Encouraging Vanity and Misogyny

plasticsurgerybook.jpgJust in time for Mother’s Day, the book My Beautiful Mommy offers to explain for kids how “mom is getting a flatter tummy and a ‘prettier’ nose” via a trip to the plastic surgeon. Meanwhile, the new reality TV show Bulging Brides encourages participants to lose weight with the slogan “The perfect day is just pounds away.” Ann Friedman of Feministing calls the show “size-shaming meets the bridal-industrial complex.”

The mass media has dropped the ball in its coverage of both shows, generally focusing on the best “techniques” of accommodating women and their children to plastic surgery, or the spectacle and tastelessness of the bridal show. Some outlets have given feminist critics of plastic surgery a bit of time to put their case to the public, but by and large are drawn in by the slickness of each effort.

Media coverage of the children’s book and the show reveal once again the bankruptcy of old concepts of “objectivity” in journalism. At this point, there are at least three “narratives” of plastic surgery that are coherent (on their own terms): 1) a libertarian narrative that values increasingly instant and cheaper gratification of desires (and safety only secondarily), 2) a moral narrative that questions the vanity at the heart of the plastic surgery boom, and 3) a feminist narrative that critically examines the types of economic and cultural pressures that make women particularly susceptible to the appeals of cosmetic surgeons. It’s very hard to work all three narratives into a given story. Instead, we’re treated to inarticulate exclamations of “how cute and fun” or “how repugnant”–one more symptom of MacIntyre’s famed characterization of modern thought as a “moral Babel.” This superficial “balance,” unmoored from any larger understanding of what makes for a good (or at least unoppressed) human life, ends up promoting the very phenomena it claims merely to be covering.

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