Changing Our Attitude Towards Cosmetic Surgery

Dr Leslie Cannold


Does she or doesn't she? And why does she always lie?

There's always a moment of truth. For me, it came a few weeks ago, on my return from the States. "You look wonderful!" an acquaintance gushed as we watched our sons tumble across the football field. "Rest and sunshine really suit you."

Yeah, sort of. And the relaxers and fillers I had injected into various creases and furrows — courtesy of my generous father — helped, too. Not that I told her this. A rabbit in the headlights, I took the compliment and ran.

But now it's bugging me. Look, I know that when it comes to such lies, I am far from alone. Gaze at the unlined features of many of the 40 and 50-year-old women in the schoolyard, at the gym, on the TV screen and among parliamentary hopefuls and members, and ask yourself this. Could they all be telling the truth about healthy diets and good genes?

The obvious answer — "No" — prompts another question. Why the cone of silence? Women are frank about wearing makeup, laser-treating sunspots, colouring our hair. Why when it comes to what the industry calls liquid face-lifts — not to mention the surgical kind — do we suddenly go all coy?

Here are my guesses. First, because no one wants to be thought vain. Indeed, for women such a slur carries extra punch because vanity — with all its connotations of immodesty and triviality — has long been seen as evidence of women's diminished moral capacities.

Fear of being tagged a failed feminist also keeps us quiet. Despite the hype, the vast majority of educated well-resourced women still identify with the women's movement, and at the heart of feminist critiques of what Naomi Wolf called the beauty myth are claims about women's rights to be seen, heard and recognised for what we do, not what we look like.

Then there is the real world. But for some feminists, its shortcomings offer no excuse for female capitulation, but rather a clarion call for individual resistance. Good feminists see furrowed brows, drooping jowls — even wayward tufts of hair — as evidence of experience, and the wisdom of our years.

But women just can't win. Morally vacuous and politically incorrect if we do, we may be judged wanting if we don't. When Susan Sarandon and Sharon Stone receive standing ovations from chat show audiences for being 50 but looking 35, the rest of us are reminded not only that youth and beauty remain the main source of female power, but that those who age passively risk judgement for "letting themselves go". Here's what I think. Ageing makes women invisible, on the street and in the boardroom, and being invisible sucks.

For some of us, such invisibility couldn't come at a worse time. When the costs of compromises made to manage work and family — staying home, going part-time, juggling — are coming home to roost in career and, for some, marital terms.

That we aren't going to get as far, soar as high, achieve as much as we planned, is a bitter enough pill to swallow. Losing our youth at the same time, and the potential for the second chances and happier endings it conjures, rubs salt in the wound.

In this context, facelifts — liquid or surgical — ballast a destablised sense of self. So we've got no idea who we are any more, or where our life is — or should be — going. At least when we look in the mirror, a familiar face, not a disintegrating stranger, is who's looking back.

And this point — about what we are and are not trying to achieve by filling and smoothing — is critical. As one plastic surgeon told me, "Most women don't want to change anything. They just want to look like them."

Australian cosmetic surgeon Rita Rakus agrees, telling Age reporter Annie Lawson last year: "When you look in the mirror, you want to recognise yourself. You don't want this old person staring back."

Yes, but what troubles me is the shame. Maybe we should, and maybe we shouldn't, but let's talk about it for heaven's sake! Because there are two things I do know. One is that shame is corrosive and, left unchallenged, it takes years to undo.

The other is that, according to one survey, more than half of British women intend to have plastic surgery, and 11 per cent have done so already. In Australia, about 50,000 people — mostly women, but a growing number of men — go under the knife each year, with 260,000 more undertaking non-surgical procedures such as Botox.

Might doesn't make right, but what such figures do imply is that if face lifts (liquid or solid) really do cross some moral dividing line, we have to unearth the motives of the traversing hordes to get a fix on the problem, and find a solution.

In the meantime, if I can afford it, I'm going to keep dodging my date with destiny. I may even consider surgery some day.

What I won't do is rabbit away the next time someone tells me I look good for my age. The time for truth-telling has come.

Dr Leslie Cannold is a reconstructed feminist, ethicist and author and an honorary senior lecturer at the Centre for Gender and Medicine at Monash University.

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