Decoding the strange messages in a book that's attempting to demystify plastic surgery for little girls and boys
Big Tent Books
When I was six, I mistakenly watched my mother get her eyebrows waxed. An early adopter of new forms of aesthetics, my mother discovered that the beauty salon at our local G. Fox department store had added waxing to their menu of services, and, sick of tweezing her eyebrows into thinly arched parentheticals (this was the early 70s), she eagerly made an appointment.
I was excited to accompany my mother on this maiden depilatory voyage. Mostly because I loved riding the escalators and knew we'd be stopping for Brown Cows at the store's soda fountain post-waxing. But there was something magical about the way my mother described the procedure; that this professional reshaping would somehow reshape her life into something more glamorous than the life she led as the suburban mother of two young children.
But then I made the mistake of looking. As my mother lay on the freshly papered examining table, the technician painted something that looked like Oompa Loompa flesh across my mother's eyebrows. It was a ghoulish visual and gave my mother the cranial brow of Frankenstein's monster. "One, two, three," said the lady, ripping off the orange material in one swift, violent motion.
My mother, who often bragged about her high tolerance for pain, screamed out like she had been bitten in the face by a dog. I squeezed my eyes shut against what was surely a gaping hole in my mother's face and began to cry. Loudly. We skipped the Brown Cows and for the rest of the day, I focused my gaze elsewhere, not capable of viewing the aftermath on my mother's face. For the record, my mother's brows never grew back.
Perhaps if my mother had to read me from Dr. Michael Salzhauer's 2008 book, My Beautiful Mommy (Big Tent Books) things might have turned out differently. The mother in this book, however, has way bigger plans for herself than just an eyebrow wax, as we learn on page two, when Dr. Michael (in illustrated form) delivers his assessment in a dialogue bubble that reads, "Blah, Blah, Blah, Tummy, Blah, Blah, Blah, Nose." The ensuing story, recommended for ages 4-7, follows this mother, who is depicted with a hook nose worthy of Shylock and a belly pooch revealed by the parade of crop tops she insists on wearing, as she undergoes elective surgery, emerging at the end, as her button nosed daughter dreamily notes, "as the most beautiful butterfly in the whole world."
It's a story for the ages. "According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, in 2007," reads the book's accompanying press release, "one third of the 348,000 breast augmentations and 148,000 tummy tucks were 'mommy makeovers.'" Dr. Michael (in human form) said the impetus for his book came after his own daddy makeover, a nose job, and the resulting questions posed by his four-year-old daughter. Salzhauer, who, in both illustrated and human form looks remarkably like a Stan Lee superhero, designed the book as a guide to help explain why mommy no longer looks like mommy. "Kids tend to fill in the blanks in their imagination when they see mommy in bandages," his press release explains, "and they often feel sad, hurt and confused as to what happened." Perhaps if the mommy in his book had come home from the hospital looking like she'd been in a car crash he may have a point. Instead of a set of black eyes and oozing bandages, her post-op look is a small bandage across the bridge of her nose and what looks like a green scarf poking out from her ever-present crop top. She smiles broadly throughout her 5-page recovery and looks like she is still hot-rolling her hair.
Of course, this is a children's book that isn't really for children. To me, it's a fairytale for parents, only without the moral lesson at the end (unless you find some sort of deep meaning in the butterfly-shaped lollypop the mother gives to her daughter on the book's final page). However chipper in tone or cheese-clothed in graphics, something as emotionally complex and physically ravaging as plastic surgery cannot be explained away on the pages of a storybook, no matter how many times it's read aloud. There are, however, a lot of adult things to be said about how our parents hold up mirrors to ourselves. Throughout my adolescence, my definition of beauty was informed by my mother and her waxed eyebrows. I spent a great deal of the vulnerable years between girlhood and womanhood wondering if my mother's complaints about her own shortcomings (stumpy eyelashes, a softening jaw line, droopy lids) would one day be reflected on my face. So I worry about the daughter in this book. After her mother's physical scars have healed, what sort of psychic scars will remain lodged in her?
I'm not against plastic surgery, and do think that Dr. Salzhauer's intentions are good, if slightly misplaced. That, in the final frame, the daughter falls asleep and dreams of butterflies does make me question if the good doctor is already recruiting his next patient.
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