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Cosmetic surgery: Can we talk?

by Rita Smith

September 8, 2014

joan rivers
“There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it.”
–Dale Carnegie

On the occasion of Joan Rivers’ death, I think it is a great time to talk about how she and Phyllis Diller turned the world of power on its head when they spoke publicly about their cosmetic surgeries.

A lot of life is a bluff based on physical appearance, and Rivers and Diller called the bluff by earning enough money to change their bodies as they saw fit.

Phyllis Diller said decades ago, “Cosmetic surgery is wonderful, and I wish every woman could afford it.”

I was barely 20 when I read that, and I was truly impacted. I was out there working in a world which told women they could be anything they wanted – and which still, very clearly, judged women on the way they looked.

By age 33, after three babies in five years, my body was a mess. I was healthy, but I looked out of shape and felt awful every time I passed a mirror. No amount of exercise or weight loss was going to affect the sagging skin or stretchmarks on my belly, or the way gravity affected my post-nursing breasts.

“What IF I could afford cosmetic surgery?” I began asking myself. “If all it takes is money, I could earn the money.”

I'm not obsessed with my appearance, or delusional about it. Still, I like to think I can take a half-decent photo when a decent photo is called for.

I’m not obsessed with my appearance, or delusional about it.
Still, I like to think I can take a half-decent photo when a decent photo is called for.

Imagine my delight, at my  exploratory appointment with a surgeon, in finding out that my breasts were in fact so large, health insurance would pay for me to have them reduced (and lifted, and tightened, and the whole nine yards. I got new, pretty nipples while I was at it).

“If I’m going to be in the hospital for three days covered by insurance,” I ventured to ask, “could I schedule a tummy tuck at the same time?”

“That is possible,” the surgeon replied. “We could use the same hospital stay and the same anesthesiologist for both procedures, which will save you thousands of dollars.”
Those combined surgeries – breast reduction and tummy tuck – changed my life COMPLETELY.

Before the surgeries, I had been unable to run for exercise; the weight of my breasts actually made my bra straps cut bleeding grooves in my shoulders. My abdominal muscles had separated during pregnancy, leaving about a four inch gap between the muscles, which should have been connected to support my lower back. I never had a day without lower back pain from age 21 to age 33.

During my seven hour surgical process, the surgeon reduced each of my breasts by almost a pound, and stitched back together my abdominal muscles all the way from my solar plexus to my pubic bone. I woke up from surgery free of back pain. It was like a miracle! And that back pain, which ailed me for 12 years, has NEVER recurred.

Fast forward seven years: I was 40 years old. I was busy raising a family, working, running, volunteering…two decades of intense stress were really showing on my face. One night after a long day at Queen’s Park, I looked into the mirror and noticed that my eyes didn’t look like eyes on my face, but actually eyes that were recessed deeply in two tunnels in my face. The tunnels were surrounded by wrinkles.

I had a sales pitch the next day, and my competitors were both young men about 26 years old.

“Rita, you have to take this in hand,” I told my reflection in the mirror.
I went back to my trusted cosmetic surgeon, who deemed me an excellent candidate for a facelift.

“It will cost about $13,000,” he told me.

To this day, I remember the feeling of extreme confidence with which I delivered my reply.
“Well, then,” I shrugged. “I guess I’d better go drop off some invoices.”

I remember the suit I was wearing: a size 10 light blue linen summer suit. I remember the shoes, flat and comfortable (I had given up high heels by then). I remember my hair looked good, and I liked my sunglasses. I remember saying to a surgeon asking me for $13,000,

“Well, then, I guess I’d better go drop off some invoices,” having EVERY CONFIDENCE that my clients owed me that much money and more, and that I could afford this surgery (and the time off for recovery).

I recall vividly the supportive and ironic comment from the nurse who did my pre-operative work.

“Oh, you’re coming in for plastic!” she exclaimed with genuine enthusiasm. “I love plastic procedures! How great that you have a husband willing to pay for it!”

“I am paying for it myself,” I replied, smiling.  “My ‘husband’ doesn’t enter into it.”

That is what Phyllis Diller meant, when she said “Cosmetic surgery is wonderful, and I wish every woman could afford it.”

Phyllis Diller didn’t say, “Cosmetic surgery is wonderful, and I wish every woman had a husband generous enough to pay for it for her.”

Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers both saw the truth and spoke it out loud: appearance matters in earning money. Out here in the real world, some women are lucky to be born with a better appearance than others. Some women have the ability to earn enough money to level the playing field, when it comes to appearance.

On a level playing field, between a woman who looks presentable because she was lucky to be born that way, and woman who figured out how to earn enough money to make herself look that way, I think the smart money should be on the latter, every time.
As Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers figured out, and were honest and generous enough to share.

–Rita Smith

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