Rich People Things: The National Plastic Surgery Recession


It’s undeniably a historic moment-America stands on the verge of a drastically altered health care regime. Spiraling costs have driven many patients out of the market entirely, and the sluggish economy has forced clients to scale back their expectations for quality care. No, it’s not that health-care reckoning; it is, rather, something that strikes much more directly at the national creed of tireless monied self-improvement-a pronounced downturn in the plastic-surgery sector.

Writing in the Observer (UK), Paul Harris notes that demand for cosmetic surgery has dropped 18% in the U.S. over the past year. The most immediate culprit, he writes, is the Great Recession, since “purely cosmetic operations, such as nose-shaping and breast enlargements, often cost thousands of dollars and are not covered by health insurance.”

But there are subtler cultural shifts involved, too, Harris notes: the public is no longer so readily titillated, if you’ll pardon the expression, with the subculture of superficial snippery. The hit cable franchise Nip/Tuck has been retired. Reality TV glyph Heidi Montag became a tabloid laughing stock after it was reported she’d had ten face and body procedures performed over the past year, evidently mistaking the name of her reputation-making franchise The Hills as a de facto mission statement for her décolletage. Even my former employer, New York magazine, which has made plastic surgery a centerpiece of its business model, has lately taken to wondering out loud whether a permanently frozen countenance is really such an unalloyed good, especially for the nation’s moody celebrity class.

As correspondent Amanda Fortini notes, there’s a curious, self-devouring paradox in the acting profession’s romance with cosmetic surgery: the pursuit of optimally manipulated facial features can damage one’s marketability as a performer. Stephen Pincus, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon tells her he makes a point of asking clients, “what expressions, what emotions, are you concerned about losing?’ I say, ‘I can paralyze your forehead from this point up, but you’re not going to be able to wrinkle a good part of the forehead. Is that an issue for you? If it is, we shouldn’t do it.’ ” Still, he observes, many determined souls plunge fearlessly on. “They’re more concerned about wrinkles than about the five seconds of emotion people might not notice anyway.”

Thus, it seems, the CW is guaranteed a talent stable into perpetuity.

Meanwhile, in a still crueler turn of the screw, getting work done also creates its own additional demands on the thespian craft, since publicly admitting to the practice is stigmatized in a way that, say, a tour in the Betty Ford clinic isn’t. “I don’t think you’ll find an actress saying they’ve had it,” acting coach Shelia Gray says, “so you won’t come across anybody saying it’s changed their technique.” Indeed, the oddly austere rounds of the lifted and cantilevered life have so flustered an ingénue like Montag that she seems to have provisionally abandoned her hard right political profile to shill for financial regulatory reform. She even threw over her blond lummox of a husband/business manager, Spencer Pratt-the kind of figure who makes Tom Arnold look in retrospect like a member of the Bloomsbury group-for a short-lived dalliance with a psychic manager.

All of Montag’s whirl-a-gigging cries for help since she came out of the surgery closet point up a far deeper distemper lurking within the souls of the surgery-addled. Just because they may be scaling back the overall volume and frequency of their appearance upgrades, that does not by any measure entail a corresponding downgrade in the quest to reinvent their ever-protean selves. Hence, in his dispatch, Baker notes that even amid an overall decline in demand for “full-on surgical operations,” the number of less-invasive procedures, and nonsurgical treatments like Botox, “is steady or rising.” And even when they go under the knife, the Washington-based surgeon Richard Baxter notes, members of the new cosmetic client base are experimenting with more modest alterations. Formerly, he had about one-third of his clients opt for B-cup sized breast augmentations; now he estimates that share of the market is up to a half.

Baker chalks this stalwart-if expressively chastened — demand to the ongoing persistence of human vanity, but it seems to be more a byproduct of a distinctly American, and transcendentalist, faith. “All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle,” Emerson wrote. “We wake from one dream into another dream. The toys, to be sure, are various, and are graduated in refinement to the quality of the dupe.”

Chris Lehmann is considering having some work done.