Like so many of my peers emerging out into the world during this economic recession, I found myself unemployed and situated right back at home immediately following my college graduation. It is perhaps more unique for me to mention then that one of my first destinations upon arriving there was a plastic surgeon’s office in Beverly Hills.
Before I continue, I should preface my story with some more information about myself and the facts surrounding this occurrence. Firstly, I would like to say that, for all intents and purposes, I am considered a pretty girl. After years of the incessant debate and self-doubt that is the exclusive reserve of young women on this topic, I accepted this conclusion based on some empirical data outside the authority of the mirror’s always inscrutable reflection:
- My friends are pretty, and so I would hope I follow the rule rather than mark the exception.
- I can go an entire night without paying for drinks.
- Excellent Apple support.
Now, of course, I am certainly not the prettiest girl; that kind of advantage is only bestowed on a select group of glamazons that, let’s be real, we all hate just a little anyways. But when all is said and done, I would say my appearance inspires more approval than revulsion, especially after my beauty regime has its wily way. Moving on.
Next, I must also assert that I am not just a pretty girl, and this is something unlike my looks that I know rather than something I leave for others to consider. I graduated with honors from one of the top colleges in the country. More than that, however, I am passionate about my pursuits, academic and otherwise, I can hold an intelligent conversation, and I can normally find the nearest Taco Bell within a 10-mile radius of my standing location, a skill that is not un-useful on the occasional late-night, fast food run.
With this information in mind, the plastic surgeon’s office was not exactly the most predictable place for me to end up. With no real, glaring physical deficiencies—or so I thought—and outside interests that made me aspire to be more than just a pretty face anyways, a plastic surgeon was hardly among the first people I looked to as I sought to make my way in the world.
I suppose I can only explain then how I ended up seeing a plastic surgeon as a small concession to the culture in which I’d been raised. Growing up outside Los Angeles, I witnessed men and women of all ages seek physical perfection. In the way that the 49ers rushed to Northern California for gold, men and women arrive in Southern California seeking beauty and glamour in its optimal forms. My particular suburb was the type of place where from behind, mothers could hardly be distinguished from their teenage daughters, and many girls I’d gone to high school with celebrated graduation with nose jobs and breast augmentations. Come college graduation, the cosmetic surgeries started afresh as status updates boasting new or altered body parts cluttered my Facebook newsfeed. I was struck by one brazen status “I just got big, fake boobies” above a picture of this former classmate in a tight, low-cut top (for visual aid of course).
Within the context of this culture, it was my mother who brought my weak chin to my attention. During my adolescence, her concern sometimes found voice. When I got braces, she asked the orthodontist in earnest, hushed tones whether curing my overbite might bring my chin forward, and whenever I complained about my looks, she reassured me: “You’re perfect… The only thing you could maybe fix is your chin.”
Now, my mother is really a very supportive and affirming mother. However, coming to America without the opportunity for higher education I had so automatically received, she saw the benefits her beauty had afforded her. Being pretty had not only been important but had also been a decided advantage for her, and so she focused on my looks as well. When I needed glasses, she got me contacts, and when I entered middle school, we took a trip to the department store and bought supplies for a full face of makeup. At an early age, I was therefore trained to seek personal beauty, just like those that surrounded me.
Now, I’d never really noticed my weak chin probably because such a flaw is only conspicuous in profile, an angle from which I was not apt to look at myself in the mirror. My mother’s fretting, however, did eventually take effect, and whenever I felt insecure about my looks or anything really at all, I bemoaned this otherwise overlooked feature. With the uncertainty of graduating without a job and the crippling anxiety that accompanies the unknown, I fell victim again to insecurity and finally agreed to see my mother’s plastic surgeon. If I could not control anything about my debut into adult life, perhaps I could at least control how I looked when I did it.
Upon arriving at the plastic surgeon, I sat with my mother as I filled out the necessary medical paperwork in the reception area. It was not unlike going to visit any other doctor. The atmosphere, however, was a decided hybrid, the perfect mix between any other medical space and an uber chic spa. The furniture was modern, the décor leaned towards the feminine, and the flat screen TV flashed before and after shots of former patients. The bubbly receptionist was conventionally beautiful, no doubt a patient, and chatted about her engagement to some major league baseball player while she waved around a pretty sizeable rock. Bitch.
They led us into an examining room, again, much like any other you might see at your general practitioner except a little more glamorous; there were slight tweaks that added just a bit more appeal. The room was utilitarian but it was also pretty, functional but aesthetically pleasing. I suppose patients hoped the doctor could render the same effects upon them. I started to wish I had put on makeup and that I was not wearing sweats. My future a morass of uncertainty, I felt like I was on a vacation from my life, and so I’ll admit my beauty regime had taken a backseat.
I sat on the papered examining chair, and my mom sat slightly removed in the corner. Right before the doctor walked in, she whispered, “I won’t talk. You just tell him what you want.”
After the polite introductions, the plastic surgeon got right down to business. “What would you like to change?” I paused for a second. I’d never had the agency to so immediately and definitively produce results to that question. Come to think of it, I’d like to change a lot of things. I want to be back in college, not unemployed, and perhaps be engaged to my own major league baseball player. The surgeon couldn’t make these changes, however, so I noted the imperfections to which there could be swift improvement. I answered that my mother thought I had a weak chin and for good measure, I threw in the fact that I thought my nose might not be perfectly straight.
At this, the surgeon began prodding my face. He turned it from side to side, examined it from different angles, and poked at certain parts. I really, really wish I wore makeup.
Now, I think the greatest similarity between seeing a regular doctor and a plastic surgeon is that with both, you really hope that the doctor will ultimately just tell you you’re OK. Sure, if you’re not, you’d like to be fixed, but when you list off your random ailments seemingly in search of a specific diagnosis, you secretly just hope that the doctor will tell you that you needn’t make a fuss; you’re fine. In the same way, I secretly hoped the plastic surgeon would do the same. You’re fine. In the quest for beauty as opposed to health, however, I’m not sure this type of definitive approval can be achieved.
The surgeon did indeed agree that I had weak chin. He backed it up with scientific evidence; he held the end of pencil straight down from against my lip, like you might do with your finger when you signal someone to be quiet. Technically, my chin should have touched the other end of the pencil. Unfortunately, there was some space between. He also agreed that my nose had a slight bump that should be shaved down, not to mention a small droop when I smiled that could be tipped off. Finally, as an added bonus, he informed me that my top lip was thinner than the bottom, which he could fix with some minor injectables.
At first, I was honestly a little amused. I can laugh at myself. I can see humor in my imperfections. Moreover, I was not so jaded and shallow as to not be able to recognize the slight ridiculousness not to mention the gall of this “doctor.” Had any other man had the audacity to throw such a superficial critique my way, more than words would have been thrown back. I might also highlight my age, a post-grad of twenty-two. Without makeup, I was often mistaken for fifteen. The fact that a grown man had just unapologetically validated a young girl’s insecurities, not to mention added some fresh new ones, seemed so fundamentally wrong, perhaps even unethical. The situation was laughable really.
But curiously this man was indeed a type of doctor, and his profession dictated he make these type of appraisals. I wondered for a moment how the field had developed its objective markers. Who determined a pencil should touch my chin when hung against my lip? Wasn’t beauty after all subjective? Because if indeed, like this man contended, it wasn’t, weren’t we all screwed?
Adding insult to injury, the plastic surgeon concluded the consultation by taking a picture of me from the front and in profile—the process and accompanying shame not dissimilar to when you take mugshots. Indeed, I was in trouble.
I floated out of the examining room deep in thought. It was as if I had just been diagnosed ugly. I grappled, however, with whether I thought that was really a diagnosis one could give. We migrated to another office with the most beautiful arrangement of peonies. They were offensive to me. Such natural beauty had no business in this office, and I resented their easy attractions.
My mother and the surgeon’s secretary talked prices and dates. If I got my nose done with my chin, they would give me a special price. Injectables were off the table. I think my mother had been a little taken aback by the actual appointment and wanted to make sure we didn’t go too crazy. They could fit me in next Thursday. Some nameless actress had to be on location earlier than she expected. As if it was as simple as a haircut, with a cancellation, my surgery could be bumped to an earlier date.
Everything was happening very fast. It was not, after all, a haircut. It was a surgery, for which I would need to have anesthesia, for which there could be complications, and for which there would be some not insignificant recovery time. I was struck by how casual everyone in the office was being about it. It reminded of me of when I had had a consultation before getting my wisdom teeth pulled. Having the surgery had been an already foregone conclusion prior to the appointment. Everyone was treating my plastic surgery the same. It was no longer a matter of want; it was a matter of need. I had been diagnosed.
I went home and began to enact the five stages of grief for my face. As I rounded out depression, crying because I felt I had to have surgery to make me pretty, I remembered something. I remembered that the surgery was elective, and I remembered that for twenty-two years I had been healthy without it. My weak chin had hardly been a handicap, and whenever I felt happy, secure, and loved, this small imperfection went largely unnoticed. My smile was never less contagious amongst friends because it made my nose “droop,” and no boy I’d liked enough to kiss had complained my top lip was not as thick as the bottom. Such idiosyncrasies made me, me. They made me human and unique, less perfect perhaps but no less beautiful. I was just not plastic.
I decided not to get the surgeries. I am by no means opposed to them; I just didn’t think recovering in bed was the best use of my time when I needed to start grappling with the world. At the age of twenty-two, about to venture away from the manicured lawns and crafted charms of the suburbs and the American college campus, I wanted to learn to embrace what was real. I wanted to learn to love amidst the realities of flaw and to be forgiving. To do this, I decided I should first start with myself. Then, if I still decided to get plastic surgery, it would be because I only wanted to change something about the way I looked, and I would not equate that with changing my life or myself.
Sometimes, I look in the mirror, and I am still haunted by the deformed reflection I was made to see in that plastic surgeon’s office. I do not feel pretty, and honestly, I do not always look pretty. However, interestingly enough, I can appreciate this condition. My underwhelming moments make my shining ones all the more brilliant. They crystallize a radiance that is exclusive to what is human and reveal the multifaceted variety that animates me.