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Body Politic

Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery by Sander L. Gilman, Princeton University Press, $16.95, paper
Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff, Doubieday $14

During a time characterized by startling numbers of eating disorders among young women, rapid growth in aesthetic surgery, and billowing profits in the beauty industries, two new books offer fascinating and very different accounts of the national obsession with body alteration and the search for an ideal body.

While tracking the medical practice of aesthetic surgeries, Sander L. Gilman, in Making the Body BeautifulA Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery, skillfully reviews alterations in the beauty ideal through time and culture. Appreciating the magnitude of his topic, Gilman primarily traces the history of the nose as the target of repair. Beginning with the rehabilitation of the diseased, syphilitic nose (a rather prominent indicator of the “bad character” of its owner), Gilman walks us through the changing social construction of the ideal nose, elucidating culture’s role in driving our perception of what is beautiful.

Using a quite different lens, in Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, Nancy Etcoff builds a compelling argument that our interest in beauty, our own and others, is biologically driven. Supporting her case well with evolutionary biology and extensive research on responses to beauty, she argues that certain body and face characteristics are defined by a culture as beautiful because they signal maximum reproducibility and survivability. Unfortunately, instead of sticking to her interesting biological/evolutionary argument—which may indeed offer a piece of the beauty puzzle—she offers lengthy diatribes against a simplistic view of the feminist response to beauty construction.

Jewish American women are well aware of shifts in beauty ideals. Zaftig, once a reference to our juiciness, was a sign of health, wealth, fertility, fortitude: all valued commodities in marriageability in their time. In the US, as the century progressed, young Jewish girls and their mothers were eager to alter Jewish features to assist in assimilation (remember hair straightening and nose jobs). Now, Jewish features along with other “ethnic” looks get more media time, but with connotations of the wild, the sexual, the primitive, the other.

Supporting Etcoff’s theory that beauty is prized because it signals health, Gilman traces the first aesthetic surgeries as responses to disease and deformity. With the reduction in surgery-related risks, however, came an increase in aesthetic surgery by the non-sick patient. Without political commentary, Gilman delineates the resulting trends in nose surgeries as primarily attempts to alter features associated with particular racial/ethnic groups. To Gilman, “passing” as a member of a desired group, eliminating features associated with being Jewish, Irish, Asian, or African-American, became and continues to be the primary goal of aesthetic surgeries.

What is considered beautiful by any culture in any particular time period reflects the values, beliefs, and conflicts of the time. Emaciation is the current beauty ideal for women. Ninety-five percent of anorexia diagnoses and 90% of bulimia diagnoses go to women. Women are currently the primary consumers of aesthetic surgeries, 89% in 1996, with surgeries geared towards size reduction almost the exclusive purview of women. As with most beauty ideals of their time, emaciation signifies wealth and leisure. Self-starvation, compulsive over-exercising, and liposuction, as it happens, are quite uncommon in starving nations. Etcoff’s argument that beauty standards are solely built as signifier of maximum reproducibility falls apart a bit in the case of eating disorders, as a defining criterion of anorexia is loss of menses.

Gilman’s historical premise would tell us that the emaciated woman is trying to pass. With what group is she trying to escape association? I would argue it is a propagandized view of feminists: hungry, demanding, angry, militant women, insistent on their own satiation. Interesting to note the similarities between the stereotyped descriptions of the feminist and the Jewish woman as “loud, pushy, Jewish broad,” or “needy, entitled Jewish American princess.”

What inadvertently ties the eating disordered woman to this undesirable group of feminists? Her power. The population most at risk for eating disorders is our young, bright, powerful, high achieving, overachieving and/or clearly underachieving-for-their-potential girls. The eating-disordered woman is most certainly trying to “pass,” presenting herself as a nice little needless gal rather than the powerhouse of a woman she is.

Let us be critical about the current construction of beauty in the self-depriving anorexic. Let us commit ourselves to rising perhaps a bit above history, to using consciousness to counterbalance biology, and to not falling prey to old messages, in our world, or in our genes.

Karen L. Smith MSS, LSW is a clinical social worker in private practice in Philadelphia, and consultant to The Renfrew Center, a women’s mental health facility specializing in eating disorders.