The riveting story of how cosmetic surgery and plastic money melted together to create a subprime mortgage crisis of the body
Plastic surgery has become “the answer” for many Americans, and in American Plastic sociologist Laurie Essig explores how we arrived at this particular solution. Over the last decade there has been a 465 percent increase in cosmetic work, and we now spend over $12 billion annually on procedures like liposuction, face-lifts, tummy tucks, and boob jobs. In this fascinating book, Essig argues that this transformation is the result of massive shifts in both our culture and our economy—a perfect storm of greed, desire, and technology.
Plastic is crucial to who we are as Americans, Essig observes. We not only pioneered plastic money but lead the world in our willingness to use it. It’s estimated that 30 percent of plastic surgery patients earn less than $30,000 a year; another 41 percent earn less than $60,000. And since the average cost of cosmetic work is $8,000, a staggering 85 percent of patients assume debt to get work done. Using plastic surgery as a lens on better understanding our society, Essig shows how access to credit, medical advances, and the pressures from an image- and youth-obsessed culture have led to an unprecedented desire to “fix” ourselves.
Essig, assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury College, argues that our national obsession with plastic money and plastic surgery is more than a cultural fad; it's a capitalist conspiracy engineered to persuade Americans that problems of economic insecurity, downward mobility, and lack of opportunity for the poor can be solved by consumption. Essig posits that the national tendency toward self-reinvention has been hijacked into a new and impossible American Dream: attaining the perfect body. She traces this shift to the 1980s, when trickle-down Reaganomics, financial deregulation, and the AMA's decision to allow cosmetic surgery marketing converged with a neoliberal rhetoric wherein "public issues became defined as personal troubles and problems of lifestyles." America's classic preoccupations with "rugged individualism" and "self-improvement" shifted to the literal canvas of our physical bodies; the result, Essig cautions, is a "plastic ideological complex," a relationship to our personal and national self-image that will lead to an economically and emotionally insecure future. Essig has a brisk, smart style and she approaches her subject with a welcome serving of wit which keeps her message on target even as some of her prescriptions (forming "reality-check" groups with our friends) are woefully insufficient.