The Sunday Times

January 8th, 2012

Don’t sneer, pretty prigs, we don’t all get beauty free

There are few spectacles more ridiculous than the British public in one of its periodic fits of priggery, to borrow a thought of Lord Macaulay’s. Cosmetic surgery, recently in the news because of a leaky breast implant scandal, can be relied on to bring the prigs out in force. Last week the press and the blogosphere were buzzing with people anxious to condemn any female who was decadent and feeble-minded enough to want to have a better bosom or to be dissatisfied with her appearance at all.

So far from sympathising with unfortunate women who are neither rich enough nor well informed enough to stay out of the clutches of the worst of the beauty bandits, they said with one voice that if these women’s implants were leaking, it served them right. Opinion was divided as to what, if anything, the National Health Service should do about it, but there was an unmistakable note of schadenfreude.

Downmarket prigs have enjoyed regaling each other over the blogosphere with the cry of “tough titty”. Upmarket prigs showed an equally silly complacency and wilful misunderstanding of the human condition. Cristina Odone in The Daily Telegraph came straight out and said that if a vanity breast job goes wrong, that’s just tough, although of course she didn’t say titty. And she dismissed the preoccupation with their appearance that drives women to consider cosmetic surgery of any kind as “neurotic vanity”.

In The Times Alice Thomson said breast enhancement is quite unnecessary given the availability of the “great bra”; it can’t be blamed on men or sex, she believes, but is really about “competition between women, a one-upgirlship and an obsessive quest for airbrushed physical perfection”. Roald Dahl’s Matilda and JK Rowling’s Hermione, she opined, would never have a nose job.

This all seems to me quite astonishing — a wilful and condescending dismissal of some of the plainer facts of life. Cosmetic intervention — or having work done, as Californians say — is as old as civilisation for a very simple reason: beauty, like youth with which it is so closely entwined, is power. Everyone who is honest must admit that. Being born beautiful, or even just quite attractive, confers all kinds of advantages upon both sexes. There are countless studies showing that pretty children get better responses from adults, more attention at school and develop more confidence.

Good-looking women, generally speaking, get jobs more easily, get better jobs and earn more than plain women; curiously enough this injustice is enjoyed, even more so, by good-looking men. Beautiful people of all sexes have a greater choice of sexual companions and more chances of raising their status by fair means or foul. Blondes really do have more fun; so do beauties. I can say from personal experience that suddenly acquiring an impressive bosom (in my case on having a baby) makes a truly astonishing difference to the amount of attention a woman gets.

This is all extremely unfair and one would surely expect enterprising people to kick against this injustice and do whatever they can to grab a bit of extra beauty. One would surely expect people to try to hang on, despite the ravages of time, to whatever they were born with. And who can blame them? They just want a piece of the action that others so unfairly enjoy. This is not neurotic vanity or self-obsession: it is unsentimental realism. For those who enjoy great advantages to sneer at the attempts of others to aspire to some of those advantages seems distinctly mean-spirited to me.

Odone writes that she would never contemplate cosmetic surgery, even though she has a “nutcracker profile and breasts like mosquito bites”. Some mosquito. Odone is an attractive woman with a good figure, married to an attractive man, and she would in any case have other sources of power and pleasure in her success as a writer and her wide network of friends. Incidentally, many of her successful acquaintances (and mine), to judge from my observations at parties, have had a lot of “work done”— and not only the women.

As for Thomson’s rather complacent claim that the heroic Matilda and Hermione would never have nose jobs — how does she know? Most aspirational women, both upmarket and downmarket, already do a great deal — short of surgery — to up their beauty ante. Professional hair colouring, a perfect tooth implant, some ferocious drugs to deal with acne, a touch of Botox, a little light lasering — all these are refinements on the ancient pursuit of beauty and if they are safe, so what? Meanwhile, pharmacology is getting ever closer to transforming old skin into new and flawless complexions.

I cannot count the times people praise a celebrity for avoiding cosmetic surgery and daring to be natural, when in fact she (or he) has almost certainly had a lot of excellent work done. It’s just that the public doesn’t recognise good work. If it has ever struck you that an older celebrity who doesn’t appear to be lifted at all is nonetheless remarkably free from bags under her eyes — or , increasingly his — that is probably due not to the knife but the laser. Fraxel laser zapping can make tiny amounts of scar tissue under the bags, which will magically shrink the skin just a fraction, smoothing out the puffiness. And so on. This will enable the celebrity to soldier on without looking past it. Cosmetic work is the new keep-fit, both in terms of the survival of the fittest and in terms of fit as attractive.

The simple point is that if beauty (along with youth) is power, then the loss of beauty and youth is the loss of power. To seek beauty — exchanging an ugly nose for a pretty one, say — is to seek power in life, or to try to retain power. Men feel the same as women about all this and more are having “work done” — getting “man boobs” removed is increasingly in demand.

Of all the cosmetic procedures on offer, breast implants do seem to be one of the worst to me, even if they are done by a top surgeon. It can hardly be a good idea to cut into all that hypersensitive tissue, let alone to insert alien substances. Even worse are facial fillers, which now seem to be very risky indeed.

What’s wrong, though, is not the desire for beauty or a bigger bosom. What is entirely wrong is that the beauty industry, which is a terrible Vanity Fair of bandits, charlatans and quacks, is so loosely regulated. That is the scandal. But it is no reason to sneer at less fortunate women for doing what rich women have always done more successfully, time out of mind. That’s priggery.