How, I sometimes wonder, will future generations look back on our era? I imagine there will be Ye Olde Early 21st-Centurie Tours, during which school children will be dragged down recreated pavement streets, dotted with Costa Coffees, Caffe Neros and, the non-plus ultra, Starbucks as they learn about “The Great Coffee Craze” suffered by their ancestors. And they will gaze upon these model stores with the same bemusement with which we look upon tales of leeching and the bubonic plague. Perhaps, too, they’ll learn how these ancestors valued familiarity over variety, preferring their lunches to taste the same wherever they travelled and relying on things called “sandwich chain stores” so they could be assured that the brie and tomato baguette they had in Pret a Manger in Rotherham one week would taste exactly the same as the one they had in Edinburgh the next.
But something else has come to my attention that evokes a certain aspect of this modern era even better than convoluted coffees in infantalising sippy cups. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons released its latest statistics for procedures this week and reading them is like flicking through a copy of Grazia magazine without the risk of encountering any celebrity selfies or the phrase “bikini body”. For herein we see the obsession with the female body in the most brutally exaggerated form, divested of any euphemisms of the “maintenance” and “tightening” variety, as employed by the former MP Louise Mensch when discussing her facelift on Newsnight. (“I was asked about [my facelift] by the Guardian once and refused to answer as journalists are always trying to trivialise female politicians by talking about their appearances,” said Mensch, who was in no way trivialising herself by talking about her facelift to Jeremy Paxman.)
While it may not have the literary merit of Wolf Hall, there is plenty to occupy one in the 2012 Plastic Surgery Report, such as its use of exclamation marks (“2012 marked the highest number of botulinum toxin type A injections, with 61.m injections!”) and the identical image of the apparently naked woman on every page, suggesting that – as most of us always believed – the ultimate effect of plastic surgery is to make all women look robotic and identical (in 2012 in America, women accounted for 91% of plastic surgery procedures).
But the page I find the most enthralling is the one detailing which procedures have moved up and down the charts, pop-pickers, because it’s here that we really see what’s happening in the world of female body fixations. For example, forehead lifts are down from 2000 by 63%, helped, no doubt, by the rise of Botox, which has increased by 680%. Breast lifts and buttock lifts are (appropriately) up 69% and 114% respectively since 2000, reflecting the trend for certain parts of a woman to be higher and tighter. Once changing from stripes to polka dots marked the changing years in a woman’s wardrobe; now it’s where her body parts are on her body.
While the most popular surgical procedure remains, unsurprisingly, breast augmentations, these have fallen in America over the past year by 7%. By contrast, upper arm lifts are up 4,473% since 2000, and this – while staggering – is no surprise.
In case you have missed the memo, upper arms are the new trophy female body part and not boobs, the one that signifies a dedication to the cause (the cause of having a trophy female body part) and belonging to a certain class, because class is always at the root of this kind of boggle-eyed female body fetishisation. So while New York Magazine was quick to claim that “Michelle Obama’s Arms Spark Liposuction Trend”, their accusation is misjudged. Only those of a certain class have the time and money to do what is required to maintain those toned arms without recourse to slicing them open from pit to elbow, as Anna Wintour (daily 6am tennis practice) and Gwyneth Paltrow (has she mentioned she exercises?) can affirm. (Those women and others such as Jennifer Aniston almost invariably wear sleeveless dresses, even on winter nights, for what is the point of having a trophy body part if it’s covered up? Cardigans are for flabby-armed wimps.) That, you see, is kind of the point of the trophy female body part, and why it constantly changes: it has to be something only the very few can attain, and this is also why the arm will soon no longer be the trophy part as more people attain theirs through surgical means.
So what next, female trophy body part hunters, what next? My money’s on “an enviable back”, followed by a rise in “back lipo”. Trying to spot the next trophy female body part is like playing whack-a-mole on a woman’s body, and it’s a lot more painful for the woman than it was for the mole. Since spending time in LA during Oscars season, I thought I’d heard of all possible forms of plastic surgery, ranging from toe-shortening (can’t have talons crawling out of your Jimmy Choos) to lip lifting (for that crucial Joker look). But as even the most casual reader of the Mail Online’s sidebar of shame will know, there is an inexhaustible number of body parts for which a woman can be criticised (“What is wrong with Zooey Deschanel’s eyelid?” Mail Online, 12 March).
Ultimately this isn’t about plastic surgery – it’s about what part of the female body will be fetishised next and used to make other women resent the body parts they have. And if some of them feel driven to carve up their skin and muscle in order to fit some kind of bill, well, that’s not self-loathing – that’s just the modern way.