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  • Impossible Bodies:TV Viewing Habits, Body Image, and Plastic Surgery Attitudes among College Students in Los Angeles and Buffalo, New York
  • Julie M. Albright (bio)

Becoming the new feminine ideal requires just the right combination of insecurity, exercise, bulimia and surgery.

Gary Trudeau1

Cindy Jackson had a dream for herself, a dream that many women share: to be beautiful. Cindy's dreams were inspired in girlhood by her favorite doll, Barbie. Long-limbed, big-busted, small-waisted, with a pert nose, cute face, and long blond hair-for more than fifty years now, Barbie has, for many girls, represented the feminine ideal. Cindy Jackson was a pleasant looking but plain Ohioan who dreamed of living Barbie's glamorous lifestyle; after receiving a small inheritance, she used her newfound wealth to fund multiple plastic surgeries, transforming herself into a Barbie look-alike. Comedian Joan Rivers (a famous plastic-surgery devotee herself) exclaimed on Cindy's website: "The new and improved Cindy Jackson: A bomb-shell who wasn't born that way . . . she lived a real-life Cinderella story."2 Cindy's "Cinderella story" is told in an autobiography titled Living Doll: The Amazing Secrets of How the Plastic Surgeons Turned Me into the Girl of My Dreams.3 [End Page 103]

Since the 1980s, the Cinderella story and other similar "transformation narratives" are increasingly being woven through popular culture: consumer advertising, media images, and television shows such as The Swan, Extreme Makeover, and Dr. 90210 illustrate for many mainstream American women Cinderella-like transformations through plastic surgery. Many of these shows overtly call on fairy-tale metaphors to position themselves as a woman's (girlhood) dream come true. The Swan tells viewers that it offers "ugly ducklings [the opportunity] to transform themselves into a beautiful swan."4 In the same vein, Extreme Makeover says that it "follows the stories of the lucky individuals who are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be given a truly 'Cinderella-like' experience: a real life fairy tale in which their wishes come true, not just by changing their looks, but their lives and destinies."5 The Chinese version of the plastic-surgery makeover show makes this connection even more overt by calling itself Lovely Cinderella.6 These shows have attracted a wide audience: Extreme Makeover is shown worldwide and has been ABC's second-highest-rated show with adults under fifty,7 and more people watched The Swan beauty pageant than the Miss America or Miss USA beauty contests.8 Additional shows have cropped up in the plastic-surgery makeover genre: fictional shows like Nip/Tuck feature beautiful plastic-surgery patients and their doctors living glamorous lives in Miami Beach or Los Angeles; while in the reality genre, The Real Housewives of Orange County follows the lives of real-life Cinderellas-surgically enhanced women living in expensive houses and driving luxury cars as a result of marrying wealthy men. The most outrageous of this new genre is MTV's I Want a Famous Face, which offers to transform young people into a look-alike of their favorite celebrity, often with the hopes of being mistaken for the real thing. [End Page 104]

Certainly, plastic surgery has come into the spotlight of American culture, but what effect is all this increased visibility of plastic surgery having on young people's views of their own bodies and body image? Is all this focus on transformation through plastic surgery exacerbating "beauty anxiety," particularly among women? In this essay I will attempt to answer these questions by exploring the connection between viewing plastic-surgery reality TV makeover shows such as The Swan and Extreme Makeover, and body image and body dissatisfaction among college students in Buffalo, New York, and Los Angeles, California.

Bodies and Body Image

Social learning theory has shown that children look to role models to learn their appropriate gender roles, including role models in the media,9 and that children and teens may model themselves after these images.10 Early on, young girls and teens learn that to be feminine means to be beautiful. Indeed, beauty is a recurring trope in the childhood toys, books, and films enjoyed by little girls. Fairy...


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pp. 103-123
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