- Suzanne Noel: Cosmetic Surgery, Feminism and Beauty in Early Twentieth-Century France by Paula J. Martin
In the latest title from Ashgate’s History of Medicine in Context, Paula Martin charts the professional and social contributions of feminist Suzanne Noël (1878–1954), one of France’s leading cosmetic surgeons. A pioneer in facial aesthetic surgery, Noël defied gender conventions in the aftermath of the First World War to become “one of the most successful and sought-after plastic surgeons of her time” (p. 5). But Noël’s activities were not limited to the medical world, and her practices were deeply connected to her advocacy for the improved social and political status of women. In fact, argues Martin, the interplay between Noël’s liberal feminism and medical practice was the source of her considerable professional success in the interwar years.
Martin guides us through Noël’s life and career in seven brief chapters. Initial chapters take the form of standard biography, detailing Noël’s childhood and early medical training, including her perseverance in the wake of personal loss, war, and financial embarrassment. Subsequent chapters incorporate biographical details within broader considerations of historical context, considering, for example, French feminism at the fin de siècle (chap. 4) or feminist associational activity and specifically Noël’s leading role as the founder of Soroptimist International (chap. 5). In the third chapter, Martin focuses on twentieth-century beauty culture to explain growing demand for Noël’s field of specialization, aesthetic surgery. Martin identifies four factors driving an interwar beauty culture: film and print advertising, fashion, new medical emphasis on the healthy body, and an increasingly competitive atmosphere based on physical appearance. Most compelling are economic arguments offered by Suzanne Noël herself, who insisted that cosmetic surgery was an effective strategy for offsetting visible aging, allowing women to work into their later years.
Yet another factor contributing to the rise of cosmetic surgery was improved surgical techniques. Noël was at the forefront of developing new, less invasive surgical procedures, which Martin explores in a sixth chapter that may interest historians of medicine. By the postwar period, we find Noël ensconced in a Parisian community of aesthetic surgeons laboring on the margins of medical respectability (there were only ten practitioners classified as cosmetic surgeons at the end of the 1920s, as the author tantalizingly reveals). In the aftermath of the war, Noël and her competitors developed new techniques in a range of cosmetic procedures: abdominoplasty, blepharoplasty, mammoplasty, rhytidoplasty, “defatting” (p. 87). Practitioners’ transition from the cutting edge of wartime reconstructive surgery to the peripheries of reputable medicine is an intriguing turn of events that receives only brief consideration. However, Noël’s contemporaries do come into view through a comparison of her professional writings with those of leading male surgeons: Raymond Passot, Adalbert Bettman, Julien Bourguet, Charles Conrad Miller. In an analysis focusing on Noël’s 1926 text La Chirurgie esthétique, Martin highlights the surgeon’s use of gendered language and feminine [End Page 830] characteristics to differentiate herself from her male peers, as a more attentive and exacting surgeon.
In this regard, Martin makes a convincing argument for the linkages between Noël’s feminist sensibilities and her medical practice, as contemporary gender politics informed both her personal and professional choices. Less persuasive is Martin’s suggestion that “some post-modern feminists” may view Noël “negatively” because of their ideological objections to plastic surgery (p. 1). Feminist historian Kathy Peiss addressed and resolved this tension in a groundbreaking 1998 study, which recast potentially objectionable historical beauty practices as avenues for female advancement and economic gain. Since then, feminist scholars have analyzed historical beauty cultures without judgment and to great effect, revealing, for example, women’s roles as entrepreneurs, inventors, and consumer activists.1 This body of scholarship would have provided important context, allowing Martin to situate Noël within the considerable...