle-aged, match­ing the gen­eral trends for cos­metic pro­ce­dures. But what sur­prised me — and what runs counter to the “Real Housewives” parad­ing on our tele­vi­sion screens, freshly eye-lifted — is that these women were not rich, not even close.

They were nurses and cops, school­teach­ers and real es­tate agents. Ac­cord­ing to a 2005 sur­vey, al­most 30 per­cent of cos­metic surgery pa­tients earned less than $30,000 a year, and an ad­di­tional 41 per­cent earned be­tween $31,000 and $60,000.

And like 85 per­cent of all cos­metic surgery pa­tients, the peo­ple I spoke to were pay­ing for their pro­ce­dures with debt, of­ten spe­cial­ized med­i­cal debt avail­able through physi­cians’ of­fices with in­ter­est rates as high as 30 per­cent. Amer­i­cans al­ready put about $45 bil­lion in med­i­cal pro­ce­dures on our credit cards, and that amount is ex­pected to triple by 2015.

And it isn’t van­ity or the delu­sion that they will be­come ex­traor­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful that pushes or­di­nary Amer­i­cans to take on debt and un­dergo ma­jor surgery. It is in­se­cu­rity — in­se­cu­rity in the job mar­ket and in­se­cu­rity in the love mar­ket. As the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans be­came worse off fi­nan­cially, they also be­came less se­cure in their re­la­tion­ships. And Amer­i­cans are now al­most as likely to be un­mar­ried than mar­ried.

As Toni, a 55-year-old beau­ti­cian, told me, she was con­sid­er­ing a face-lift and a sec­ond round of breast implants be­cause “ by the time you’re 50, you might as well be dead. If I was mar­ried, then nah, I wouldn’t be do­ing this. If my hus­band loved me the way I was — but that’s not re­al­ity, is it?”

By con­trast, I spoke with a doc­tor in his 30s who was con­sid­er­ing get­ting hair implants — but de­cided against it be­cause he was mar­ried.

Even if you don’t spend a lot of time with peo­ple who get cos­metic surgery, you prob­a­bly have seen the phe­nom­e­non on TV. Watch­ing boob jobs on the boob tube, we can see the des­per­a­tion that a lot of Amer­i­cans feel to en­hance, im­prove, up­grade. Take a look at “Bri­dalplasty,” the new­est cos­metic surgery re­al­ity show. It pits young brides against one an­other to win nose jobs, lipo and, for the last Franken­bride stand­ing, a glitzy “dream wed­ding.”

These women re­ally be­lieve that a per­fect body and a per­fect wed­ding will lead to a bet­ter fu­ture, a way out of their eco­nomic and emo­tional ruin, their dead-end jobs or their chronic un­em­ploy­ment. Just like the women I in­ter­viewed. You can feel smug about their des­per­a­tion, laugh at them for be­ing so shal­low, but in fact, cos­metic surgery is as Amer­i­can as ap­ple pie.

In a sense, they’ve hit upon a sad, sober­ing truth. They can’t— not on their own, any­way— force the sort of struc­tural changes that can cre­ate equal ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion, liv­able wages and se­cure re­tire­ments. But they can pay for new breasts with their credit cards, find­ing a plas­tic fix for one spe­cific in­se­cu­rity in a moment of in­se­cu­rity ev­ery­where.

PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY KRISTIN LENZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

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