Dear Donagh,

…. My friend has a hangup about her appearance.  She hates the way she looks even though she looks grand to me.  She keeps talking about cosmic surgery to change the shape of her chin.  I think she’s mad to think about it.  What do you think?  Her mother says she should be grateful for her appearance and her health.  But she would say that because the two of them look really alike.  When I was talking to my mother about it she said I should ask you.  She told me not to forget to tell you that we’re both 16.  Thanks. Fiona


Dear Fiona,

I'm chuckling at the slip of the keys that turned cosmetic surgery into cosmic surgery.  I'm also chuckling at your mother’s suggestion; it was like telling you to “Ask Jeeves.”

I doubt that your friend would find a plastic surgeon willing to operate on a 16-year-old, but she probably won't let the idea go away. 

Plastic surgery is in fashion now.  It’s the next step in fashion; it’s fashion trying to go deeper: first, clothes; then makeup, then tattoos, then non-surgical treatments like Botox, and then of course plastic surgery.  I saw a ‘make-over’ programme that was not about clothes but about plastic surgery.  The person was kept away from all mirrors until she was finally allowed to see her new form in a full-length mirror in the presence of an audience.  I found it a bit unnerving to watch, because I used to enjoy an uncannily similar programme about cars; it was called ‘Pimp my Ride’.  It’s not good to start thinking of one’s own body as an object.  

But I don’t want to be all negative about it.  There can be a good reason for it at times.  I knew an old man who told me that in his childhood his ears stuck out.  This kept him in despair all through his school years.  When he looked in the mirror he would see nothing but ears.  When he looked at other people he saw only how normal their ears were.  It made him pathologically shy, because he was teased about it at school and given a nickname that even sixty years later he couldn’t bring himself to reveal to me.  His family were poor, but his older sister began to save up, and finally he had his operation.  It changed his life, he said.  There I saw someone who benefited from plastic surgery.  Then again, I know people whose ears stick out and it doesn’t bother them in the least.

I once heard a plastic surgeon talk about his work.  He was very honest about it.  He said it was about removing people’s distinctive features and so making them look completely ordinary – common, if you like.  He was helping them to become invisible, he said.  Barbara Streisand refused to consider plastic surgery on her nose.  She was and is, by any standard, a beautiful woman. 

That could be a key word: beautiful.  There’s a difference between beautiful and pretty.  Some people who are pretty look quite commonplace; it’s as if they were made in a mould; all the features are nice, but somehow they don’t add up to anything remarkable.  You don’t have to be pretty to be beautiful.  Beauty is something more subtle; it isn’t about static features, it’s mainly about the way people move and carry themselves.  From a still photo you can tell whether someone is pretty, but not whether she is beautiful.  To see whether she is beautiful you would really have to be in her presence.    They say beauty is only skin-deep.  I wouldn’t agree.  Prettiness is only skin-deep.  Beauty is deep.  A girl’s presence is more than the sum of her features: it is also her voice and her gestures, her vitality, her whole manner and bearing.  

But I'm elderly now, long past redemption by any plastic surgeon; it would take cosmic surgery to put me in fashion.  So what can I advise you to say to your friend?  You could tell her sincerely what you appreciate in her.  (“Grand” may not be the most reassuring word.  In Ireland, as you know, it means something just slightly better than OK.)  Don’t tell her any lies; she will see through them immediately; she probably has a sharpened sense of how people look at her.  Tell her what you like about her.  When you look at magazines together don’t follow the stereotypes of beauty.  Every shot of every girl you see in Vogue and similar magazines is sure to have been Photoshopped.  We live in the age that is addicted to image – even the altered image.  We used to say that the camera never lies.  That was a lie.  The camera always lies.  Even in the old days before Photoshop the camera always lied.  The best camera is not nearly as sensitive to light as the human eye is.  You could talk to your friend about these things.  Talk sense to her.  Talk about how superficial it all is. 

I wish you success, Fiona.  At the start you’ll do a grand job, then as time goes by you’ll do a fabulous job!  Good luck!


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