American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection

Written by Laurie Essig Reviewed By Susan M. Haack

American Plastic by sociologist Laurie Essig is an intriguing and provocative secular exploration of idolatry in which she attempts to semantically link “plastic” identity with “plastic” money as harbingers of “unregulated greed and a culture of worshipping the rich” (p. xvii). But her book is more than a sociological analysis; it is a political diatribe that seeks to place responsibility for the global maladies of postmodern ideologies on American “neo-liberal” economic policies.

Essig begins with a study of the history of “plastic,” documenting the increasing commodification of beauty as a means of achieving social power-a pursuit nurtured by the media's normalization of the perfect body through its projection of fictionalized celebrity images. This rise of “plastic” beauty was exacerbated by what Essig terms the “deregulation” of medicine in which “patient” became “consumer” and “reconstructive” surgery became “cosmetic” (ironically, she neglects to substantiate the semantic shift from “cosmetic” surgery to “plastic” surgery, implied in her argument). She then lays the groundwork for her political discourse: plastic surgery is a soothing salve for the political anxieties and fiscal insecurities resulting from our plastic economics. We use plastic money (debt) to recreate our plastic, malleable selves, thereby focusing our anxiety on our bodies (pp. 25-26). Curiously, she does not hold individuals responsible for this cultural phenomenon, but blames the “neo-liberal” capitalistic government that has failed to take responsibility for regulating the desires and weaknesses of its citizens, thus enabling its idolatries-and its debt (p. xxii).

The term “neo-liberalism” refers to the economic policies of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics, which maintained that capitalism works most effectively when the power and personal freedom of the individual is unfettered by governmental regulation. After analyzing the economic impact of such policies, Essig presents the premise of her argument: “By making most people less secure economically, by deregulating medicine, and by allowing the banking industry to create new forms of credit, neoliberalism ended up written on the bodies of ordinary Americans as plastic surgery” (p. 33).

After sharing her encounters with “who” these plastic surgeons and their clients are, Essig examines “how” they came to be, labeling this cultural phenomenon the “plastic ideological complex.” This complex consists of the pervasive celebrity-driven cultural media texts that present to us the ideal body image and promote the need for plastic transformation of our ordinary ugliness-a perfectibility manifested even in the plasticity of pornography and body manipulation procedures. She credits “neoliberals” with the promise of empowerment and promotion of the belief that “a standardized, less individual body would lead to a better job, better husband, and a better life” (p. 35). Choice, according to Essig, is the neoliberal ideology that drives people to seek plastic solutions to their economic insecurities. She concludes that we are trapped-entombed in aging, deteriorating bodies and a crumbling economy, while our culture demands that we be perfect and beautiful, at any cost (p. 175). Plastic, as the promise of a better life, has become our savior. And so to free ourselves, we use “plastic” money to pay for the costs of “plastic” surgery, incurring tremendous debt in which we become further entrenched (p. xxii). This savior is no savior at all.

What solution does Essig offer? We are to demand economic and political reform (p. 183), to “think through such decisions with others” (p. 185), and to “stop seeking perfection and demand a society that is good enough for everyone” (p. 186). But can this be a viable solution when, as she notes, we are trapped-when the systems and the “others” are as enculturated by the plastic ideological complex as we are? It seems a sad case of the blind leading the blind. Furthermore, she confesses that as a parent she is even unable to convince her daughters to think more about their character than their looks (p. 88). It is clear that Essig has made the correct diagnosis but like the common cold the pervasiveness of the illness renders it incurable; for, in fact, we have become what we worship-the image of plastic.

What Essig has illuminated for us is the perfectible plasticity of the post-modern persona-the pliable, fragmented self, defined by consumption, where ambiguity and uncertainty reign and where lifestyle is a matter of choice. The problem, therefore, is not neoliberal economic policies, but is more deeply rooted in the loss of identity and corrosion of character so emblematic of postmodernism (pp. 166-68). In our postmodern preoccupation with externals, we have lost sight of the core of who we are-our soul-and along with it an integrated understanding of the meaning of embodied existence. The body is seen as a mere shell of the self and a tool for self-expression. It has become a cultural artifact.

American Plastic is engaging. It is laced with fascinating anecdotes from Essig's personal experience and encounters at plastic surgery conventions. And her frequent use of third person personal pronouns when speaking about the inexorable demands of a plastic culture creates an equivocity that keeps the reader wondering whether she herself subscribes to the pursuit of the perfected plastic body. In places she laments these current cultural ideologies, declaring that our bodies do not signify who we are, that choice is not necessarily freedom, and that plastic surgery is not the answer (pp. 168-69). She sees that what we idolize most are plastic images, almost apprehending that we have become what we worship, the image of plastic. At times she is remarkably accurate in her diagnosis, noting that we are “consumers trapped in a culture that demands we be beautiful” (p. 175) and “warriors in the battle over the meaning of our bodies” (p. 111). But then, as if touching a live wire, she jumps away, never to return or explore those ideas more deeply. Instead, she strikes out at politics. By placing the blame on political ideologies and economic policies, what Essig does not do is hold people responsible for the choices they make. Spending money you don't have on a deteriorating body you can't ultimately save-and can't afford to save-all because of financial and emotional insecurity does not seem senseless to Essig (pp. 51, 53). For her, people are responsible to find solutions for their anxieties, but not responsible for the consequences of their choices; they are victims of the system, not of their own greedy or imprudent choices (p. 40). The greed she condemns lies not with the individuals but with the “neo-liberal” capitalist system.

In American Plastic, Laurie Essig has made keen observations concerning the inauthenticity of American culture through the examination of one aspect of that culture, plastic surgery. While her observations provide the potential for meaningful insight into the contemporary understanding of the body and the self, by focusing on the surface of the issue and inconclusively implicating political ideologies rather than probing more deeply into the contemporary socio-cultural meaning of the body, this work, like the superficial nature of plastic examined, lacks the power to make a lasting impression. While Essig has made a correct diagnosis (we are plastic people who live in a plastic culture), she has misdiagnosed the etiologic agent: political and economic ideologies are not the cause but only co-morbidities. The true etiologic agent is the postmodern loss of identity and meaning of embodied selfhood. Any attempt to treat the wrong etiologic agent will be nothing more than the application of a “plastic” Band-Aid when a transformation of heart and mind is required, a transformation that only a true Savior can provide.

Susan M. Haack

Susan M. Haack
Mile Bluff Medical Center
Mauston, Wisconsin, USA

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