Nose reconstructions have been common in India for centuries. South Korea, Brazil, and Israel have become international centers for procedures ranging from eyelid restructuring to buttock lifts and tummy tucks. Argentina has the highest rate of silicone implants in the world. Around the globe, aesthetic surgery has become a cultural and medical fixture. Sander Gilman seeks to explain why by presenting the first systematic world history and cultural theory of aesthetic surgery. Touching on subjects as diverse as getting a “nose job” as a sweet-sixteen birthday present and the removal of male breasts in seventh-century Alexandria, Gilman argues that aesthetic surgery has such universal appeal because it helps people to “pass,” to be seen as a member of a group with which they want to or need to identify.
Gilman begins by addressing basic questions about the history of aesthetic surgery. What surgical procedures have been performed? Which are considered aesthetic and why? Who are the patients? What is the place of aesthetic surgery in modern culture? He then turns his attention to that focus of countless human anxieties: the nose. Gilman discusses how people have reshaped their noses to repair the ravages of war and disease (principally syphilis), to match prevailing ideas of beauty, and to avoid association with negative images of the “Jew,” the “Irish,” the “Oriental,” or the “Black.” He examines how we have used aesthetic surgery on almost every conceivable part of the body to try to pass as younger, stronger, thinner, and more erotic. Gilman also explores some of the extremes of surgery as personal transformation, discussing transgender surgery, adult circumcision and foreskin restoration, the enhancement of dueling scars, and even a performance artist who had herself altered to resemble the Mona Lisa.
The book draws on an extraordinary range of sources. Gilman is as comfortable discussing Nietzsche, Yeats, and Darwin as he is grisly medical details, Michael Jackson, and Barbra Streisand’s decision to keep her own nose. The book contains dozens of arresting images of people before, during, and after surgery. This is a profound, provocative, and engaging study of how humans have sought to change their lives by transforming their bodies.
"A [wide-ranging] and enjoyable work. . . . Gilman has an eye for detail, yet remains aware of the wider perspective. He also raises important questions. . . . In [this] rich, elegant and beautiful [book] he shows that the history of aesthetic surgery is too important to be left to the surgeons."—Jonathan Cole, Times Literary Supplement
"There is one theme that links all [Gilman's] work: how human beings construct images of others to define themselves. . . . [He] has been unafraid to examine areas that academics have traditionally shied away from."—The New York Times
"[A] readable and useful book. . . . Through Mr. Gilman's long lens, the search for beauty and the fashion for plastic surgery are not a contemporary ill, but something older and more universal."—The Economist Review
"[Gilman] tells a strange, macabre, and often richly comic story of shifting desires. His book shows a dazzling European erudition. . . . There is now less furtiveness attached to aesthetic surgery. But the question remains—and Gilman asks it cleverly, humanely, and persistently—whether new appearances just gloss over old problems and often create new ones."—New York Review of Books
"Far from the body representing immutable essences of beauty or horror, the history of aesthetic surgery confirms that the body bears witness to public ideologies of sexual and racial difference. And the body has its own invisible memories of tragedy from which, for some, aesthetic surgery offers the promise of transcendence."—Beatrix Campbell, The Independent
"Bravely navigating the ethnic maze with admirable aplomb, . . . [Sander Gilman] considers nearly every hyphenated group's American dream of becoming something else. He gets away with such brazenness . . . by constantly offering entertaining literary and pop culture references upon which we can all hang our hats."—Margo Hammond, The New York Observer
"A fascinating combination of text and illustration and of literary, medical, and scientific information. A thoughtful history by an author who knows his material well and has a sympathetic understanding of human beings as well as a lively sense of humor."—Booklist
"A fascinating and provocative book."—Library Journal
"[Gilman's] fast-paced narrative blends cultural criticism with discussion of medical techniques and ethics in a thoughtful study that should appeal to both a lay and professional readership."—Publishers Weekly
"With its bizarre amalgam of new developments in medicine and prevailing trends in fashion, "aesthetic surgery" is a phenomenon that begs for examination, and Gilman, as both historian and critic, proves equal to the task. . . . Face-lifts, nose jobs, liposuction, decircumcision, buttocks implants, breast augmentation, and breast reduction, among other procedures, present themselves, Gilman dryly notes, as surgical cures for what is often essentially a psychological problem—a persistent sense of discontent."—Holly Brubach, The Atlantic Monthly
"Gilman's research is thorough, his analysis thoughtful, and the presentation thought-provoking."—Choice
"Rich in both detail and fascinating illustrations, Gilman's history shows aesthetic surgery as a response to the exigencies of contemporary cultures."—Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, Isis
"Making the Body Beautiful is an important contribution to our understanding of th emergence and significance of aesthetic surgery. It is a must for anyone concerned with our present cultural obsession with beauty and the makability of the body. And it provides a model for writing medical history that is not limited to charting the facts, but tries to understand their meaning as well."—Kathy Davis, Bulletin of the History of Medicine
"A richly illustrated, delightfully crafted cultural history of aesthetic surgery . . . An informative and captivating history of our attempts to make our bodies beautiful."—Londa Schiebinger, American Historical Review
"Gilman tells a timely, yet previously largely untold tale. By presenting the complex interaction of ideas, social relations, technology, psychiatry (and the madness of doctors as well as patients), the author makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of our times."—Erika Bourguignon, The Antioch Review
"An extraordinarily learned, endlessly fascinating book that deals with a hot contemporary subject."—Elaine Showalter, Princeton University
"This work is wide-ranging, well-informed, and stimulating in its scholarship. It's also provocative—not in the sense of being outrageous, unbalanced, or politically incorrect but in challenging conventional thinking and forcing readers to question their unspoken assumptions. I found this an engrossing read."—Roy Porter, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London
"Sander Gilman has delivered exactly what the title promises: a cultural history of his subject. By trawling a remarkably wide range of material, from surgical papers to novels, high art and films, he has produced a nuanced history of an important discipline within modern surgery. As with all of Gilman's work, the marriage of text and image contributes much to the impact of this major contribution to our understanding of that most welcome intimate of subjects: the history of the body."—W. F. Bynum, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London
"Sander Gilman has done it again. This is a splendid book, rich in interpretation and rich with refrences. The European aspect of the history of cosmetic surgery has not been so fully developed before Gilman brought together the cultural and the medical parts of the story. His wide-ranging references are themselves are worth the price of admission."—Gert H. Brieger, Johns Hopkins University