This review was first posted in January 2008. I am on a short semi-vacation.
Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery. By Alex Kuczynski. Doubleday, 290 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
A radio station in Detroit had a contest called “New Year, New Rear” that gave the winner $15,000 worth of liposuction. A film executive’s wife in Bel Air had her genitals surgically altered through labiaplasty. An Irish woman died in Manhattan after a face-lift by doctor who sought publicity by giving interviews to Elle and Cosmopolitan.
How did we get to a point that all of this seems almost normal? What are the social, emotional, and medical costs of the cosmetic surgery boom? Alex Kuczynski gives fearless and persuasive answers in Beauty Junkies, a skillful blend of reporting, social commentary, and advice to people who are thinking of going under the knife.
You can argue with Kuczynski’s thesis that “looks are the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics.” You can argue with some of her conclusions, which reflect life in New York and Los Angeles better than in the Heartland (though the coasts are bellwethers for the rest of the country). And you can argue with advice such as: “Distrust doctors who are too tan.” If you’re having surgery, wouldn’t you prefer a rested doctor to one with a hospital pallor induced partly by too little sleep?
But Beauty Junkies is so well-written and — researched that it may stand for years as the definite book of reporting on its subject. Nearly every page has an “Oh, my God” moment. A study found that “overweight job applicants are judged more harshly than ex-felons or applicants with a history of mental illness”? Oh, my God. An urgent care center in Malibu gives Botox shots because wrinkles are now considered an “emergency”? Oh, my God. Kuczynski’s upper lip swelled up to “the size of a large yam” after a Restylane shot and took five days to return to normal? Oh, my God.
A writer for the New York Times, Kuczynski shows a particularly admirable willingness to expose the conflicts of interest that abound in the portrayal of cosmetic surgery in “women’s magazines, men’s health magazines, and some city magazines,” the first line of information for many Americans about new procedures. The unpleasant truths include that writers and editors often get free surgery in exchange for writing “something wonderful about it.” One physician who has appeared in these magazines is “one of the most-sued doctors in the country, with a jaw-dropping record of 33 settled malpractice suits since 1995.”
The Devil Wears Prada startled many people with its fictionalized portrayal of all the editorial freeloading at women’s magazines, the fashion-and-beauty industry equivalent of a permanent Iran-Contra affair with regular arms-for-hostage negotiations. Beauty Junkies is much scarcier, because it’s true.
Best line: “In a city like New York, people like to talk about their addictive personalities, as if having an addictive personality were a mark of achievement.”
Worst line: “The New York Times does not allow reporters to receive anything from any news source for free – no free face-lifts, no free shoes, not even a bottle of champagne at Christmas that costs more than $25.” So the editors of the New York Times Book Review pay for the hundreds of books they get every week? Or at least reimburse publishers for any that cost more than $25?
Recommended if ... you’ve ever looked in the mirror and wondered if there could be any harm in smoothing out a few of those crow’s feet with a little Botox.
Editor: Stacy Creamer
Published: October 2006 (first edition), January 2008 (Broadway Books paperback edition).
One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.