PRINT February 1993


Secret Vices

HERE’S WHAT HAPPENS: fat slithers off cheekbones, gouging ravines down the face. Cartilaginous noses and ears continue to grow, heedless. Lips shrink, lengthening that unnamed space between hairy nostril and mouth. Gums retract; result: “long in the tooth.” Earlobes turn pendulous, drooping under their own weight. Eyelids disappear beneath the mud-slide of a brow truly and finally smitten with gravitas. Pigment lumps; capillaries explode. If you live in horror of the body, aging only tells you you’re right.

The guilty pleasure/secret vice of many feminists is eager discussion of face-lifts, particularly, I’ve lately found, when those feminists are artists. The flute-playing satyr Marsyas was flayed by Apollo because he was the familiar boastful-artist type who roams the world seeking comeuppance. Truly annoying—one understands the god’s response—but he seems to have started something: take the Renaissance phenomenon of écorché. Nothing could look more like the photos of flapped and pinned skin that run with lunar regularity in the women’s-magazine face-lift reports.

Most artists, in any case, are écorché specialists—curiosity seekers of the latent, closet neo-Platonists obsessed by appearances that constantly disappoint, perennially stripping the surfaces off materials to see how they work, engaged, despite all disavowals, in a hunt for their version of the beautiful. The word “face-lift” may conjure superficiality (an apt oxymoron), but its suggestion that beauty is only skin deep also suggests a belief in transcendence—the belief that we are not what we see in the mirror, that there is more to us. Rooted in crude materialism, the face-lift rebels against crude materialism, prodding the “merely” physical into subservience. Its popularity is what’s left of a belief in the soul.

Used to manipulating stuff, finessing surfaces, artists especially may feel balked at their inability to reshape the face in the mirror. The urge to round out a cheek, heighten a brow, becomes irresistible. Place your thumbs along your jawbone near your ears, your middle fingers on your temples, and pull gently toward the back of your head. Do this once and the simplicity of it turns addictive. Mass and line stay put in the studio—why not in the bathroom?

One esthete worry: the surgeon may not be artist enough to meet your standards. If you’re an artist, scrutiny is your expertise; control is what you’re used to having. What you really want is to operate on yourself. Then, your own Pygmalion, why stop at a face-lift? You don’t want just a lift, you want total reconstruction—not Joan Rivers but Cher. (All right, fill in your own names.)

If, in addition to being an artist, you’re the kind of feminist who knows that the feminine is a masquerade, a construction, then why should the construction stop? When does exaggeration of the masquerade lose criticality? It’s too easy to say that women lack control over the “construction” of cosmetic surgery—that such surgery is a capitulation to an imposed norm, and is interpreted mainly by male doctors. After all, many men (not plastic surgeons, though) express disgust at the idea of face-lifts. This in itself is enough to make a woman want one.

Personally I suspect these men are a), jealous, b), afraid that they’ll unwittingly fall in love with Jocasta. Hence their indignation over the deceitfulness of the facelift (even, in literary tradition, of make-up). Undermining the continuity of the sexual stages from puberty to senescence, face-lifts destabilize sex, and identity. They erode a “metaphysics of substance.” Also, c), male critics of cosmetic surgery are yet again opposing women to culture as a “nature” that should remain virgin. Take Terry Gilliam’s Brazil—wonderful film, but the extravagantly face-lifted mother is made synonymous with a freakish, totalitarian technology. On the one hand, man would have woman young; on the other, he would have her age without assuagement, brave in a kitsch Gethsemane. Lord, let this cup without Clairol pass from me. Let the Doris Lessing character go gray.

This impossible double bind, though, is carried on in negative form in the feminist thinking that might otherwise offer a way out of it. To us, too, having a face-lift suggests conformity to a norm of glamour and beauty, and refusing one reinforces an essentialist view of woman as locked in “natural,” biological determinism. The contradictions keep coming: if it’s a familiar feminist critique that “woman” in patriarchy is formed by the imperative to look as attractive as possible to an indeterminate viewer, face-lifting both reinforces this definition and challenges the limited term of viability allowed the subject so defined.

Trained as both narcissist and altruist, a woman may feel guilty to have aged at all, and guilty about feeling guilty. Her appearance is her fault. Tyrannized by bone structures and genetic serendipity as unavailable to her in youth as in age, she is admonished by the ideal of graceful aging. Examples of that ideal tend to be set by the biologically, nutritionally, and not-so-coincidentally the economically privileged. Yet nose-thumbing by means of plastic surgery is also fraught. According to WAC Stats: The Facts About Women, “the $20 billion spent on the cosmetics industry in one year could buy . . . three times the number of day-care services now offered by the government, 2,000 women’s health clinics, 75,000 women’s film, music, literature, or art festivals, fifty women’s universities, 1 million highly paid domestic or child care workers, 1 million highly paid home support workers for the housebound elderly, 33,000 battered-women’s shelters, 2 billion tubes of contraceptive cream, 200,000 vans for late-night safe transport, 400,000 four-year university scholarships for women.”1 The fact that these figures only grow when tied to the amounts spent on weapons, MTV, junk food, etc., does nothing to alter the judgment of shameful frivolity that a woman visits on herself for even entertaining the idea of altering her appearance.

Thankfully, the combination of being both an artist and a woman offers a way out of the ethical dilemma: most of us are too poor for a face-lift. Indeed, as a friend of mine once declared, “Thank goodness I can’t afford one. Otherwise, I’d end up hating myself.”

Jeanne Silverthorne is an artist and writer who lives in New York.


1. Andrea Blum. Barbara Ess, Julie Harrison, and Gall Vachon, eds., WAC Stats: The Facts About Women. New York: Women’s Action Coalition, 1992, p. 12.