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Abigail Jones

The mother of perfection

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Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Abigail Jones
May 15, 2008

A NEW children's book, "My Beautiful Mommy," helps parents tell their young kids why mommy, who just came home from the hospital in bandages, will now have a new nose and a thinner waist. Whether it's your next-door-neighbor, her daughter, or Heidi Montag, plastic surgery has become business as usual. But it wasn't always this way.

Back in Victorian America, women embraced the ideal of natural beauty, associating makeup with the artificial faces of prostitutes and showgirls. In the 1910s, when the flapper was the measure of femininity, Vogue signaled a significant shift, urging readers to (discreetly) use lipstick and rouge to enhance their beauty. Decades later, Clairol's legendary 1956 ad campaign - "Does she or doesn't she? Hair color so natural, only her hairdresser knows for sure" - publicized another turn; women in the Eisenhower years were hiding the gray, enhancing the red, and becoming blonde, but they still wanted it to remain a private matter. Unnatural changes to one's physical appearance were meant to be a secret - unless you were Marilyn Monroe.

Today, however, blonde highlights have become as typical as red nails. There's the "mommy makeover." From blogs to Facebook to reality TV, private life is more public than ever. Given the obsession with appearance and perfection, beauty has gone public, too, and plastic surgery is the latest frontier. Such physical changes are practically impossible to disguise, but the point is that many women don't want to hide them at all.

Ashley Tisdale got a nose job. So did Ashlee Simpson. There's Joan Rivers's face, Tara Reid's stomach, and Pamela Anderson's chest, all of which we've seen plastered across the pages of gossip magazines, the photographs magnified and analyzed for inconsistencies or modifications. Most celebrities don't end up like modern-day Frankensteins Jocelyn Wildenstein and Michael Jackson, yet this pursuit for eternal youth is real. Plastic surgery, however, is hardly just a Hollywood pastime.

Women all over the country are altering body parts in search of physical perfection. By now, everyone knows what a "mommy makeover" is (in case you missed it: liposuction, tummy tuck, and breast lift, with or without breast implants). Yet aiming to regain one's pre-pregnancy body is only part of the story. Women turn to a range of surgical and nonsurgical procedures to help turn back time, and, last year, they constituted 91 percent of all cosmetic surgery patients.

How many of these women have children? It's a critical question, because aside from the emotional effects plastic surgery can have on patients, how does a mother's plastic surgery affect her kids?

Teenagers are growing up in a society where you can buy what you weren't born with. After a brief recovery, you, too, can have a button nose and slim waist or lips like Angelina Jolie. MTV's "I Want A Famous Face" exposed teens' obsessions with beauty in possibly the worst of the plastic-surgery-meets-reality-TV glut. The show, which aired in 2004, featured young people getting surgery to make them look like their favorite Hollywood stars. Amidst pop culture's quest for extreme beauty, who do girls look up to? Their moms, the very women who now pay thousands of dollars to look just like their daughters.

Though "Mother" has always been heralded as the heart of the family, the attractive - and gracefully aging - matriarch, the rules are changing. Some women will do anything to stop the clock. Whatever happened to the idea that it's the daughter's turn? Today, the mentality has flipped: It's mom's turn, too. But women's efforts at preserving their youthful appearances often put them in competition with their children (hello Dina Lohan and Kris Kardashian).

The publication of "My Beautiful Mommy" shows that plastic surgery belongs on that laundry list of issues (drugs, sex, alcohol) for parents to discuss at the dinner table. Many mothers will continue to get plastic surgery, so as long as they care for their relationships with their kids, maybe that's enough. After all, is it worse when mothers strive to perfect themselves or when they strive to perfect their daughters?

Abigail Jones is co-author of "Restless Virgins: Love, Sex, and Survival at a New England Prep School."

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