Elizabeth Haiken delivers much more than the subtitle of her book implies: not just a history of a medical specialty but an intelligent, perceptive, and very lively analysis of 20th-century American culture and values as reflected in the rise of cosmetic surgery. Self-improvement is an American obsession. Up through the 19th century, Americans defined it @only in terms of character development and “inner beauty.”
By the beginning of the 20th century, though, the rapid growth of the commercial beauty business had made the means of external self-improvement available to women everywhere. Looking one’s best was seen as part of America’s democratic tradition of self-improvement – or, as one contemporary writer put it, “of decent respect for oneself, of optimistic belief in one’s heritage of beauty and a desire to come into one’s own.” As Haiken makes clear, cosmetic surgery, which lies at the nexus of medicine and consumer culture, found an ideal time and place to thrive in modern America.
The first successful cosmetic surgery on record took place in the 16th century, when an Italian surgeon reconstructed a man’s nose, which had been severed in a brawl, using skin from the patient’s upper arm. But cosmetic surgery wouldn’t emerge as a medical specialty until World War I, when British, American, and French doctors worked together to develop techniques to repair the shattered faces of soldiers.
By the 1920s, cosmetic surgery had a hold on the imagination of the American public, thanks in large part to the efforts of journalists, who, then as now, were fascinated by its possibilities. In 1923, the famous Jewish comedian Fanny Brice submitted to a much-publicized nose bob in hopes that it would enable her to play a wider range of roles. “Hurrah for the intrepid Fanny,” The New York Times editorialized. (Writer Dorothy Parker, @also Jewish, saw it differently, commenting that Brice had “cut off her nose to spite her race.”)