Checks and Balances: Slice of Life

Original Publication: New York Woman, March, 1990

For months now I’ve had the fantasy of my body outlined in chalk like a corpse on asphalt, spread-eagled, with little price tags danging from various limbs and parts: “Eyes $5,000,” one tage would say. “Breasts $7,000.” “Abdomen $3,500.” “Thighs $3,500 each.” There would be tags for the chin, cheeks and toes. But the question was always where to start: at the bottom bunions or the upper lids? Should it be a one-shot deal or a complete overhaul? Naturally a body job like this would require estimates. It would mean shopping around, intense consumer alerts. Then, at the end, do I get completely repainted or just go for a nice waxing.

Of course I’m talking about plastic surgery. What else do people talk about these days? Please don’t try to tell me that sex or food even comes close. “Blah, blah, blah – breast implants!” scream the media day and night. “Lips, lips, lips – liposuction!” By now I know the factoid by heart: “Two hundred and fifty thousand liposuctions are performed each year in the United steate, making this the most common procedure in cosmetic plastic surgery.” Now why does infotrash like that stick up there on the left side of the brain even as the right side tries to intuit exactly who among those I know has gotten the old fat sucked out?

Never mind. The whole subject really began to intrigue me once I heard a remark Arsenio Hall made about La Toya Jackson. He claimed that her measurements “miraculously” changed (a contention La Toya herself repeatedly denies) to such an extent that she decided to pose nude for Playboy. To para-phrase Arsenio, “You got to understand. Guy’s don’t care if she paid for it.”

“Is that true?” I asked my husband. “Why don’t you get a transplant from your buns to your bust, and then we’ll discuss it,” was his reply. Oh, ha, ha, ha. It didn’t take many questions for me to realized just how futile it was to try to get ordinary men to give me a straight answer on this. (They’re no fools.) So I decided to call Hollywood – where else? – in order, you should pardon the expression, to nose around. The pursuit paid off.

“Oh, yeah,” a producer friend told me nonchalantly. “There are lots of guys out here who pay to have their girlfriends’ breasts done. I told my wife I’d pay for her to have one done just to see how it looked.” Regular cards, these men I know. “Wow,” I said, “I’d heard about L.A. lotharios sending their dates for AIDS test, but paying for silicone injections . . .” “It’s part of their image, you know,” the producer continued, “to be with girls who look a certain way.” “But how does it feel?” I persisted. “Doesn’t it feel like you’re touching bowling balls? I’m looking for someone with hands-on experience.” “Call me in about three months. We’re getting a divorce.” Stunning exit line, as befits Hollywood, but not much help.

I was ready to forget the whole thing, to try to elevate my thoughts, when one day I spied an ad in the Sunday supplement of The Baltimore Sun, which I just happened to have lying around (the flotsam of being married to an informaniac). The ad showed a lovely female face. On the left corner it said, “Eyelids, noses, liposuction, face-lifts.” On the right, “chemical peels, cheek, chin, implants, breasts.” At the bottom was a telephone number: “Call 1-800-The New U.” I couldn’t resist. “Hello, it’s me. I want to be U. I don’t know whether I should start at the bottom or the top,” I told the woman who answered. She wasn’t fazed in the least. I was; I gave my mother’s maiden name and made an appointment.

The doctor turned out to be a nice guy with a printed price list. I could choose any one of twenty procedures that included liposuctions of the neck, $850, and getting my ears reduced or pinned back, $2,500. There were lots of before and after pictures, and hey, if I wanted to I could combine “thighs and eyes” at the same time – he’d knock off a thou’ because it saved firing up his operating room a second time. Most of these surgeons operate right in their offices, and an entire body job can be done in three to four weeks. The prices were comparativly reasonable, so I completely understood when it said at the bottom of the sheet, “Personal checks accepted only ten days prior to surgery.”

It did give me pause, however, to receive another form: a release to be signed by the patient, a witness and the doctor, which detailed the possible complications, like abdominal injury and bleeding – which could require transfusions – lumpiness, numbness and discoloration of the skin, “if the bruising is excessive.” Moreover, the form indicated, “There is no guarantee that the anticipated results will be achieved; there is a charge for any major ‘touch up’ operations performed.” The doctor kindly explained that should I stop breathing, he had a machine that could breathe for me. It was, he promised, “almost” as good as anything I’d have in a hospital.

Nevertheless, I’d come to find out about breasts, so I forged on. I didn’t even get to finish my questions before the doctor reached behind him, pulled out a drawer and grabbed a blue towel encasing what looked like five quivering jellyfish. They were the implants – some filled with silicone, one covered with what looked like Velcro and another one filled with salt water.  “But they tend to leak,” he said about the salty stuff. The Velcro wasn’t really Velcro and wasn’t supposed to harden. “What about olive oil implants?” I asked. “Not approved by the Food and Drug Administration yet. It’s just a gimmick. All these companies try to come out with new products,” Certainly. It’s a growth industry.

The good doctor, who had a plush office, but definetly did not look – from what I saw — as if he catered to ladies who lunch, told me his average implant patient was “married with one or two kids.” They were women who, for whatever reasons, sincerely believed their personal happiness would expand along with their bustline. “Do the men pay for it?” I asked. “Husbands and boyfriends are my worst enemies,” the surgeon answered. “This operation, for some reason, turns a lot of them off.”

That’s not so in Gotham’s upper reaches. Prominent plastic surgeons with a celebrity clientele, like Manhattan’s Dr. Gerald Imber, say plenty of men come in, dragging their wives and girlfriends for a $6,500 breast augmentation because “they have a fixation about big breasts. But the woman has to say, ‘I want it for me,’” Inber said. “I have to make sure, because the woman is my patient.” As for the touch test: “If you can tell they’re false, forget it. The husband shouldn’t even be able to tell. Implants get better every year.”

Imber a master scalper of schnozzes – he’s done thousands of noses, plus those lips, those eyes of dozens of celebrities – says, “A silly conservative guess” is that of the personalities on stage, screen, TV and the news “75 percent have had some plastic surgery. I can tell. I even caught one patient of mine on a talk show swearing she’d never have plastic surgery.” According to Imber “The only people who say they won’t have plastic surgery are the ones who don’t need it yet.”

The rest of the populations seems to be cathching up to the celebrity solution for saving face. “I used to think I was a one-shot doctor,” Imber said. “Now I’m a family doctor, I treat whole families a repeated number of times.  In 1978 the ratio of women to men patients was 95 to 5 percent: today it’s 60 to 40 percent. Plus the age of my patients has dropped ten years. It used to be at least fifty years old. Now its’ fortyish. We’ve had to invent new procedures for young people – we do parts of face-lifts” (at $6,000 per droop). A friend of mine says our children will now grow up thinking that on television, at least, no one ever passes their fortieth birthday. And just imagine a world where God-given gifts no longer include beauty or distinctive features, because plastic surgery can do away with all that – the new scalpel democracy, for those who can afford it.

I am now running across pictures of women I know but haven’t seen for years who have definitely had face-lifts. They really look great, but, to misquote an old song, “It’s such a charming face . . . but it’s not her face.” Does it matter? Look at Jane Fonda’s brand-new breasts after fifty, Ivana Trump’s obvious multiprocedure overhaul; it’s clear that whatever the risks, many women will take them. Not just because of vanity, I believe, but also because the idea of the “new you” – transformation, reinvention – is so throughly American. Every other part of life seems replaceable these days, why not chins and limbs?

Just the same, now that I’ve thoroughly investigated the matter, I think I’ll cling to my cherub thighs, thank you. Because, unfortunately, this other fantasy keeps popping up – of going to sleep in some plastic surgeon’s office during an eye-thigh combo and never waking up again. Seriously, can you imagine an obit headlined, “Death by Liposuction?” “In addition to her family, Ms. Orth is survived by two jars of fat.” That’s not enough to leave behind.

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.

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