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Myth of American Dream

Or how we learned to stop worrying and love plastic — surgery and money

In the past decade plastic surgeries in the United States increased by 465 percent and most were paid for on credit. In the past decade plastic surgeries in the United States increased by 465 percent and most were paid for on credit. (Jo Yong-Hak/ Reuters)
By Buzzy Jackson
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

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“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word . . . plastics.” When Mr. McGuire offers this advice, if you can call it that, to young Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film “The Graduate,’’ is it possible he had “boob jobs, credit cards, and our quest for perfection” in mind? “[O]ne cannot understand America,” Laurie Essig writes, “without understanding plastic.” Like Mr. McGuire, Essig believes that understanding plastic is the key to understanding contemporary America.

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But in this fast-paced book, Essig, a sociologist at Middlebury College, makes a strong case for the idea that plastic — both in the form of money (e.g., credit cards and other forms of easy credit) and in the form of surgery (e.g., breast jobs, nose jobs, etc.), has become Americans’ favorite problem-solving tool, whether they can afford it or not. “We wish the world were different. We wish we were different. The solution, it seems, is plastic.”

Essig’s style is breezy but her message is as pointed as a syringe full of Botox: The American Dream is a myth and our addiction to plastic conspires in obscuring that fact. “Our desire for plastic is the result of massive shifts in our culture and our economy that affect us all. Plastic money covered up the fact that most of us were getting poorer while a few of us were getting richer.”

Hers is at heart an argument about political economy. Essig’s approach adds a new facet to a growing argument about the complicated web of consumerism, health, and the American ethos of individualism expressed in recent books such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America’’ and Judith Warner’s “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.’’ As Essig argues, America’s cult of individualism “grew up alongside capitalism to free the state from responsibility to the individual and make the individual see failure as a personal, not a structural, problem.”

How all this relates to cosmetic breast surgery is surprisingly straightforward: “This ideology says that we are responsible for ourselves, and that we all have a chance to make it if we just work hard enough. In this case, the hard work of beauty becomes something we all must do, and if we don’t, then we deserve our low pay, or lack of healthcare, or lonely, unmarried futures.” If at first the reader finds this line of logic hard to take seriously, just spend some time with the many women Essig interviewed for the book (women make up 90 percent of the cosmetic surgery patients) who explain that they spent thousands of dollars on bigger breasts, smaller noses, and flatter stomachs because they hoped that by looking better they would be less likely to be fired from their jobs. Less likely to be dumped by their husbands. Less likely to hate themselves. It’s a sad story.

And a common one. Essig’s strength is her humor, combined with real compassion for and identification with the average American woman who finds it hard to love her own body. She coins a term that’s stayed with me since I finished the book: “ordinary ugliness.” This is the state of being, well, normal: “stretch marks, cellulite, wrinkles, the downward pull of gravity, the realization that our bodies are not and can never be perfect.” Ordinary ugliness has always been with us; it’s just plastic surgery that’s new. Essig notes that when her mother reached late middle age, she “believed it was acceptable to ‘let herself go.’ ” — to stop dyeing her hair, pulling on a girdle, and wearing uncomfortable shoes. “I don’t know at what age I can stop dyeing my hair or working out,” writes Essig, who is in her 40s, “but it’s definitely not anytime soon, if ever.”

Of course, the next generation of American women — her daughters — started their “beauty work” earlier than their predecessors and will probably keep doing it into very old age. Why? Because despite real advances in American women’s lives, women are still “trapped in a culture that insists happiness can only be obtained through the transformation of the body.” That, plus the fact that we live in a world trying to sell us stuff, constantly. Essig can’t simply blame the media for the problem; as she observes, many of the women who cite the media as the root of their dissatisfaction with their own appearance go on to get unaffordable plastic surgery anyway. As one cosmetic surgery patient explained, ruefully, “The hard part is to distinguish between what I want and what society wants.”

In the past decade the popularity of plastic surgery (measured in the number of procedures) has increased by 465 percent. Most of those procedures were paid for on credit. You may read these statistics and scoff, having never gone in for “a little work” yourself, but as Essig notes, even if you’ve never considered plastic surgery, “chances are you’ve assumed debt” — whether in the pursuit of a house, nicer furniture, or more education — “in order to create a more perfect future.” As the Reagan administration dissolved banking regulations in the 1980s and revised the tax code to benefit the richest among us, increasingly poorer working Americans turned to credit to finance their version of the American Dream. And we’re still doing it. Guess what, Benjamin Braddock? Mr. McGuire was right.

Buzzy Jackson is the author of “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist.’’ E-mail her at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.

AMERICAN PLASTIC: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection
By Laurie Essig
Beacon, 219 pp., $26.95