Gorgeous, and not just by the rather low aesthetic standards of New York Times columnists, Alex Kuczynski may be the most enviable journalist in New York. For the paper of record, she is paid to shop. (In a typical Critical Shopper column, she visits a lingerie store and learns she’s a C cup, not a B.) Not exactly poor to begin with, she married extremely well. She appears on the cover of this month’s Avenue looking like a well-heeled doll—think Upper East Side Barbie. It would be awfully nice if her first book, Beauty Junkies,proved she were less than obscenely perfect. Alas, she takes no such fall from her pedestal.
Beauty Junkies is full of gasp inducers: fetal foreskin cells injected into the face! Labiaplasty! Horse steroids! Collagen derived from cadavers! The world of cosmetic surgery is deliciously decadent and, frequently, disgusting. Some of the history is straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, like the proto–nose job that involved growing scar tissue on an arm that was then bound to the face until it transferred a moldable lump of skin.
To which Kuczynski seems to say: awesome. She is in no way a dispassionate observer. To her, its shameless appeal to our vanity is a true siren song: She knows it’s dangerous but can’t help succumbing. And yet she approaches the topic not only as a connoisseur but also as a journalist on the trail of a really good story. When she hears about a “surgery safari,” she tags along as two women get work done while spotting wild game. She doesn’t get anything done on that trip, but more because she’s horrified by the prospect of being in recovery while driving over those bumpy roads than by the fundamental absurdity of third-world facelifts.
The book goes both high and low. In the span of two pages, Kuczynski quotes Hemingway, the seventh-century Ayurvedic surgeon Sushruta, and a 16th-century Italian professor of surgery named Gaspare Tagliacozzi. She illustrates the negative impact the lucrative field has had on the medical profession. But she is also pop-culture savvy, calling out celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and gossiping about anonymous society types (anyone who follows life at Condé Nast should be able to identify these).
By and large, Kuczynski is generous to her subjects, many of whom are well-to-do women who, like her, simply know how to get what they want, and what they want is to look as good and as young as possible. She reserves her barbs for celebrities like Marcia Cross, whom she compares to Lenin postmortem. Of Nicole Kidman’s forehead she says: “It was absolutely motionless, except for an area right in the center about one square inch in diameter, where a tiny wrinkle writhed and wiggled like some sort of animated sea creature.”
Beauty Junkies is not flawless. Despite plenty of great research, Kuczynski occasionally reminds you she’s a product of Sunday Styles, not the A section. She quotes New York magazine as if it were a scientific journal, and she makes a couple of sweeping Big Picture statements that don’t ever quite pan out, such as “Looks are the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics.”
More disappointingly, Kuczynski spends part of the “Los Angeles” chapter pinning America’s increasingly fanatical obsession with plastic surgery on the same generic list of social ills that has appeared in approximately 95 percent of the new millennium’s negative trend stories. (It starts with “seductive pop images.”) Can’t we stop hanging the apocalypse (and tummy tucks) on poor, beleaguered Internet porn already?
But these are not fatal flaws. In the end, she explains, it all comes down to a primal fear of death and an entirely human desire to stop time, a longing exploited by a culture in which physical self-improvement has replaced the social and spiritual. And when it comes to spiritual growth, it appears Kuczynski’s work on this subject has made her face her own addiction to cosmetic surgery and to looking younger.
It’s rare to read a story of addiction and recovery that transcends the typical arc—you know, the one that ends with the addict stridently decrying the object of addiction and humbly proclaiming herself cured. Kuczynski does say she’s recently sworn off Botox, but not because she now considers it evil. “If you had to nail me down on the subject of whether cosmetic surgery is a good thing,” she says, “I would have to defend it.” And yet, she also says, “The notion of perfection—let alone perfection that appears effortless—no longer works for me.”
In a succinct and moving passage, Kuczynski describes a recent experience that made her more aware than ever that no matter how unfurrowed her forehead, her body isn’t entirely under her control. “I was recently pregnant and went to the doctor a couple of times, watching the fetal heartbeat on the monitor,” she writes. “On the third visit, he pointed out a black spot on the ultrasound screen and said he had some bad news. ‘The heart isn’t beating anymore.'”
Ultimately, Kuczynski suggests the American you-can-be-anything mantra isn’t doing us any favors. The note she ends on is sober and wise. We want to believe it’s never too late. But eventually we have to face up to the fact that no matter how much money we throw at things, how much maintenance we do, there are some things we can never fix. Sometimes it really is too late.