- Skintight: An Anatomy of Cosmetic Surgery, and: Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, and: Surgery Junkies: Wellness and Pathology in Cosmetic Culture
It is one indication of the breadth and fascination of plastic surgery and its increasing presence as both an elective medical practice and a subject for countless forms of representation that three recent books could all engage with it as a topic of analysis, generating studies that complement, rather than reproduce, one another. Victoria Pitts-Taylor's Surgery Junkies: Wellness and Pathology in Cosmetic Culture; Meredith Jones's Skintight: An Anatomy of Cosmetic Surgery; and Cressida Heyes's Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies are each committed to offering a reading of plastic surgery within a broader theoretical context of feminism and cultural studies. All three authors approach the subject of plastic surgery using a blended methodological approach that allows them to make good use of human-subject interviews (with patients and surgeons in the case of Jones and Pitts-Taylor, with friends and colleagues in the case of Heyes, with fascinating and important self-reflexivity from all three). The authors also include complex schools of thought (such as postmodern and poststructural, Foucauldian, and actor-network theories) and punctuate their analyses with representative examples from the current mediascape, such as reality TV, advertisements, Internet sites, and magazines. And each, I believe, succeeds in offering a useful and intelligent reading of plastic surgery as a cultural practice that speaks of and shapes our present contemporary moment, in which image functions as indexical to identity. Because all three authors offer extended readings of Extreme Makeover, commenting on television's role in making body-modification practices intelligible, I will address their treatments collectively [End Page 289] at the end of this review after looking more specifically at each book on its own terms.
Victoria Pitts-Taylor offers a fascinating journey into the exigencies of perceived excess in Surgery Junkies. She argues that in the context of plastic surgery's increasing prevalence, those who seek body modification through surgical means are often wrongly dubbed—through academic feminism as well as popular and medical pronouncements—as misguided and delusional subjects who do not have and cannot exert autonomous agency (individuals who in feminist circles have been called dupes of the patriarchy). Her research helps establish a broad archive of culturally relevant texts—from patient and surgeon interviews to newspaper articles, legal documents, television shows, and medical discourses. Pitts-Taylor starts from an avowedly poststructuralist and postmodern position, wherein meaning is a consequence of aggregated discourses. In this respect, as she notes, she does not believe that "body practices bring out who we are" but rather that "meanings of neither our bodies nor our selves are as fixed as we often assume them to be" (7). Even more important, she notes, is the degree to which "social forces are interested in declaring the meanings of our bodies and selves for us," leading to a plethora of messages urging us to "transform, improve, update, or change ourselves" (7). By identifying as her prime subject the surgery junkie—the patient who engages in plastic surgery to the point of a vaguely defined excess—Pitts Taylor trenchantly asks the reader to question how the hazy boundaries of normal and aberrant, of experimentation and addiction, are maintained, managed, and transgressed. In narrating in the book's final chapter her own decision to have rhinoplasty, she expands the scope of academic discourse even further—though had Pitts-Taylor really wanted to create a new heuristic for the reader's imagination, she really should have pressed the surgery junkie envelope by engaging in more than a nose job. Still, I think we can give her a pass for this lapse.
Pitts-Taylor structures the book into many useful sections—including a comprehensive overview of academic feminists and their response to plastic surgery, a thoughtful discussion on...