American Beauty

When I was in law school in the early 1970s and professors were struggling with the honorific "Ms.," one of my male classmates used to chide me and several other women for "distracting" him with our presence. We were irritated, not flattered, by his flirtations--intent on being taken seriously as lawyers or, at least, as law students. Looking back, we may seem a bit like stereotypically humorless, uptight feminists. (Now I feel almost sorry for the guy.) But in 1972 the professions were only beginning to admit women in large numbers, and federal law had just recently prohibited sex discrimination in higher education. We were sensitive to suggestions that law school was no place for a good-looking woman.

We've progressed, I guess. Today, considering the babes who practice law on TV, it sometimes seems that law school is no place for a homely woman. Once, feminists dreamed that sexual equality would free women from the dictates of fashion and the mandate to be beautiful. But that was before the rise of bimbo feminism, which heralded tube tops and tiny skirts as symbols of sexual liberation rather than vulnerability--as if women had been oppressed not by employment discrimination or sexual violence but by sensible shoes.

Of course, for most feminist movements, there's a feminist countermovement. Bimbo feminists have had to contend with neo-Victorians, who would have accused my distracted law-school classmate of harassment. But if puritanism is tenacious, it's a lot less alluring than permissiveness or the fantasy of physical perfection; sexual correctness has declined, while the girls on Sex and the City are ascendant. Feminists who once anticipated a time when looking good and marrying well would not be the pinnacles of achievement for women have been successful by half: It's no longer necessary to marry at all.

Why did beauty strengthen its hold on women while traditional gender roles were weakening? Some blame backlash, the usual suspect, which has an arguable influence both on media images of women and on the fashion industry. But it's a mistake to attribute feminism's failures to some cultural conspiracy against equality; the most effective backlash to feminism often comes from within, reflecting femininity's power over women. After all these years, I'm no longer surprised to find highly accomplished women still battling insecurities about their looks. Recently, the pressures to be beautiful have intensified because the possibilities of being beautiful have increased.

Plastic surgery has been democratized and transformed into a multibillion-dollar industry. (You can bid for it on the Web.) Its market is expanding to include men, but the industry continues to rely primarily on women, who were responsible for 89 percent of all procedures performed in 1999. Cosmetic procedures have risen a reported 275 percent in the past decade. In 1999 alone, they numbered more than a million. According to USA Today, these included 231,000 liposuctions, 167,000 breast augmentations, 142,000 eyelid surgeries, 73,000 face-lifts, and 55,000 tummy-tucks. Florida has the highest rate of cosmetic procedures per capita. (There's probably a direct correlation between the number of procedures and the number of beaches in any state.) But the quest for perfection is hardly an exclusively American phenomenon or one limited to warmer climes. Demand for cosmetic surgery in Scotland has gone up 35 percent to 50 percent in the past five years, according to The Times of London.

Listening to people praise the cosmetic benefits of a "procedure," you may find yourself forgetting that it's surgery. "Down here we just consider it good grooming," one Dallas woman told the Los Angeles Times. Occasionally you'll run across an article highlighting the risks of surgery--incapacitation, disfigurement, death--but cosmetic surgery has been very successfully marketed as a part of our beauty regime. "We think of it like getting your nails done or going to the spa," says Brian Kinney, spokesman for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Daniel Morello, president of the American Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, suggests that going under the knife is no different "from putting a nice sweater on, or combing your hair, or doing your nails, or having a little tan." Cosmetic surgery is often lauded for boosting self-esteem, although it encourages people to hate themselves for being physically imperfect or looking over 45.

Aging seems to be almost fashionable as the oldest of the baby boomers creep toward 60. Tina Turner, past 60, is still hot. But she can pass for 40--at least on the magazine covers, where most people see her. A recent issue of People glorified female celebrities turning 30, 40, 50, and 60; but thanks to airbrushing, surgery, and Botox injections, none of them looked over 40. Aging is fashionable only when it's not at all apparent.

Beauty used to be a gift bestowed upon the few for the rest of us to admire. Today it's an achievement, and homeliness is not just a misfortune but a failure. Not every woman can be made into a beauty queen; but with diet, exercise, and surgery, any woman can become attractive and remain preternaturally young--or wide-eyed, anyway. Like wealth, beauty is supposedly accessible to everyone these days; so ugly people, like poor people, are apt to be considered responsible for their plights.

Beauty has long been equated with goodness--and not just in fairy tales. (How often have you heard it said that Katherine Harris or the presurgical Linda Tripp looked the part?) Now more than ever, not being beautiful is likely to be viewed as a moral shortcoming, a sign of sloth. What do people sometimes say of a wrinkled, overweight woman? "She let herself go," they cluck, as if the natural processes of aging and death were merely lapses in self-discipline.

The notion that we can master fate and maybe even our mortality has long been fundamental to the self-help culture, in which diseases like cancer are likely to be blamed at least partly on bad attitudes. New Age guru Deepak Chopra says that with the right attitude we can live practically forever. He promises us a world in which old age, infirmity, and death "do not exist and are not even entertained as a possibility." This may seem like wishful thinking at its most puerile, but Chopra is as popular as a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. No one goes broke offering us the false courage of positive thinking in place of the strength to watch ourselves age unblinkingly.