The Importance of 'Correcting' Imperfect Women

JOAN BECK

March 03, 1992|By JOAN BECK

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- Week after week in an upscale magazine, a lovely model in a wispy, next-to-nothing teddy looks out from an ad and purrs, ''It used to be that if you looked in the mirror and saw something you didn't like, you had to live with it. Thankfully, those days are over. Today, correcting a nose, wrinkles, breasts or other features that make you unhappy is easier than ever.''

Another surgeon's ad ticks off the timetable for what should be done: eyelids first, ''your introduction to cosmetic surgery.'' Then in your 40s -- perhaps later if you have good bones -- a face lift because ''gravity takes its toll.'' And, reassuringly, ''I've had patients in their 70s and 80s. It's never too late to feel better about how you look.''

A third ad offers to redo faces, eyelids, necks, foreheads and more, to ''expose the inner you.''

Such persuasions should raise questions that have gone unasked in the current imbroglio over silicone gel breast implants. It has been taken for granted that women have a right to the bra size of their choice and to the surgery that would produce it if nature didn't.

What is rarely questioned -- either by those who claim they suffer painful and chronic adverse effects from leaking silicone or by those who say their lives have been enhanced by their expanded chests -- is why they feel they must match some artificial standard of beauty to feel good about themselves.

About 80 percent of the estimated million or more women who have breast implants underwent the surgery to improve their appearance, to bring their body closer to some idealized set of measurements.

The women's movement was supposed to liberate women from trying to look like Barbie dolls and feeling inadequate and ugly when they inevitably failed.

All those stacks of books about self-esteem were intended to free women from judging themselves like beauty contestants parading around in swimsuits and from hating themselves for not measuring up to 36-24-36. We were supposed to be strong and self-confident enough not to let someone else tell us our bodies needed to be ''corrected.''

Obviously, the idea hasn't worked for millions of women. Cosmetic surgery should be a woman's personal choice, of course, assuming she can be told with reasonable accuracy what the risks and costs really are. But the reasons why she feels less acceptable without such drastic alterations of her body should not continue to go unchallenged.

Why are so many women still accepting, consciously or subconsciously, a standard of physical appearance and agelessness impossible for most of us, even with the help of a surgeon's scalpel? We still let ourselves be set up to feel bad about what we see in the mirror and still internalize the sexist values that see us first of all as a 36C or a 38B.

Perhaps the current controversy over silicone gel breast implants can move beyond the changes in Food and Drug Administration regulations into broader concerns about conformity to stereotypes about female anatomy.

TV talk show host Jenny Jones has made a valuable contribution to the controversy. Her original silicone implants have had to be replaced five times, her hardened breasts have no feeling and doctors say the silicone leakage cannot be removed.

''Learn to love yourself,'' Ms. Jones told People magazine. ''If I could have learned that, I wouldn't have had to suffer these 11 years of torture.''

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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