How quests to be the best and look the hottest wreck lives
By Qina Liu
Tally Youngblood could not wait until she turned 16 and got a standard operation that would transform her into a gorgeous young woman. Tally could not wait until she could escape the realm of “Uglyville” and enter “New Pretty Town.” She could not wait to get rid of her frizzy brown hair and her uneven nose and her blotchy, zit-filled face. She could not wait to be “pretty.”
Although Tally Youngblood is a fictional character from young adult writer Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy, the desire to be beautiful in a world of plastic surgery is still very real.
For Hope Donahue, author of the memoir Beautiful Stranger: A Memoir of an Obsession with Perfection, her never-ending quest for perfection has led her to undergo seven plastic surgery procedures—Botox injections, adding collagen in her lips twice, permanent make-up tattooed on her brow and lips, nose jobs, cheek implants and breast implants.
“An alcoholic can’t just have one glass of wine,” Hope told Times Online reporters, adding, “I used to think, just one more procedure—another nose job or maybe another brow lift and I’ll be perfect, beautiful. I’ll be happy.”
To her, the fountain of youth and happiness came in the form of 2 & 1/8” by 3 & 3/8” plastic credit cards. With the card within her manicured fingertips, Hope charged her first plastic surgery procedure, a nose job, at age 22. The following year, she got a face-lift. Within five years, she had undergone seven procedures. Hope wrote in her memoir, “I’d been administered a highly addictive drug called Being Pretty, and it was slowly taking over my system.”
However, it was not like Hope didn’t appear to be pretty or perfect before the procedures. “I was the person other people wanted to be,” said Hope. Her family was rather well off and stressed the ability to keep up appearances. Her grandparents, Clayton and Eleanor Hathaway, also had a refined societal air and status.
“My mother said the Hathaways didn’t like her because she wasn’t a society girl,” Hope wrote. “My father’s family, too, had a certain established order. Each of us had a title and a role. My mother was the rogue. My grandmother was a genteel gentlewoman. My father was the good-natured goof. I was the pretty one.”
“My mother’s desire for me to be glamorous, stunning and charming—to dazzle my father’s family—added to the pressure I already heaped upon myself,” Hope described. However, while Hope’s mother fueled her daughter’s obsession for perfection, the mother had developed a reverse Oedipus complex between her husband and daughter. Much like how the Greek character Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, Hope’s mother suspected that her husband was perversely attracted to their daughter’s body. Her mother’s jealousy fueled Hope’s depression.
“I was so depressed that I think if it had not been plastic surgery, I would have become obsessed with cutting myself or starving myself, or something else,” Hope says. “But I had money. I grew up near Hollywood. My grandmother was always having plastic surgery and it really was the trend du jour.”
Perhaps triggered by high-profile celebrities like Simon Cowell, Vanessa Williams and Oprah joining the ranks of Botox users and supporters, the trendy
ideals of perfection has caught on among the younger generation. Brogan Mackay is an 11-year-old girl in Britain who has been wearing the latest designer trends—such as Chanel, Prada and Gucci— since the day she was born. Her parents, Alison and Stephen Mackay, have given her everything that she wanted, spending more than 150,000 pounds for her bleached blond highlighted hair, Jimmy Choo sandals, Gucci bags, designer dolls and make-up. The 11-year-old-girl’s latest wish: a breast enhancement.
“I think by nature, if we see a film or a television program or an advertisement, if media is doing what it needs to do from a business standpoint, it is trying to make you see yourself in those images,” said Dr. Matthew Fee, film theory specialist and director of the Park Scholars Program at Ithaca College. “Particularly with advertising, if I buy that product, that will be me.”
Ithaca College television and radio professor Jack Powers linked our need to become those images with the social cognitive theory, a theory stating that humans learn vicariously through others.
“It bothers me,” added Powers. “I am a father. I have a daughter. And it bothers me that she somehow feels that the idea of what is beautiful is not determined by real people but determined by media portrayals.”
For Brogan, her values and idea of “perfection” transcend from those of her role models: Lady Gaga, Katie Price and Paris Hilton.
“Culture is just as active in making us decide which people are sexy,” adds author Westerfeld. So is nip and tuck, lift and flatten the new sexy? In 2008 the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reported 12.1 million cosmetic procedures performed in the United States.
“I am willing to go out on a limb and say those 12.1 million people are heavy media consumers,” Powers said. “I don’t know that, but I would be willing to bet that that’s the case.”
“When you live in a media-saturated society such as we do, it is pretty hard not to have that influence you in some ways,” Fee said.
Perhaps IC legacy Rod Sterling got it right over 45 years ago in his episode of The Twilight Zone called “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” in which a girl is forced to undergo an operation that transforms her into a real life Barbie doll.
“Portrait of a young lady in love with herself,” Sterling narrates at the end of the episode. “Improbable? Perhaps. But in an age of plastic surgery, bodybuilding and an infinity of cosmetics, let us hesitate to say impossible.”
“I hate to bash media, because we love media,” Powers added. “We all enjoy media to some degree, but we are just naïve to think that this doesn’t have at least some influence on our ideas on what is the perfect person. And some people, unfortunately, take that to the extreme.”
So is there anything to stop the real-life Barbie dolls of tomorrow? When is the cost of perfection too high or too extreme?
“There are no easy answers,” Powers said. “But when it comes to body image to an obsession with the ideal, make no mistake that media plays a role.”
While undergoing plastic surgery may not have been impossible, Hope’s addiction to perfection made her anything but happy. Now 41, Hope is married with four children in New Jersey, having booked and cancelled four nose jobs and removed her breasts implants.
“I can’t fool myself anymore,” Hope told Oprah Winfrey in 2005. “I cannot fool myself into thinking that a smaller nose is going to equal a happier me. I know that doesn’t work anymore because I tried that.”
Qina Liu is a freshman journalism major, and her conception of the American Dream does not involve cheek implants. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.