Books: A Point of View: The Mind's Construction in the Face |
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The Mind's Construction in the Face : on plastic surgery

(S01E02, broadcast 9th and 11th February 2007)

"Plastic, but not fantastic"
— plastic surgery

According to all media, so it must be true, plastic surgery is a growth industry worldwide. People who’ve had face-lifts are having their face-lifts lifted. The Taiwanese are having New Year face-lifts to bring them luck. Often the resulting luck looks bad, but it’s hard to sympathize when someone becomes a victim of failed plastic surgery that they never needed.

Usually that’s a decision that we make for them: that they didn’t need it. Knowing what they looked like before they did it, we decide they didn’t need to do it. But they mightn’t have felt like that. Anyone who undertakes major plastic surgery really doesn’t like the way they look, even if we never saw much wrong with it.

There is a person called Pete Burns who went on Channel 4’s Big Brother and got famous for being a forgotten rock singer. He got additionally famous for being a forgotten rock singer who’d had something unforgettable done to his mouth. He’d had that thing done that people who want new mouths do. They don’t want new mouths in the sense of a mouth like the old mouth, only young again. They want a new mouth in the sense of a different mouth, a mouth that has been seen nowhere on earth except below sea level. Apparently the idea is that the top lip should be at least as big as the bottom lip, and the result, even done in moderation, always looks as if the original mouth has been removed, inflated like a small plastic paddling pool, and put back on upside down.

Pete Burns had the advanced version. I switched Big Brother on accidentally one night and there he was, so I switched it off immediately, but not before having my retinas seared with the image of one of those car-sized fish that lurk deep below the reef, waiting to ingest the brass boot of a deep-sea diver. After leaving the show, Pete mercifully sank out of sight, but recently he got famous all over again because he wanted to sue the surgeons who hadn’t, in his view, put his mouth back the way it was, although he hasn’t yet made clear how long ago he means by the way it was: he might only mean the way it was last year, when it was already uncommonly large but still more or less attached to him.

Apparently it now more or less isn’t. It’s easy to laugh until you see the pictures, and then you realize he’s in real trouble, physical trouble to match the psychological trouble he must have been in in the first place. And there’s the connection between plastic surgery that doesn’t serve an obvious purpose and plastic surgery that does. The second kind started at East Grinstead Hospital, where a pioneering team of surgeons developed the techniques to help make continued life possible for Battle of Britain fighter pilots whose faces had been ruined by flame. The young men called themselves the Guinea Pig Club as a sign of the cheerfulness they needed to live with what they looked like, and it was a long time before anyone knew how to do the cosmetic surgery that went some way towards making the first necessary repairs look anything like normal. So the Guinea Pigs, booked up for years of operations, had to learn to accept each other’s appearance, and the people of East Grinstead, who met the boys in the street, had to learn to live with visual shock. An awful lot gets learned in a war, and plastic surgery would certainly not have gone ahead so quickly if there hadn’t been hundreds of young men who needed a new face: a real new face, meaning a face something like the old one.

After the war, the techniques of repairing damage graduated naturally to the techniques of improving looks. Again there’s a connection, and the connection first showed up most powerfully in Brazil. In 1961 a disgruntled employee expressed his dissatisfaction with the management of a circus by setting it on fire. He killed at least 323 people, many of them children, and disfigured many others. The plastic surgeons gave a lot of faces their lives back. One of the surgeons was Ivo Pitanguy, who later taught a generation of students to do the two things that a plastic surgeon can do: correcting disfigurements in the unfortunate, and making not perhaps entirely necessary improvements to the rich.

I met him there once, and it was immediately obvious why every beautiful high-society woman in Rio looked at him in worship. He’d given all of them eternal youth. He’d done the same for himself, and although I found it sad how even his own face proved that you can’t remove the signs of age without destroying the signs of life, I couldn’t rebut his argument that if rich people were ready to go under the scalpel, they must have real griefs that they wanted to counteract.

Our difficulty is to see why such inner feelings should be catered to in the same way that we, or rather the surgeons, cater to obvious physical needs. At the moment, in Africa, there are units of plastic surgeons financed by charity to correct childhood disfigurements, some of them so hideous they make you wonder if the man upstairs really knows what’s going on down here. Arising from malnutrition, there is a disease called noma, and its first results are a rapid degeneration of a child’s facial tissue, with results you don’t want even to imagine. But plastic surgeons can repair that damage.

Always, however, some of the know-how used in such an impeccable public service is developed in the private sector. There’s an interchange, and you might say that the angel of mercy is financed by human folly, and that there’d be folly anyway, because nobody really knows how to fix the mind, especially when it has the means to get its way. That beautiful British television actress who wrecked her mouth: she didn’t need to do that. But she thought she did. That beautiful American film star who did the same: why did she, of all people, think her face was ugly? Her face was a dream, but our dream was her nightmare. So she fixed it.

And so, reluctantly, we get to Michael Jackson, whose original nose shares the condition with Pete Burns’s original mouth of being rejected by the face where it grew up. But the real pity about Michael Jackson is that the man who sings ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white’ obviously thinks it does matter. While my daughters were growing up, Michael Jackson was a hero in our household, and even I tried to learn his ‘Billy Jean’ moon-walk. My version looked like Neil Armstrong’s moon-walk, but I didn’t blame Michael Jackson. But when I saw what the plastic surgeons were turning him into, then I blamed him. I thought he was undoing the work of a century of African-Americans who had put their lives on the line for equality. If he wanted to look like someone else, why didn’t he want to look like Denzel Washington? I would have.

It took me a while to figure out that it was his business, not mine. We who admired him never owned him, and perhaps he had no other way of telling us except making himself impossible to love by anyone except the kind of fan who would have gone on loving him if he had turned himself into a wheelie bin. He wants another identity, but so do all those rich women who try to stay young by having their faces lifted. Even if they know when to quit, before the Botox looks like latex, they must still be aware that the backs of their hands will tell the truth about that strange blankness underneath the eyes. The falsity is blatant, yet it’s often the voluntary absurdity of the most subtle people alive. So it’s got nothing to do with intelligence. It goes far deeper than that. It’s the soul, believing that with the right kind of intervention a face can stop time.

In Hollywood I once got invited to a lunch party of women who had been stars fifty years ago. If they’d stayed unaltered I would have recognized every one of them. But in their bid for eternal life they had become nobodies. Yet how can you blame them? Their beauty had been their life. On that same visit to Hollywood I met a plastic surgeon who said there were no stars, even among the males, who didn’t come in for a pit-stop. That same plastic surgeon used computer modelling to show me how he could make me look like a film star if I’d let him take a bit off the end of my nose and stick it on my chin. He kept on manipulating the mouse until I looked like Steve McQueen. When I told him I wanted to be Cary Grant his face fell, but not very far.


In the short span of a broadcast there is little time available in which to cover yourself if you risk an insensitive statement, so I had to leave out of this piece the interesting but desolating information that the Hollywood plastic surgeon, after showing me how he could fix my face, asked me to fix his own life. Telling me that he wanted to move into stand-up comedy, he asked me for my advice, and wondered if I might care to look at a script he had written. My face fell: a sight he would normally have greeted as a business opportunity, but on this occasion it must have been all too clear that what he had induced was dismay rather than hope. I was within an ace of hearing him audition. It was a desperate moment but I didn’t want to appear ruthless by saying so on air. For similar reasons, I didn’t mention the startling effect of meeting Kirk Douglas face to face, as it were. (Later on, in my book of memoirs The Blaze of Obscurity, I did mention it, because it fitted the story.) An actor whose on-screen gurning I deplored but whose intelligence I admired — his book of autobiography is a model of reflective sanity — had turned himself into . . . into what? Into a bad drawing of Kirk Douglas. But to prove myself sympathetic as well as observant, I would have needed a thousand words for that point alone, and it seemed more useful to go on stressing the general point that the perfectly sensible work of reconstructing faces blighted from childhood by a callous providence had largely been made possible by the perfectly senseless desire of the spoiled rich to wish Fate undone.

It should be added, however, that a plaything for the rich has by now become a requirement for the poor, in line with the modern mass-democratic tendency for all privileges to be claimed as common property. Low-rent hookers acquire the same face as a goldfish, and in India high-school students have dimples put in because they think it will give them a better chance at university. Almost always the results are too incongruous to be effective, but as with the celebrity culture, there is no legislating against delusion. One can merely hope that the storm will blow itself out. Yet the whole farrago would still be worth it just for making it possible for those children in Africa to have their cleft palates repaired.