A few weeks ago, I saw Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides. What really caught my attention were the casting choices for the mermaids. At first, it struck me as a bit unusual. The mermaids looked natural. (Tails aside) No breast implants, no collagen-injected lips. They didn’t seem to be wearing much makeup, either. What was going on here?
Normal standards of beauty call for extreme artifice: plastic surgery, caked-on makeup, hair extensions. In America, we tend to subscribe to the more-is-more ideal. And if you’re going to get plastic surgery, you’d better make it obvious. Why make an investment that no one will recognize? W Magazine highlighted the plastic surgery epidemic among young women last September, in the article Prematurely Plastic. In the article, New York plastic surgeon Douglas Steinbrec was interviewed, stating:
“There’s this new mentality that if you do not look a little bit fake, then the surgeon hasn’t done his job. This used to be a much more prevalent idea on the West Coast, but now you walk up Madison Avenue, and you see these young girls with that cloned, cougarlike face. Either they don’t know what they look like, or they want to look like they’ve had something done.”
Having lived in both Manhattan and Los Angeles in the past 4 years, I completely agree with Steinbrec. Plastic surgery among the 20-somethings is commonplace. Almost unavoidable. It’s so pervasive that seeing natural-looking actresses left me flabbergasted.
It reminded me of when I was looking at a photography exhibit at the Hammer Galleries in Los Angeles. There were lots of nude photographs of women, and something wasn’t quite right about them. The women just didn’t look normal. Perplexed, I took a few laps around the room, trying desperately to discover what was wrong with them. Then, it hit me. They didn’t have breast implants. The victory of solving the riddle stung. I had become so entrenched in the prosthetic ideal beauty of our time that I thought there was something wrong with natural breasts.
Standards of beauty change all the time. And the ironic part is that the standard is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. That’s why fashion changes so frequently – to accommodate and fashion the body. Anne Hollander, a fashion historian, devotes an entire book examining this phenomenon in art history. The book, Seeing Through Clothes, illustrates that all art forms (painting, film, photography, etc) portray nude models as if they were dressed. This means that clothing rewrites the body completely, and our idea of “normal” or the ever elusive ideal are social constructs that change with time.
Let’s take a closer look . . .
(Full disclosure – there will be nudity in the rest of the post. You have been warned! Please proceed accordingly!)
Gemma Ward and Astrid Berges-Frisbey are two of the actresses that played mermaids for On Stranger Tides. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer required anyone interested in auditioning to have natural breasts. He included the proviso, “Must have real breasts. Do not submit if you have implants. The impetus? People from the 1700s didn’t have implants.
Notice the difference in build between Ward and Berges-Frisbey compared to Heidi Montag. Bruckheimer clearly made a great casting decision. Could you imagine Montag as a mermaid? (She would have floated to the top of the ocean with those implants!)
But what is really central to this matter is that the plastic surgeon has surpassed the couturier. For centuries, women relied on the masterful tricks of well-constructed clothing to mask imperfections and highlight assets. Fashion has not been done away with, but it seems to be losing the battle. Hoping for more cleavage? Instead of a Wonderbra, you could just get a breast augmentation. The payment plan would give you monthly installments that are like buying a bra every month. The financial accessibility of plastic surgery has converted many.
I’m not here to pass judgment on plastic surgery. In fact, I’ve considered it in the past. I’ve never gone though with it because the idea scares me. What am I willing to risk to obtain the ideal? And is obtaining the ideal worth the risk when in a few years it will be outmoded? I prefer the assistance of the couturier. And I wait for the ideal to change.