Blood, gore, pulled flesh and flayed skin. Once the description of bloody battle in the gladiatorial arena, these words now describe a scene from the most recent episode of Pushy & Proud: Botox Mums on Sky Living. The show documents mums in Britain who are not only proud of their own complex (and often cringe-worthy) relationships with plastic surgery and other cosmetic rituals, but are also pushing their young daughters to prescribe to the same transformational regimes. One mum, Sarah, known as “The Barbie” around her town, has already purchased her seven-year old daughter Poppy a voucher for breast augmentation. The show is certainly not the first of its kind, there have been reality shows akin to this for a couple of years now (remember The Swan, Extreme Makeover, and Dr. 90210?). Gazing into the screen, the new amphitheater of licensed cultural violence, we are witnessing the age of biotechnology and its promise of monsters.
With plastic surgery steadily on the rise each year, the question is not whether horrific mistakes and botched jobs will happen, but how we should respond to them when they do. This is one of the questions being asked by anthropologist and Columbia University professor Michael Taussig, who rocked the academic establishment with such books as My Cocaine Museum and Law in a Lawless Land. In his new book, Beauty and the Beast: The Monstrous Side of Plastic Surgery, Taussig explores the terrors of the knife versus the tortures of one’s perceived flaws, and what’s more, the morbid fascination with it when it all goes terribly, terribly wrong. As with many of his books, he focuses on the manifestation of this morbid fascination in Colombia, but the trends undeniably do not stop there.
Remember Heidi from the American reality TV hit series The Hills? While you may remember her bubbly personality you’d have a harder time recognizing her now, as over the course of the series she became heavily addicted to plastic surgery and morphed into something straight off the shelves at Mattel. Instead of being more fun to play with however, Heidi states that she regrets the multiple surgeries as it is now painful for her to run or even hug. (Insert sad face emoticon here). Viewers watched on season after season in horrified delight as Heidi became more and more “perfect”, having had 12 surgeries at just 23 years of age.
It is a troubling phenomenon that is getting harder and harder to ignore. As biotechnology promises new ways to enhance and perfect one’s corporeality, it also brings with it the promise of mistakes and expressions of monstrous beauty. In tough economic times, people looking for a quick fix are not always thinking about the rise in medical negligence claims and the simple fact that the industry is still largely unregulated. As medical negligence specialist Edwina Rawson of Charles Russell solicitors in London says, ’at the moment, you could have a bowel surgeon setting up to operate on someone’s face and it would be impossible to know’.
As shocking as that may be, equally disturbing is the number of people taking matters into their own hands. Take the now infamous case of Hang Mioku, the Korean woman so addicted to cosmetic surgery that she resorted to injecting cooking oil into her face when doctors refused to operate further on her. Her grotesque disfiguration is a warning call to all those who bite the line of makeover culture, staring longingly in a trance, eyes glazed over, at the alluring before and after images without smelling the rotten bait.
The logic at work in makeover culture equates a transformation of the physiochemical body with a positive transformation of one’s lived experience of their body and self-esteem. The use of instrumental biomedical technologies to improve the “surfaces” of one’s being, whether in an image (i.e using photoshop) or in the flesh (i.e cosmetic surgery), cannot alter all of the multiple realms of experience. This oversimplified logic ignores the proprioceptive senses of the knowing body and the intensities of affect that can override the visual systems of perception. This includes ignoring the possibility of transgenerational haunting and transcorporeal trauma transmission (see Grace Cho, 2008) that moves beyond the registers of the visual and the cognitive.
I am truly haunted by the monster spawn of extreme cosmetic regimes. They have prescribed to the false promises of technology and beauty: buying into the allure of experiencing anything you want, becoming whomever you wish, or purchasing whichever cultural, sexual, or spiritual experience desired.
But certainly not without paying the price. And we watch. So, this battle for an impossible beauty is fought and sold as a bloody spectacle to the masses. Not a far cry from the coliseum. These new grotesque gladiators are largely slaves to “perfection”, few will become celebrities, and even fewer still will get out free.
Mila Volpe is a writer from Toronto, Canada. Her research intrests include biotech art, the theatricality of power and the corporealities of structual violence. The current issue of Nyx is concerned with the MONSTROUS. Find out where to buy it here.