Cressida Heyes Phd

3.1.12: Singular Beauty

Photographer Cara Phillips graciously provided Meredith Jones and me with the striking cover image for our 2009 edited volume, Cosmetic Surgery: A Feminist Primer:

Her book of photographs, Singular Beauty: Inside the World of Cosmetic Surgery is a series of beautiful and dramatic images of the inside of US urban cosmetic surgery offices. As Cara says in her on-line video, her own experience as a child model led her to a fascination with the gap between a person’s inner and outer image. This in turn fostered her interest in cosmetic surgery as a technology of the self that reverses our typical understanding of subjectivity: by changing the way we look (in the most artificial way), we are supposed to improve our inner experience of our selves. This has been a theme of my philosophical work, and I’m gripped and intrigued by the fact that Cara departs entirely from shooting images of people to make a statement about it.

As she says, the interiors of these offices are both beautiful and frightening. Looking at her work, we’re lifted out of popular representations of cosmetic surgery that focus almost entirely on sanitized and superficial images of the “before” and “after” bodies that it creates. (Yes, I think it creates the “before” body as well as the “after” body.) We’re taken inside a sterile, technological space, empty of humanity. This is what surrounds the cosmetic surgical experience and makes it possible. Some of the equipment looks like it belongs in a high-tech laboratory, a sound studio, or as props in some sci-fi film. Other pieces wouldn’t be out of place in an autoshop (except they are so creepily clean). Is the surgical suite a stage set? Someone’s workplace? A morgue?

What I like most about the conceptualization of the project is that it makes cosmetic surgery seem troubling without making any clear judgment about it. It invites us to be unsettled, to experience that uncanny feeling that comes from not knowing what to think. We are so carefully trained in looking at images of human bodies that it’s hard to generate any novel or unpredictable reception for critical art on beauty. By capturing the objects that are so intimately connected with bodies–yet so distant from them in the pictures–Phillips obliquely asks us to think about all of the contexts (technological, medical, financial, cultural) that shape cosmetic surgery.