Last week I wrote about the way women’s magazines hawk a dangerous beauty
culture in between valuable articles. This week I watched a documentary about
the extreme edges of that beauty culture, which, in our country, is not that
edgy at all.
Knows No Pain " is a somber, but fairly agenda-free
documentary–now airing on HBO and on demand–that follows several Americans
into the spa, the botox seat, and mostly to the plastic surgeon’s office, in
pursuit of the ability to turn back time on their faces and bodies.
The American anti-aging industry is a 60 billion a year business that tells women they can keep them looking younger with ointments, injections, lasers and surgery. A new HBO documentary, “Youth Knows No Pain”, takes a critical look at this industry.
McCabe, the director and narrator, and to a certain extent the star of the film
is obsessed with the legacy of her late father. Her dad came back from Vietnam
and became a plastic surgeon; as a kid, she used to play with his spare
silicone implants. McCabe believes, after looking at her dad’s grisly wartime
photographs, that after such an experience her father did not want to spent his
life among the dying, but preferred to make people happy in their lifetimes.
Still, his sudden death in a car accident stunned her: "It’s always struck
me; here is someone who could take years off a person’s face but died in
seconds," she says. Her fixation on mortality, and its telltale signs on
human bodies, began early, grew stronger after she lost her father, and led her
to make this film.
Trying to understand her dad’s profession–and her own early obsession with
faces and wrinkles– on film takes McCabe on a journey where she encounters
some true plastic surgery enthusiasts, both on the giving and receiving end.
She visits a doctor early on who looks at her and immediately guesses her age,
judging by various fat deposits and wrinkles which he immediately suggests
"solutions" for. And it’s that interaction, and McCabe’s own
deeply mixed, but ultimately fascinated feelings towards anti-aging culture,
that inadvertently shows said culture’s more noxious effects. Because most
everyone McCabe speaks to isn’t merely interested in his or her own quest for the fountain of youth:
they all turn their gaze to her and start critiquing every sag, every line on
her face. And soon enough McCabe’s resistance begins to waver. It’s not
just about personal fulfillment, but about enforcing a dangerous norm.
The documentary starts and ends with Sherry, a Texas woman whose personality is
so large that she almost overwhelms the rest of the film. Sherry describes her
popularity with men as a young woman and then says, "One day you look
up… and you’re not getting the catcalls when you’re walking down the street.
Hello? That’s no fun. You always want your man to be looking at you." For
this reason, she’s gotten a number of facial surgeries, a breast augmentation,
a tummy tuck and more. She describes the process as a rebirth, saying that her
new navel means new life–while her husband declares the surgeon who made over
his wife to be an "artist." Sherry is fixated on giving her old
clothes to McCabe and goes through her closet repeatedly, handing things to the
filmmaker and insisting that they’d look "cute" on her.
From Sherry’s house McCabe goes on her wild journey (Latoya Peterson analyzes
video clips from throughout the film here ) to a "medspa" where patients can
be wrapped in hemorrhoid cream and cellulite to slim down or have their faces
injected with semen. She consults with a plastic surgeon whose daughter, a
centerfold model, recounts the way her dad used to critique her appearance as a
teen. She visits parties where attendees can test electronic facials or go
together to get botox. She meets with internet celebrity Julia Allison and her
coterie, who state un-ironically that women have an "expiration date"
and are getting botox in their 20s. McCabe spends time a man getting a hair
implant–which is the most gruesome and painful-looking procedure in the film.
At each interval, the film’s subjects ask McCabe if she wants to try their
methods, surgeries, or products, often hinting that she should. McCabe later
talks to all the skin gurus one regularly sees on TV, all hawking their
injections, peptides and serums. She juxtaposes those interviews with the
editor in chief of Allure who admits that many of the magic creams may not work
as well as advertised, but says "If it makes you feel good and you feel
like you’ve got some tiny bit of control over this process, what’s the
negative?" ( Jezebel’s Margaret has a more thorough post about
this particular interview in the film). One of McCabe’s final, and most amusing
subjects is Norman, a man who modeled his plastic surgery to give him a
Jack Nicholson-esque look. Adding a signature pair of glasses, button-down
shirts and cigar gets him attention from autograph seekers and scantily-clad
babes. He tells McCabe, with a shake of his head that she’s really "let
herself go." Again and again, it becomes clear to the viewer that the
plastic surgery obsession isn’t just about getting rid of personal demons, but
spreading a new aesthetic creed.
Towards the end of the hour and a half film, McCabe returns to Sherry who has
gained weight over the last year and is down on herself as a result. She’s
still thrusting her discarded clothes at the filmmaker, though. To perk herself
up, Sherry returns to the doctor and gets nipped, tucked and collagen-ed up and
McCabe remarks that Sherry seems happier now. But she says this without
noticing that her last round of surgeries led to a short-lived,
externally-motivated happiness that collapsed when she gained weight. Finally,
McCabe decides to see what its all about and gets botox herself, joining the
ranks of the "injected." Although at first she’s horrified with the
procedure, she admits that she likes her results, and ends up going back for
more." "Once you start, it’s hard to stop," she says.
The film’s major flaw is that it takes some of its subject’s assumptions–such
as the idea that women need to look younger, for instance, or that the
momentary happiness granted by a new look is "real" happiness, and as
Jessica Grose points out at Double X refuses to critique them deeply . Yes, McCabe
offers counter-arguments to a life of creams, nips and tucks: she includes the
idea that it’s an expensive habit, (she herself would prefer to stay in debt
than miss a salon appointment) and that "aging gracefully" by
accepting wrinkles is a nice ideal. Some of her interview subjects also point
out that our shoddy health care system, the market’s cruelty to older job
seekers, and the fear of being abandoned by that system when we age may
contribute to the American obsession with youth.
But none of these interesting takes address the pervasive problems of a
shallow, sexist appearance-driven culture that feeds this obsession–a culture
that creates an inability for people to connect authentically, a culture that
stigmatizes and leaves behind hose who don’t want to or can’t keep up with the
trend, and an ongoing mis-perception of what natural aging looks like. She
mentions time and money, but doesn’t’ focus on how much time and money spent
getting liposuction could have gone to what keeps people emotionally and
psychologically and young–vacations, more family time, healthy food, time to
exercise, and perhaps most importantly time to relax and do nothing.
Furthermore, she skims over the health risks associated with the cosmetics
industry, something we’ve documented here at RH Reality Check.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, the anecdotal evidence it provides is
powerful. And for the critical-minded viewer, perhaps that lack of an
incisively analytical lens is even more effective–it simply shows how far the
anti-aging myth has permeated, particularly among women. By showing so many
different women who take plastic surgery seriously, it’s made clear that the
problem is universal. Women are not to blame, but a culture that rewards them
for spending money on implants instead of IRAs requires serious feminist