The Magazine

Implant or Animal?

From nose jobs to liposuction, perfection awaits.

Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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What precipitated this mass consumption? Part of the explanation is supply and demand. The prices of many surgical procedures have plummeted. Ten years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find a doctor to perform liposuction for less than $7,000. Now, a woman can track one down to do the job for $700. Reluctant to deal with stingy insurers, more and more specialists have made cosmetic procedures the centerpiece of their business. What dermatologist wouldn't eschew haggling with insurance companies over payment for treating plantar warts and acne in favor of an all-cash Botox and liposuction business? A $500 vial of Botox, which takes 15 minutes to inject, brings in more than $3,000 in revenue while delicately removing a freckle might only generate $12 from the insurance company. Similarly, why would a dentist want to make a living treating gingivitis and canker sores if he can bring in $30,000 cash capping one woman's teeth?

Cosmetic surgery has become so lucrative that everyone wants in. In California last year a group of oral surgeons and dentists, though they hold dental degrees and not MDs, successfully lobbied the legislature for licenses to perform facelifts, nose jobs, breast implants, and liposuction. (Governor Schwarzenegger, a sometime consumer of cosmetic enhancements, vetoed the bill.)

Then there are the Baby Boomers who, having reached middle age, are more transfixed with the idea of staying young than any preceding generation. They formed their identities alongside the watershed events of their youth, and many see preserving a youthful appearance as a way of preserving their identity. They also know that one of the factors in professional success is a thin, attractive, youthful appearance. Study after study shows that pulchritude counts in professions it shouldn't: Good-looking teachers, stockbrokers, artists, engineers, and mechanics earn more in their lifetimes than their homely counterparts.

The other half of the equation is pornography. The mainstreaming of pornographic images in everyday life has changed the way women, especially young women, see themselves. Male aesthetic preferences are based, to some degree, on pornography or images derived from pornography, such as lingerie catalogues, comic books, and video games. How else to explain MTV's Real Life: Plastic Surgery, where "girls want to look like Pamela Anderson, not Kate Moss?" If men universally rejected fake body parts, women wouldn't want them.

Then again, as Kuczynski suggests, maybe cosmetic surgery is the new feminism. Being perfectly sculpted and styled from head to toe is just one more way of having it all. Successful women in, say, New York, where every sidewalk is a runway, might feel compelled to meet both male and female standards of achievement: power in the workplace, in addition to being thin, smooth-skinned, and perfectly coiffed and made up. Now more women than ever can strive to earn like Heidi Miller (CEO of treasury and securities services at JP Morgan Chase) and look like Heidi Klum. Whether such a combination spells happiness is another matter.

Rachel DiCarlo is managing editor at the Hudson Institute.