At the end of Monday night's episode of the makeover show "The Swan," it was too clear which multiple-cosmetic-surgery survivor would win the dubious honor of competing in the series' "pageant."
Beth, age 25, looked as if she had walked out of an episode of the old 1980s television series "Dynasty" -- willowy, with long blond hair, big new breasts peeking out of a low-cut gown, and her face unnaturally taut. (I credit the brow lift.) Kathy, 27, was shorter, her hair darker. Her outfit was modern and black, with no cleavage popping out. She was attractive, but she did not look like a Barbie doll. Beth, no shock, emerged as the winner.
I was watching because I'd just received a call from Kathy Bruin, a San Francisco woman who in 1995 started the group About-Face to protest unhealthy body images promoted by advertisers and other media.
Bruin was appalled at the multiple -- and painful -- surgeries "The Swan" contestants must undergo. Beth's head endured a brow lift, nose job, lip enhancement, chin liposuction and Lasik surgery, as well as a series of dental procedures including surgery to make her teeth look bigger. Beth's body was treated to a breast augmentation, tummy tuck, and lipo on her calves and ankles.
I'd never heard of lipo for ankles. Brow lifts and chin liposuction are procedures for older women -- my age, dagnamit -- who have endured a few decades of gravity. ("The First Wives Club" author Olivia Goldsmith died from a heart attack during a chin lipo in January.) So it seems plain wrong to subject young women to the risks of these surgeries, not so that they can look beautiful but so that they can look chiseled.
Bruin and I agree that Beth and Kathy, who both were fairly attractive before the procedures, could have turned into "swans" without surgery. They'd look smashing after sticking to the show's regimen of dieting, personal training, skin care, and a consult with a make-up artist and clothing stylist. "Maybe there is some part of your body that you really hate," said Bruin, who could see how a woman might want one surgical procedure, "but so much can be done by paying attention to your body and diet."
Much of the surgery, Bruin believes, is to produce a man's-eye "cookie-cutter version of feminity." "There's no variety," Bruin noted. "They all have the same nose." A show doctor told contestant Kathy that her nose was "not feminine," while the lipo for Beth's ankles was "feminizing."
Need I add that both women had breast augmentations?
But then, as Bruin so aptly observed, there is no understatement in "The Swan." The "before" photos of contestants are as unflattering as possible. The "after" versions are all big hair and too much makeup. If the show started with Michelle Pfeiffer and Cameron Diaz, the "before" photos would look dowdy, while the "transformed" contestants would look like two Dolly Partons.
Bruin resents the message that women should look perfect and that if they have surgery, their lives will be better.
As the Web site about-face.org notes, "'The Swan' is one more way women and girls will get the message that they are not good enough unless they go to extremes to fit into an increasingly narrow ideal (and even then ... not everyone will win this beauty pageant!). It's alarming that cosmetic surgery is becoming 'normal' through media messages, and 'The Swan' is the worst perpetrator yet."
Some message: The key to inner harmony is in outer packaging.
"When you think of 100 years ago," Bruin noted, "the way women bettered themselves was to learn piano, learn to sketch," maybe cross-stitch. Women bettered themselves, that is, by improving their minds.
But in today's skin-deep, no-wait world, self-improvement means seeing a plastic surgeon. Nip and tuck.
The storybook swan is meant to assure awkward children that a beautiful being dwells inside them and that they will grow into that person. TV's "The Swan" is the shortcut, and it only applies to people with a ticket to a plastic surgeon. Girls don't grow into beautiful women; doctors make them beautiful.
To support the illusion that the producers care about their contestants' mental well-being, "The Swan" provides a therapist to assist the women in "their inner transformation."
If the therapist is any good, pageant contestants will revolt in the final episode. They'll say, "So long!" to the competition, arm themselves with the markers used to outline the imperfections on their bodies, then round up their re-makers and order them to take a long look in the show's big mirror. In the end, all the contestants would be winners, while the "panel of experts" would see themselves for the ugly ducklings they truly are. Quacks.