The Perfect Woman
Everybody’s beautiful in their own way… (Ray Stevens)
Dr. Fennig taps his headband microphone to make sure it’s working. A sound like a hammer hitting an empty dustbin echoes around the exhibition room and the chattering dies down. “Hello ladies and gentlemen,” he begins, beaming out at his audience. “Welcome to the fourth annual Royal Society Public Exhibition of Advanced Medicine, sponsored by the British Pharmaceutical Association and the Yaskawa Robotics Corporation of Sapporo. As you know the theme of this year’s exhibition is Beyond Darwin: Improvements and Augmentations to the Human Body. I hope that you have had time to look around the various exhibits. Speaking for myself I was particularly fascinated by the pride of the Yaskawa Corporation, the first fully functional, completely internal and maintenance-free artificial heart.”
He can see that he has their attention, or perhaps more accurately that he and I together have their attention, and he scans their faces before he continues.
“My name is Leonard Fennig, Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the University of Minnesota, and they have asked me to come along to fill in a little of the historical background to the quest to perfect the human body. Perhaps you have noticed that I have with me my charming young assistant Colette, to help me demonstrate some of the techniques that have been popular over the years to create cosmetic alterations to nature’s design.”
At the mention of my name I dip my head politely. As usual, the air of expectation is palpable. Why am I standing here next to an old-fashioned tall clothes stand, wearing a long white bath robe tied at the waist with a loose towelling belt? I can see that I have already caught the eye of several of the men and merited the disapproving scowls of some of the women. I am no longer embarrassed by such things, but I notice a pair of adolescent boys who are fixing me with the intensity of rabbits caught in the headlights of a car. Oh well, I suppose I should count it an honour to be the first naked woman they are to see. I hope that I won’t disappoint.
Dr. Fennig, with his customary professional detachment, helps me out of my gown and hangs it neatly on the clothes stand. A total silence falls over the audience. The boys’ eyes open even wider, joined by their mouths. I don’t think I’ve been a disappointment.
“By far the commonest request from ladies,” he continues in exactly the same tone as before, “has always been for enlargement of their breasts by means of prosthetic implants.” He produces a dark blue felt-tip pen from the side pocket of his lab coat, gently lifts each of my breasts in turn, and draws a short neat line underneath. This done he puts the pen away again and produces from the box on the table a transparent egg-shaped object resembling a lump of jelly inside a plastic membrane. “Through a small and discreet incision beneath each breast a bag or shell made of silicone and containing either silicone gel or sterile saline solution is inserted…”
His voice drones on and on. The felt tip pen makes many more appearances. Lines are drawn on my abdomen to illustrate where the incisions would need to be made to flatten a sagging stomach, where the tubes would go in to remove fat from my belly and thighs by liposuction, where the surgeon would cut to remove stretch marks, a double chin, facial wrinkles, reconstruct my nose, give me fuller lips, correct my jaw line, reshape my shoulders, my hands, my buttocks, make my feet more graceful and take-in my waist. When my body has become a dazzling canvas of blue lines representing every conceivable pipe-dream of plastic surgery I stand and absorb the stares of the audience as he ends with the little bit of theatre that has become completely familiar.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen. Which of these procedures do you think Colette should undergo first?”
“Come along. I’ve explained the benefits of each one, where should we start?”
“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the point of my entire presentation. In my opinion, and I am not alone in this opinion, between ninety and ninety-five percent of the procedures carried out by plastic surgeons at the request of both male and, particularly female clients are completely and totally unnecessary. We in the developed Western world live under immense day-to-day pressures from the fashion, entertainment and cosmetics industries to conform to arbitrary concepts of an ideal physical appearance, and we are systematically brainwashed into believing that we fall short of that ideal, even when we quite plainly don’t, as is the case with Colette.
“I have devoted my life to the study of the human body and the reconstruction of parts of that body when they have been damaged by fire, disease, trauma or genetic imperfection. I am telling you right now, as a professor of reconstructive surgery and one who has thought seriously about these issues, that there is no justification whatsoever, aesthetic, medical or otherwise, for any attempt at surgical or other intervention to alter Colette’s appearance. And yet every day of my professional life another Colette walks into my consulting room at the University hospital and tells me that she wants me to carry out one of the procedures that I have described here.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if it is the only thing you take away from my presentation, will you please, for the sake of your happiness and mental health, learn to love your own body exactly as it is. Thank you.”
Uproarious applause. Dr. Fennig holds my gown while I put it on, tie the belt and walk slowly out of the exhibition enclosure toward the toilets and the showers.
I look forward to that compliment at the end of each presentation. It’s out of character somehow – all that professional detachment and then he more or less tells me right at the end that I’m beautiful. He’s very sweet. And I don’t think he would say it if he didn’t believe it, would he?
But of course to Dr. Fennig every woman is beautiful. Every human body, young or old, male or female, damaged or intact.
After my shower I stand in front of the full length mirror, wipe away the condensation with my towel and take a careful look, just as I’ve been doing after all the presentations lately. I noticed after the morning show that my breasts aren’t completely equal in size. The left one is very slightly smaller. He mentioned that size inequality is one reason that implants are often requested. He thought it was a silly idea of course. But I don’t know. When you look very carefully you can see that there is a difference.
My thighs too. I don’t think I really have a thigh gap. I wonder why not. Does it mean I’m overweight, or is it just something to do with the shape of my hips? You’re supposed to have one, aren’t you? And my thighs don’t come down evenly the way they should, like two perfect cones. They come in a bit as they approach the knees, like the neck of a bottle. It’s not a big effect, but when you look closely it’s definitely there.
I turn to look at my profile. Goodness, that tummy isn’t flat! Nothing like flat. How can Dr. Fennig keep telling people my stomach is flat? You can see the bulge perfectly clearly when you look closely. Sticking out, as though I’ve swallowed a football!
And my bottom. There’s a crease where the buttocks go into the thighs. Shouldn’t that just be a smooth curve, from the buttock to the top of the thigh?
I notice my nose. I’ve never looked closely at it before. It isn’t straight, it’s turned up at the end. And it’s so big! How is it that I’ve never noticed how big it is before?
I feel a current of anxiety pass through me. I’m not beautiful at all, I’m very very ugly!
Dr. Fennig must have noticed these things. They all must have. I realise now they’ve been lying to me. Laughing at me. Those teenage boys must have thought I was repulsive.
I pull the bath robe around me and tie the belt tightly. I can’t go back there. I need to get my clothes out of the locker, get dressed and get out of this building. I need to find a plastic surgery clinic. I need to get help…