Plastic surgery, scarification, tattoos and other rites of passageBy John Ryle • 1 June 1995 • City of Words • The Guardaian • Revised • Posted 2016 • 692 words
A decade ago an Australian social anthropologist, Robert Brain, argued that the technology of body modification, borrowed from non-western societies, had been irredeemably trivialised in the West, used to celebrate only vanity and conformity to the dictates of fashion, rather than the physical and social body in its entirety, as was the case in the global South. The most characteristic feature of western body topiary, the face-lift, Brain pointed out, was an attempt not to inscribe a social role on the person, but its opposite, to erase all marks of experience. Face-lifts, in his account, are anti-initiation rites, the inverse of Maori tattoos or African scarification rituals.
Current fashions in western recreational body modification—tongue studs, eyebrow piercings etc—require a modification of this view. Whatever piercing signifies, it’s not an attempt to conceal anything. Tattoos likewise. It has been argued, in fact, that D.I.Y cosmetic surgery of this kind shows nostalgia for the supposed solidarity of small-scale societies, a sign of yearning for tribal initiation rituals.
Myself, I find this tendency easy to resist. I spent time in Southern Sudan with a pastoral people who, despite the efforts of their educated kinsmen to dissuade them, still practised extensive scarification of the forehead as a rite of passage for boys into adulthood. This practice involves a lot of cutting and bleeding. If you flinch during the operation it shows for the rest of your life. Participant observation is the modus operandi of anthropologists, but this wasn’t a ritual I was tempted to undergo.
I also have the benefit of a passing acquaintance with a Brazilian plastic surgeon, Ivo Pitanguy, who I interviewed some years ago in Rio de Janeiro. Dr Pitanguy told me that a significant amount of his working time was spent explaining to prospective patients that it would be better if he did not operate on them. These were people irrationally convinced that cosmetic surgery would change their lives; they were addicted to the scalpel. At his clinic in Rio Dr Pitanguy employed a psychologist, Dr Claudia, to deal with such patients. They did not know she was a psychologist; her job was to persuade them that plastic surgery was not the answer to their problems.
I was driving along the beach front on Ipanema once with Dr Pitanguy. As we passed the high fashion Rio beachwear shop called Bum-Bum, I wondered aloud how many of the customers had silicon mementoes nestling in their breasts, inserted by the likes of him. But Dr Pitanguy corrected me.
“In Brazil,” he said, “breast augmentation is an unusual procedure. Brazilians are more interested in a bunda—the behind. In fact breast reduction is much commoner than breast implants. It’s only Americans who like big breasts.”
“Sometimes,” he added, “when American women come to me for this kind of surgery—for breast augmentation—I find myself saying to them ‘In Brazil your body is perfect. Why don’t you just stay here ?’”
I found myself telling Dr Pitanguy about a surfing accident I had suffered some months before when a stray surf-board dented the cartilage of my nose.
“What would you say,” I asked him, “if I asked you to improve my nose?”
“I’d say,” he said, tweaking it, “that you’ve got a perfectly good nose. And if you continued to insist on surgery I might have to send you to see Dr Claudia.”
“And by the way,” Dr Pitanguy added affably, “if you like surfing, why don’t you come and live here yourself?”
Dr Pitanguy himself never had plastic surgery, as far as I know. Me neither. Given time you get used to the way you look. Now, when I’m feeling the passing lure of body decoration—a momentary yearning for a tongue stud, say, or a nipple ring, or a Maori tattoo—I think about Dr Claudia. I think of the painful scarification rituals practised by the peoples of Southern Sudan. I look at the strangely adorned faces and limbs of the young, their striking designs, so soon to be blurred and distorted by age. And I find I can easily dissuade myself. ★