'Venus Envy': surgical cookie cutting

October 26, 1997|By Dorothea Straus | Dorothea Straus,special to the sun

"Venus Envy," by Elizabeth Haiken. Johns Hopkins University Press. 370 pages. $24.95

"Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery" is history in more ways than the subtitle might indicate. Through the specialty branch of medicine, Elizabeth Haiken reveals the contradiction between American optimism, faith in science, and progress in general, as against a lingering puritanical sense of propriety.

The early chapters of this work deal with the Founding Fathers of the beauty industry. Dr. Jerome Pierce Webster achieved renown by re-creating, through surgery, the faces of soldiers blasted by the Second World War - the Great War having pioneered in the renovation field before him.

Webster, a righteous man, was reluctant to take on cosmetic work unless certified by a general practitioner that the feature in question (usually the nose) was impairing the health of his patient. The diagnosis was often based on the effects of the "inferiority complex," a contemporaneous discovery of Dr. Alfred Adler. Adler had been an acolyte to Sigmund Freud but had broken away from the master's more complex sexual theories to launch the "inferiority complex" that held sway after World War II.

A growing number of beauty doctors during this period were acting independently of medical societies, who frowned upon the upstarts and regarded them as shady. They were, however, endowed to turn out more tip-tilted, small "Grace Kelly" noses (in vogue at the time) than the more serious surgeons backed by Dr. Alfred Adler.

"During the decades bridging the turn of the century American culture was transformed from Protestant Victorianism to secular consumer culture," Elizabeth Haiken writes. Cosmetic surgery grew like wildfire until it dared to come out of the closet with its true name, no longer needed to hid behind the title of "plastic surgery."

It has become the rare profession to proliferate by "consumer demand" rather than through the efforts of the practitioners themselves. It now includes not only facial features, but every part of the body, men as well as women, directed toward the marketplace in addition to the bedroom or salon.

In repudiation of the American ideal of individuality, the person seeking cosmetic surgery aims inadvertently to be like everyone else. Furthermore, Haiken wonders whether such heavy emphasis on "self-improvement" might distract citizens from concern with societal change. But "Venus Envy" avoids polemics, while stimulating new thoughtfulness in the reader through its skillful and entertaining treatment of factual information.

Recently, I happened upon an old family photograph: a group seated on a vacation veranda: the women, gray-haired, shapeless, their eyes embedded in pouches, wreathed in wrinkles. The picture was marked: Aunt Edith and friends upon her fiftieth birthday - 1930."

Yet Venus worship existed also in that incomprehensible recent past, and it stretches back as far as classical antiquity. The black-shawled matrons in the picture paid homage to the goddess through their resignation. Only the rites have changed over the span of time.

Haiken, in her exploration of the beauty industry, traces the revolution that took place in the late 20th century. Today, armed with surgical instruments, chemicals, cosmetics and the blatant promises of advertising, a whole population has gone into battle to proclaim the power of Venus, attempting to capture fragments from her everlasting effulgence.

Dorothea Straus is the author of six books and write for Harper' Bazaar and the Partisan Review among other publications.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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