'It’s sad that she “needs” it. It’s sad that she’s vain enough to get it. She lacks character, she has the wrong priorities, she is admitting defeat. She is, above all, superficial.' Photo: Getty images
When people imagine someone who has had plastic surgery, they often imagine a woman with pushed up, too-round breasts and a stretched, unnatural face. There is something sad about her. It is sad that she “needs” it. It is sad that she is vain enough to get it. She lacks character, she has the wrong priorities, she is admitting defeat. She is, above all, superficial.
No one can ever guess by looking at me.
The end result is nothing like the stereotypes, so people say things in front of me about women who get plastic surgery. Those things are never nice. Sometimes I just listen, too uncomfortable to chime in with my own story. It is not a story I like to tell. It's an awkward story about awkwardness. It implies the kind of self-dislike that feels like a messy secret. It is inherently painful. It is also a story with a happy ending.
It's not just me — I know a lot of women who have chosen cosmetic surgery. Young women who I was friends with for years before they mentioned their breast reduction. Older women who finally whispered something about their face lift, confessional, nervous. Lipo, eyelids, jaw, breasts increased or decreased—some of the surgeries sound (and are) more medically necessary than others and others are obviously purely cosmetic. Like mine. The modern Jewish woman's procedure of choice: rhinoplasty. The one with the worst name. Rhino. Great. I always have to picture the damn animal clomping around with its massive snout and horn. That's me!
In my family alone, I can think of three other women who have had nose jobs. Their profiles were whispered about at Passover and Chanukah gatherings. “Did you notice . . .?” I never had.
When, five years ago, I finally sat down with a surgeon and admitted that I really, really wanted to change my face, I asked him not to change it too much. I asked for something subtle. An adjustment. That is usually what I hear from other women who have been in similar situations, too. It is almost never as extreme as people imagine. It is more of a . . . negotiation. Look, nose, you haven't been good to me. You've made me feel shitty for so many years. Every time I look in the mirror, I see a rhino. But I am also not ready to give up completely on the face my parents gave me. I want to accept myself. I am a liberated woman. I have read gender theory. I just want a little tweak.
The truth is, cosmetic surgery made me feel empowered. I was choosing to change something about myself that had distracted me too long. I wanted to think about other things. I wanted to move on, and no amount of pep-talking and gender theory reading seemed to do the trick. I was tired. I was fed up.
I wish I had grown up in a world where appearances weren't so constantly important. That would be a world where cosmetic surgery was irrelevant. I wish I lived in a world where ugliness was an acceptable option and women were as successful for their minds as their bodies (or, gasp, more so!). But that is not today's world. It's just not. And as long as it's not, for some women, for many women, cosmetic surgery is a relief—a way of controlling something that can feel as though it controls us. At least, it felt that way to me. And the extra judgment, the dismissal of these procedures as a vain, pathetic choice is frustrating. For so many of us, it can be a step on the path to self-acceptance. It might be the thing that allows us to stop thinking about the way we look so much.
It's ironic – in a culture that gossips endlessly about the way women look, and rags ceaselessly on the public women who don't look “good enough,” and seems confused about what the hell to do with all of the eating disorders that just keep cropping up among middle-schoolers, we are still awfully critical of the people who seem to be paying enough attention to believe that their appearances are really important.
We wave our hands dismissively at the women who get too caught up in the whole beauty thing, who can't seem to see beyond it, who pay serious amounts of money to change their surfaces for the sake of looking prettier/more acceptable. We give a little derisive snort. Please. Get over yourself. Cosmetic surgery can sound like giving up and giving in. It's embarrassing. It's shameful. Shh . . . don't tell anyone the secret about your face!
But maybe people just don't understand it. Maybe it gets too quickly oversimplified. There's more to it than meets the eye; more, when you search under the surface. Real people's stories are always more complicated, and it would be interesting to finally hear them. In fact, I think it is time we heard them. Cosmetic surgery shouldn't have to feel like a secret women need to keep. It shouldn't be a secret that women are under enormous, regular, normalised pressure to look a very specific way.
After I got my nose job, I didn't look very different. In fact, I looked so much like I'd looked before that no one even noticed. But something changed in my mind. I was done worrying about my nose. I had done what I could. I had gone all the way. And I was ready to let it go.
Kate Fridkis blogs about body image issues on Eat the Damn Cake.