Girl Power and Plastic Surgery

Screenshot of Los Angeles magazine's 2012 honorees. See the feature here.

I was long overdue for a nice afternoon out, an escape, and I got a good one this week at a Los Angeles magazine-sponsored luncheon in Century City. Held in honor of the publication's annual list of L.A.'s fifty most influential women, the event was a practically all-female event that featured delectable wine, food, and a clutch of hostesses/models who circulated around the room dressed in day and evening wear I couldn't afford in a million years. It was an escape for sure, facilitated by the always reliable fantasy of owning a closet full of Escada or some other real haute couture line as opposed to the Target facsimile (for the record, I am not among the influential -- not yet, anyway -- just an occasional contributor to the magazine).

But there is such a thing as too much escapism, some point at which the fantasy ceases to function as fantasy and feels more like a replacement for the real world. I know that food, fashion, et al is L.A. magazine's bread and butter; it has always tilted towards trends, culture and the city's high life, not politics or social justice. Yet I wasn't quite expecting the lunchtime discussion with influential women to be entirely about plastic surgery, cooking and -- naturally -- fashion. A logical choice in one way; plastic surgery is the lead story in the October issue, which features a naked (though very strategically covered) woman on the cover. A first, we were told.

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Plastic surgery is a legitimate topic in its own right, and in its own context. So is cooking, baking, and clothing. But the lack of any discussion about other women-related issues, especially in this very contentious election season in which women have become an agenda unto themselves in both parties, felt jarring and out of touch. Probably out of a need to paint the confab as some type of progress, it was eagerly noted that plastic surgery is much more common than you might think amongst women of color and those earning $50,000 or less -- in other words, it's not just for white Beverly Hills mavens anymore. I don't think that means anything very encouraging or empowering for women, especially in these tough times, though I know lots of post-feminists would argue the opposite. Making yourself a priority is always a good thing, the argument goes, even if that means prioritizing silicon injections for your butt over, say, repairing your car or taking your dog to the vet. I vote for the dog.

Speaking of silicon, I have to say that I was glad to learn that the new ideal L.A. body is no longer narrow hips topped by porn-star size boobs; it has evolved to include, if not actually been replaced by, full lips and a sizeable butt. In other words, a black aesthetic that white folks have ridiculed but secretly envied forever. I guess now the secret is out in the open, and for sale. Though of course at the luncheon no one dared talk about race as it relates to the physical characteristics currently in demand -- way too incendiary. The preferred adjective for all matters racial, or even vaguely racial, seems to be "multiethnic," which is akin to calling file gumbo chicken soup, to use a food analogy. When I saw the picture of this new composite body ideal, I was so astonished/vindicated that I felt like laughing out loud, or at least standing up to take credit for being influential without even trying. Maybe my butt (no silicon, trust me) will get me on the list next year.

After the luncheon, as I stood waiting for a valet to get my car -- the only 13-year-old Chrysler in a sea of Priuses and new-generation SUVs -- I chatted with a very well-dressed woman who told me that she used to work as a local news reporter for a national network. Not a bad gig. One day, the network's lead story was about Pamela Anderson removing her breast implants -- her plastic surgery, if you will. The woman said she had an epiphany at that point; she got out of broadcasting and never looked back. "I realized then that I didn't go to college for that," she said with a trace of disgust. No regrets. Now that's what I call empowering.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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