Charlotte Kasper

In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, when protagonist Lady Bird’s once-best-friend Julie yells at her, ‘You can’t do anything unless you’re the center of attention, can you?’  Lady Bird fires off a response from out of left field, screaming back ‘Yeah, well you know your mom’s tits? They’re fake! Totally fake!’ 

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The scene is brilliant, revealing our volatile reactions when confronted with a truth that cuts a little too close to home.  Lady Bird goes for a low blow, bringing up an unrelated topic: Julie’s mom’s boob job.  Whether or not she intended to, Greta Gerwig reveals something else, too: opinions held by the public, especially by young feminists (like myself), about plastic surgery.

In an age bombarded with images of manufactured beauty, authenticity has become an obsession.  The term ‘plastic surgery’ itself denotes something artificial, something which Lady Bird, on her own quest for authenticity, latches onto (‘They’re fake! Totally fake!’) and regards it as something unnatural.  Even Julie doesn’t defend her mother’s choice, asserting instead that ‘She made one bad decision at nineteen!’  Then, in both the eyes of Julie and Lady Bird, plastic surgery isn’t a choice about one’s appearance that’s weighed carefully, but rather a mistake, as if Julie’s mother had drunkenly gotten a bad tattoo.

In the early 2000s, shows like The Swan, Dr. 90210, and Extreme Makeover saturated media with the ‘life-changing’ powers of plastic surgery.  This image is a dangerous one, it pressures women into finding fault with minute aspects of their appearance and going to great lengths to ‘correct’ those concerns.  Mean Girls picked up on this culture and exposed its many problems through satire, like when materialistic best friends Regina, Gretchen, and Karen criticize themselves in a mirror together.  Their group is even aptly named ‘The Plastics,’ a reference to Barbie Dolls and plastic surgery itself.  The film does important work; in the wake of Mean Girls, TV shows surrounding plastic surgery instead contain cautionary stories, like Botched.  

However, the film also uses plastic surgery as a punchline.  Before going into Regina’s house, Gretchen whispers to nice-girl Cady, ‘Make sure you check out her mom’s boob job — they’re hard as rocks!’  Indeed, when Amy Poehler, who plays Regina’s mom, goes to hug Cady, the camera cuts to a close up of her nipples with the psycho theme playing.  The problem isn’t that the film critiques plastic surgery, which is a refreshing and important aspect of this great movie; instead, it’s that it uses a woman who's chosen to have plastic surgery as the punchline.  (And this isn’t the last time Tina Fey would use someone who's had plastic surgery as the butt of a joke; in 2015 Martin Short’s portrayal of a plastic surgeon on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was a caricature of Fred Brandt, whose depression and suicide wasn’t necessarily in response to Fey’s work, but was certainly exacerbated by it.)

Plastic surgery and feminism are like oil and water.   When considering them together, I often think of Marge Piercy’s poetry, and in particular her 1971 piece 'Barbie Doll.'  It’s a narrative poem about a girl whose incredible attributes are overshadowed by her ‘fat nose’ and ‘thick legs.’  It isn’t until the end of the poem, when she cuts off her nose and legs and is dead, made up with cosmetics in her open casket, that she is finally considered pretty.  The poem ends with the lines ‘Consummation at last. / To every woman a happy ending.’  Like in Mean Girls, Marge Piercy recognizes the oppressive beauty standards imparted onto women and combats them.  And while the work that both Piercy and Fey do in discussing beauty standards attempts to dismantle them, they do that work by dehumanizing other women.

Women get plastic surgery for a myriad of reasons, including physical comfort (like breast reduction and to remedy past surgeries -- as on Botched), to accompany other bodily changes (like skin removal following a significant weight loss), and, yes, wholly superficial reasons.  While there’s privilege involved in the ability to undergo plastic surgery, there’s also an individual's choice.  It’s not a decision to be made lightly, not by a long shot.  Barring concerns like Body Dysmorphic Disorder, where the patient undergoing surgery is less likely to be content with the result, leading to plastic surgery addiction, we should respect a person’s choice.  Because if there’s one thing plastic surgery isn’t, it’s not a mistake.  To undergo even routine procedures requires several pre-surgical meetings and, especially if you’re a minor, a suggested therapy session.  It’s not a mistake, but a choice.  It’s certainly not the right choice for everyone, including some of those that have decided to undergo cosmetic surgery, but it’s still a measured decision.

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Women are continually exposed to photoshopped images and then reminded we should already find ourselves attractive.

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This is a fraught topic.  We live in a world where women are continually exposed to photoshopped images and then reminded that we should already find ourselves attractive.  Fey and Piercy got that right; women are presented with unrealistic expectations and, no matter how talented, driven, or beautiful we are, are sure to find fault with ourselves.  But if women are to be fully freed from rules about our appearance, then that should be from both sides.

Though Lady Bird doesn’t discuss plastic surgery to great extent, it examines the different struggles women encounter while attempting to feel comfortable within our own bodies and minds.  Also, it explores how developing through young-womanhood is reliant on choice, whether academic, social, or sexual.  Throughout the movie, Lady Bird makes these choices for herself, sometimes with the input of others and sometimes alone, teaching us that not every choice we make is a good one, but that ultimately our journeys, like our bodies, are ours alone.

 

Charlotte Kasper is an Art History and American Studies double major at Wellesley College, interested in pursuing a career in academia or museums.  Aside from art and writing, she loves watching comedy specials, enjoying time outdoors, meditating, and listening to music.

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