Cosmetic Cuts and Body Politics
by Katy Radford
The body politics brought to the fore with issues of self-fashioning and 'corrective' cosmetic Surgery have received much attention within a feminist critique, but until recently have not been to the fore of popular attention in the North of lreland. Cosmetic surgery was, in the main, both out of sight and out of mind. Balsamo's article On the Cutting Edge in Camera Obscura, Chapkiss (1986) and Friedan (1993) offer but three examples of the many scholars who consider at length the political and philosophical issues which arise when the business of the medical establishments and the cosmetics industries profit from the vulnerabilities of women. However until this year, their concerns have remained a matter of personal or academic concern rather than the meat of public debate.
This changed somewhat when from January to August 2000 two advertising campaigns ran in Belfast promoting the work of Advanced Cosmetic Surgery (ACS), both campaigns had artwork originated by a two person team Kerr & Ryan through two separate agencies. A third campaign is now running with which they are not connected that originated with a third agency and that features the managing director of ACS. My previous experience of cosmetic surgery advertisements was of postage stamp sized, fuzzy, before and after shots hidden apologetically away at the back of magazines and newspapers. The ACS I Kerr & Ryan advertisements present a considerable departure from that genre with an assertive marketing strategy that uses large, single images at prominent billboard locations to promote the message.
Kerr and Ryan's brief for both campaigns was to 'to stir the pot a little in Northern Ireland... and breakdown some of the taboos about cosmetic surgery'. Their approach to the campaigns unequivocally offer images which, though tempered with humour in the copy, aim to create a degree of controversy. Patrick Ryan suggests that the 'Before and After, style of advertising 'lowers the whole tone of the industry. They look very, very shoddy and don't help to enhance the reputation of any company... cosmetic surgery has suffered from a very poor marketing image with the before and after shots and that was the first thing we had to address. It doesn't help to set apart a particular company they are all wallpaper with no unique selling point.' What then was behind the choices of images that they had selected, and what did they feel were the implications of such aggressive tactics? Their first campaign featured both men and women. A dotted line and copy that read 'For a more confident life just follow the dotted line' bisecting the supine back of a faceless woman was perhaps the most striking and memorable image.
Though aware of the subjectivity of making such a call, this image seems to undermine its message by pointing out how superfluous surgical intervention would be to such a slim, young, shapely body. By choosing such a pre-surgically beautiful body, it allows the concept behind the 'Before' and 'After' shot to be extended by conveniently packaging it into a single image that avoids dealing with aesthetically displeasing excess flesh. Furthermore, the addition of the line implies that messy, bloody, invasive surgery is as simple as a Blue Peter exercise in origami. Ryan acknowledges this: 'The artwork wasn't a hard treatment, though the line does have hard connotations. There was an element of cleanliness, purity and almost swiss, clinical minimalism.' But our responses are very different. He celebrates it, I am shocked by it.
For the second campaign, a series of black and white images were featured in Northern Woman and Ulster Tatler dealing with non-invasive procedures. These were supplemented by appeals to a wider audience from four '48 sheet' colour billboards at Belfast's main arterial routes and the city centre, which dealt with the surgical reduction, and enhancement of breasts, lips and bottoms. Three white women's faces and bodies were featured in stark poses in front of single coloured backdrops. Two were professional models and the third was the make up artist used on the one-day photo-shoot, all in their 20s or early 30s' According to Patrick Ryan the non-professional model was asked to participate on the spot as the model for a tattoo removal ad as: 'she had a nice mix between on the one hand a masochistic look and also a purity in her face - a religious look.' The agency consciously tried to enhance this feel of divine intervention by incorporating a direct shaft of light from above in the ad.
'God given looks man made in minutes' reads the copy and Ryan comments on another model 'This woman has a lovely face. The reason she was chosen was that we wanted strong natural faces. I think she has a clean, natural look.' Issues of the natural, purity and religiosity reoccur throughout our conversation as examples of the facial qualities and expressions sought by the agency to epitomise empowerment and confidence in a model which they hope to transmit to the potential customer as being available as a direct result of surgery. Yet the paradox of suggesting that the natural and the pure can be best represented by a model with make up and dyed hair or wearing a pair of trousers seductively opened at the zip or pushing an ideal of an image for many only achievable by surgical intervention is clear, and does little to remove any sexual or gender objectification from the image.
Ryan suggests 'agency' and 'girl power' be accorded to the models (and by association the customer) through the ironic message in their text. Ryan illustrates this with an advertisement for hyperhydrosis where the headline reads 'When I get damp I want to enjoy it' and the use of the headline 'Admit it, it was my personality that attracted you' to support a photograph of the small of a back and a bottom in a pair of bikini pants. Despite Kerr and Ryan's claims, it is not easy to see how humour in the copy contests any sexist connotations which the images may be seen to have.
While I welcome information on and access to body refashioning as a choice for the individual to make on his or her behalf - I am concerned that the promotion of an ideal body as both young and Caucasian under the guise of 'this is pure and natural' furthers an ageist and racist agenda within advertising. Perhaps it is not too long before Franz Fanon's familiar quotation literalising Black American self-alienation and denial in the 1950s from Black Skin, White Masks 'Mama, see the Negro!, I'm frightened.' Is reworked for older women, as E. Ann Kaplan suggests, to become: 'Look Mama! An Old Lady! I'm Frightened!'.