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Putting the best face on an obsession

By Elspeth Probyn - posted Wednesday, 5 October 2005

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but every time I see the photo of me you're looking at, only two come to mind: oh dear. A friend who teaches overseas recently saw it. "It's not really you," she kindly said.

"Looks like a strong rural woman," she added, "who votes National".

Well, one out of the two ain't bad.


Is it vanity or sheer disbelief, faced with cold photographic evidence of how I supposedly look? Am I a poor brainwashed victim of the beauty myth or could I do with a makeover? Or should I just stop watching television on Thursday nights?

With my favourite, ER, in hiatus, it has become Channel 9's makeover night. We start with the lovely if wooden Megan Gale on Body Work. It's not exactly Extreme Makeover but it is entertaining in a mild way. Last week we had Carlotta, billed as the most famous transsexual in Australia, who wants a facelift. I've never heard of her, but she looks good for 61 and that's before the face job.

Then there's the 32-year-old who hates his ears ("they look like doors on a V-Dub that won't close") and he's even harder on his poor nose. We get lots of close-ups of the rhinoplasty as they cut out "the bad stuff", interspersed with scary medical animation. His parents can't believe he's wasting his money and neither can I, but Jim is rapt by his $18,000 new bits and he then spends probably a lot more hiring a trendy nightclub for the night to celebrate with his astonished friends.

It's all pretty bizarre but what's fascinating is how matter-of-fact some people are when it comes to spending huge amounts to fix themselves up. Welcome to what Meredith Jones calls makeover culture. In Makeover Culture: Landscapes of Cosmetic Surgery, her recently submitted PhD thesis at the University of Western Sydney, Jones analyses how the media has helped change the nature of cosmetic surgery. She interviews providers of makeovers and recipients.

What she finds is that young women are savvy about what they want done and where. They've been educated by endless reality-TV shows on makeovers and in countless chats rooms on the Internet, where they discuss the merits of various body upgrades.

Of course changing oneself or someone else is not a new thing. Jones goes back to Ovid's Metamorphoses, where Pygmalion, who hated women, carved a statue out of marble and fell in love with it. That myth has rattled across the ages, replaying the theme of passive woman and genius male creator.


We know this myth from Nip/Tuck (one of the more spectacularly weird American TV shows), where the handsome scalpel-wielding doctor constantly updates his girlfriend by making her over. We could also read about the horrors of beauty in Sheila Jeffreys's new book, Beauty and Misogyny (Routledge, 2005), where wearing lippy leads directly to hardcore labiaplasty (and if you don't know what that is, you don't need to).

Thankfully, Jones argues a more careful and original line. Feminist cultural studies has been too good at celebrating the weirdly transgressive while sticking to Jeffreys's radical feminist line when it comes to ordinary women's use of cosmetic surgery. Jones identifies an interesting trend: what she calls the glorification of process. The ads, TV programs and Internet messages that constitute cosmetic culture portray makeovers as the reward for working hard. So hardworking, successful women get to treat themselves to a course of Botox to remove the traces of all that hard work.

It's all part of a widespread culture that encourages women, and now men, to work on the self: we work on relationships, we work on getting good abs and now we work so we can afford work on our faces, buttocks and any and every other bit of ourselves.

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First published in The Australian on September 28, 2005.

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About the Author

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

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