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Cosmetic surgery hits home: When your mom goes under the knife

By February 3, 2010 4 Comments

Right now, Karen has a scalpel to her face, and went under anesthesia thinking “When I wake up, I’ll be beautiful.” She’s deeply unconscious, and probably pretty bloody, as the well-reputed and trusted female cosmetic surgeon performs her “art”. She will receive an untold number of stitches and will be bruised for at least two weeks.

Karen*, who is in her early 60s, is my friend Sara’s* mother. Because Sara was my best friend growing up, it’s like Karen is my own mom. I grew up going to her house every day after school, and I saw and hugged her at her daughter’s graduations and wedding. I almost can’t bare the thought that she would want to change her face. Sara is, simply, distraught.

Karen’s face is one of the faces that has a permanent place in my mind, an unchanging, perfect face, just because it’s hers. I can’t even determine whether it is beautiful or not beautiful to others. Today she is choosing to change that face, and I really don’t understand her decision to be on the operating table today.

But really, this isn’t about what I think. I’m writing this piece about, and for, her daughter — my friend — Sara.

When Sara called me, crying, a few weeks ago, to tell me that her mom had her surgery date set for a facelift and eye lift, I felt a shocking jolt in my body. “I’m so disappointed in her,” Sara sobbed. “I mean, she always was my feminist mom. She was always telling me that my looks weren’t as important as my smarts. She’s so smart. She taught me to fight inequality. And then she goes and does THIS… it’s the ultimate ‘giving in’ to our messed-up culture.”

Sara went on, “And what if my mom dies in surgery, and I lose her because of this horrible choice she made? I’m not sure I could forgive her.”

Sara went on to tell me how alone she felt, how crazy she felt, in comparison with Karen’s friends, most of whom had already had “work” done, and are planning to help Karen recover. As if this is a routine thing, a rite of passage for the older generation. Will we, women in our early 30s, give in too?

Sara told me that she knows she’s made plenty of choices her mother didn’t agree with, but Karen supported her anyway, even if it was painful for her. So Sara knows it’s time to be a grownup, to vehemently disagree with but also support Karen’s decision, just because Karen is her mother and she is connected to her and loves her.

Sara asked me how I felt about Karen’s choice, as someone who would understand her feelings because of the work I do with About-Face, and as someone who loves Karen. I said that every day, I see at least one article, TV clip, or magazine cover about someone getting, or who has had, cosmetic surgery. It’s Heidi Montag getting 10 procedures in one day. It’s someone on Nip/Tuck. It’s Kanye West’s mom. It’s everywhere, and it starts to seem like “everyone’s doing it.” It’s become normal.

Except when it’s Karen. Or your own mom. For Sara, it’s especially painful when it’s someone you love who asks for your help recovering — who won’t be able to get to the bathroom herself, can’t be seen in public so she needs you to go to the store for her. Needs you to feed her for the first few days. Needs you to read to her because she can’t see due to eyelid surgery bandages. Needs you to be there when she changes her bandages the first time.

It’s one thing when someone had to have surgery to remove an infected appendix, or a hysterectomy to remove a cancerous uterus, or even cosmetic surgery to remedy facial disfigurement in a car accident. Or even breast reduction surgery due to persistent back pain. It’s another thing when it’s a pure choice, on an otherwise perfect face.

We’re told, and I imagine, that Karen will wake up slowly, swimming upward, to the surface of her consciousness, with her best friend there to greet her. Sara can’t be there because she knows she will cry uncontrollably if she sees her mother that way. Karen’s friend will call Sara to tell her everything’s OK.

But I’m not sure Sara will really feel that it is OK, when thousands more women (mostly white) are undergoing surgery today, for the sake of striving to finally, finally (or once again) be a certain kind of beautiful.

— Jennifer

* Names have been changed for privacy reasons.