Skip to comments.Our Bodies, Our Silicon, Ourselves
Posted on 05/18/2003 10:26:16 PM PDT by Mister Magoo
Our Bodies, Our Silicon, Ourselves By GINIA BELLAFANTE
Kiné Corder before and after surgery for "Extreme Makeover" on ABC.
Last winter, Tammy Guthrie, a 40-year-old mother of three from St. Petersburg, Fla., took a brief leave of absence from her family to undergo some self-improvement in Los Angeles. Five and a half weeks later, she returned, reawakened, to her husband and her three children, all in elementary school.
"Throughout my marriage, I'd taken a passive role, thinking that was what my husband wanted," Ms. Guthrie said. Now, three months after coming home, she said: "I'm no longer afraid of his reactions. I'm not bothered if he doesn't agree with me, and, surprisingly, I think he likes it."
Beyond the more balanced dynamic she achieved in her relationship, Ms. Guthrie came home with a new commitment to community work. "Two of my children go to a magnet school that is facing budget cuts, and the fact that I'm feeling more confident has made me more comfortable and active about fund-raising," she said.
If you are curious to learn just how Ms. Guthrie managed to rebuild herself in less time than is required to, say, grow a petunia, understand first that the term "rebuild" is not being used metaphorically. Ms. Guthrie took a sabbatical from her life to be included in a reality series on ABC called "Extreme Makeover." Thanks to the network's largesse, her nose was narrowed, her eyes lifted, her face and neck tightened and thus, one is made to understand, her sense of self-appreciation restored.
During the four weeks it has been broadcast, "Extreme Makeover" has become ABC's second-highest-rated program among adults under 50. Last week the network announced that it had ordered 13 new episodes for the fall season. The show's appeal lies in its fulfillment of the fantasy of radical and near-instant personal transformation. Each week, two hardworking adults are given access to a full gamut of cosmetic procedures aimed at correcting physical deformities or flaws that have, in most instances, left these men and women psychologically diminished for most of their lives. The spirit of vanity and venality characterizing most reality shows is absent. Here the timid and vulnerable reign.
And everyone, theoretically, goes home a winner. At the end of each show the subjects invariably greet their post-operative selves in the mirror with the same ecstatic expressions worn by women who won dishwashers 30 years ago on "The Price Is Right."
The message that a surgeon's knife or a dose of collagen can alter much more than a droopy neck or thin lips is not subtle. And predictably, well-intentioned voices have expressed misgivings. Last week Dads & Daughters, a group committed to bettering girls' lives, declared on its Web site that " `Extreme Makeover' manipulates and spreads our culture's infectious obsession with physical appearance, reinforcing corrosive (and often dangerous) attitudes that contribute to child health problems."
As disheartening as it is uplifting, "Extreme Makeover" is a bittersweet rebuke to principles cherished by most thinking, sensitive people: that what you look like does not determine who you are; that personal growth can be achieved only through meditation, therapy or other taxing avenues of introspection. In an enlightened world, liposuction should not make you a more engaged participant in human affairs.
But what if it does?
Interviews with a half-dozen participants of the show several months after they recovered from surgery suggest that the dramatic changes in appearance did ignite changes in their feelings of self-worth.
Speaking three months after having her ears pinned back and her tummy tucked among other things courtesy of "Extreme Makeover," Melissa Jones, who is 28 and a mother, said that previously, there had been only one day in her entire life when she had not felt ugly, the day she married her second husband. "I'd go to a party and be screaming inside," Ms. Jones said.
As she had hoped, life now is in many ways easier. She runs a jewelry business and feels comfortable enough to sell her wares at parties rather than quietly, over the Internet. She also says she is less acquiescent with friends. As a result, though, she has lost one of them, who "didn't like that I was setting goals and achieving them," Ms. Jones said. "She said I'd changed and that she didn't like the new person."
Stephanie Woodside before and after surgery for "Extreme Makeover" on ABC.
The results of plastic surgery are not experienced alone. Stephanie Woodside, 24, a single mother and former insurance agent from Omaha returned home to a rocky welcome after her nose job, breast enhancement and liposuction. "Right when I got back, my boyfriend stepped away a bit," Ms. Woodside said. "He thought I was beautiful and that I'd leave him."
Ms. Woodside, with her daughter and her boyfriend's son
If the emotional impact of these procedures seems like the stuff of infomercials, it is because the patients on the show are of a certain breed. "The people are in very particular circumstances of having felt inadequate since childhood," said Virginia L. Blum, author of the forthcoming "Flesh Wounds: The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery." "That's different from someone who's just had a bad day or month or year."
Kiné Corder, a 29-year-old barber, suffered with a deformed lip since birth and after lip reduction, a breast lift and liposuction, said she felt reborn. "My 4-year-old niece is in love with me now," Ms. Corder added. "She doesn't know I had surgery; she can't attach to that part of it, but she'll call me now when she's getting dressed for school and she'll say, `I put on this dress and now I look pretty like you.' "
A skeptic would ask just how long such feelings of self-worth might be sustained, given their impetus. Sander L. Gilman, the author of "Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery" and a professor of medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote in an e-mail message that after surgery, "the initial radical sense of improvement is reduced to acceptance and then a further awareness of flaws." Many people, therefore, undergo more surgery.
But Dr. Gilman suggests that there should be no rush to judgment. "What else," he asked, "can we buy that would give us three years of pleasure?"
I'm reminded more of the repulsive "Queen For a Day," myself.
But I wouldn't expect a Times writer to be smart enough to know that show ever existed.
She forgot to have her name changed also, though. I wonder if her children's names are Betta Maxe and Sceneyx Cam. Her husband, the dweeb, is likely called Tapesplice.
Actually, she looks like Monica Lewinski with brown hair.