Bullish Life: On Vanity, Plastic Surgery, and Gentlewomanly Living

According to marketing experts everywhere, the women of America are now stuffed full of turkey and ready to be sold weight-loss products.

I’m not — I spent Thanksgiving lying on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, eating with the bartenders at the hotel restaurant, working on a business plan, buying Jimmy Choos, and giggling at lizards (see Bullish: Gratitude is Nice, But Don’t Let it Keep You From Action). As it turns out, 73 degrees is perfect beach weather for my elvin complexion, and my parents are just as happy to see me some other time.

I was thinking about writing a seasonally-appropriate column about fitness (see Bullish Life: What I Learned From Being Captain of My College Debate and Boxing Teams (At the Same Time!) when this letter came in from a reader I’ll call Grace Jones.

Dear Jen,

I came from a kind of blue collar dysfunctional home that left me with pretty terrible self-esteem and skills for success in the white collar job market. I had gotten a job right out of school at a supposedly hot start up but a week after I started they ran out of cash and went under, leaving me with almost no savings and a lot of rent to pay, so I ended up taking a job at this awful, shady place even though I was way overqualified and underpaid and I had to commute more than three hours a day to a depressing suburb to get there. I told myself I’d look for something else right away but the next five years of my life flew by in this horrible blur – I was miserable at the job and couldn’t seem to get a lead on anything better, the long commute sucked up all of my free time, two members of my immediate family contracted terminal illnesses and I had to care for them…. Long story short I ended up depressed, completely without self-esteem, and about 90 pounds overweight because I was basically eating my sadness and self-loathing.

Somehow a few months after my dad died I suddenly started to snap out of it – I lost about 45 of the 90 pounds I needed to lose, bought a new wardrobe, got my snaggle-teeth fixed, and had the confidence to find a much better job closer to home. From there everything pretty much took off, I started taking a much more bullish-style outlook on my life and made a series of very good career moves that have resulted in now being a junior-level executive at a ridiculously awesome company that I love working for, and I also lost the rest of the extra weight along the way.

Here’s the problem – gaining and losing 90 pounds wreaked absolute havoc on my body. Even though I’ve been going to the gym 7 days a week for a couple of years now and even working with a personal trainer, it’s obvious my skin is never going to tighten up so that my body looks anything like normal, even though I now wear a size 2. It’s awful, a large amount of loose skin literally just hangs off my body, to the point where I have to wear Spanx every day even though I’m not at all overweight because clothes can’t even fit right with all the weird, gross loose skin that is in all the wrong places and it’s kind of uncomfortable if I don’t have something holding it all in place (it may sound like I am exaggerating – I wish I were). I’ve read your body image advice and for the most part I agree; you should eat right and exercise and try not to dwell too much on how your body looks if there’s nothing else you can do about it – nobody’s perfect. But also, I’m only 33, I’m still pretty and my face still looks very young because I’ve kept out of the sun, and it kills me that even though I religiously work out and eat right, I look like this naked and I have no hope of ever looking any better no matter what I do.

As a result of all this, I have been debating whether to have cosmetic surgery to correct it. In general I am not in favor of cosmetic surgery, I think it promotes unrealistic and shallow standards of beauty, and I am also bothered by the huge cost and the long recovery (I would need to take a few weeks off work and wear a compression garment for a few months, and the total cost is on par with buying an entry-level sports car). I can afford the money if I need to and could arrange the time off work but I find myself thinking about the opportunity cost…shouldn’t a more awesome version of me, the kind of person I aspire to be, be spending that money and time off work to travel the world, or start a business, or fund a charity, or even just investing it and having it for a rainy day? It feels like such a waste. But I also picture living the rest of my life hating the way I look, dreading having sex because I don’t even want anyone touching my body, wearing Spanx every single day, and I kind of think it would all be worth it. I know that even with the surgery I wouldn’t look like a centerfold – there would definitely be scars and maybe not everything that bothers me could be completely corrected, but I think it would be pretty amazing just to look kind of normal – every time I look in the mirror I am just so angry with myself that I let all of that happen in the first place, it’s such an ugly reminder of how I let myself down and wasted so many years of my twenties because I didn’t have the courage to take charge of my life.

So I am curious… what would you do? And, if you decided not to get the surgery, how would you go about making yourself okay with how you looked and moving on with your life?

First of all, Grace, congratulations on some major and impressive life changes. You’ve made a cultural shift from blue-collar authoritarianism (I MUST BE ON TIME TO THE FACTORY TO PUNCH MY PUNCHCARD!) to executivedom, you’ve lost 90 pounds (that’s a whole fifth-grader!), you’ve developed a kick-ass attitude towards life, and — although others may find it awkward to congratulate you for this — you have helped your loved ones have better deaths than they would have otherwise, which is precisely the sort of action that character and adulthood come from.

You are a badass, which is why I’ve given you such a badass name.

You should probably get the surgery.

We can back up, sure, but that’s where my answer is going. Hopefully I can delineate a few points that will help others as well.

Everything is Fake Anyway

We we all born drooling, incontinent, illiterate babies. Our parents made us wear clothes and memorize the alphabet and not pee on the floor and say please and thank you and get haircuts. None of this was natural (or all of it is natural, either way).

Back in Biblical times, Queen Esther underwent twelve months of beautification in the harem before being brought to King Ahasuerus for an imperial deflowering! Vanity isn’t something we just made up to go with reality television. Many, many cultures (ones in which women didn’t have jobs!) sanctioned far more vanity than we consider seemly.

If you’re dressed professionally, for instance, it looks weird not to wear makeup (unless your skin is naturally quite matte). I’m sure you choose your clothes for more than keeping you warm and dry. Once you’ve decided to participate and compete in the culture you live in, there’s nothing wrong with buying in.

Just a few decades ago, women were embarrassed for others to know that they colored their hair. (I think you would just tell your husband that you were going to the salon for hours and he wouldn’t ask what crazy woman-magic happened there.) Today, not only does everyone talk openly about their changing haircolors, women regularly request rounder-than-real breast implants because these women want the implants to “look expensive.” Every celebrity on the planet is now categorically denying that she’s has plastic surgery, even though their faces are blatantly stuffed full of fillers (which, technically, are not “surgery”).

Also: You fixed your teeth, right? I wrote in Bullish: Social Class in the Office about “dental class markers” — nothing broadcasts to people that you grew up poor than your parents not having had your teeth professionally straightened. Did you ever wonder when it become normal — and not vain at all — for regular people to get braces? Orthodontists convinced America that crooked teeth were a health issue, and all the sudden everybody had a pass for doing something painful and expensive — and in some cases purely cosmetic — to their children.

As you may know, I live on Wall Street and work with young executives in the financial industry. I see plenty of women. Plenty of African-Americans. Certainly plenty of Asians. I see very few fat people. I never see anyone with bad teeth.

If it’s okay (and, really, whose permission do you need for something to be “okay”?) to fix your teeth, why isn’t it okay to fix your entire body, especially when it’s causing you serious physical discomfort, inconvenience, mental distress, and — if I’m reading you right — loss of intimacy?

On a personal note, every fake thing I’ve ever done to myself has worked out GREAT. Granted, they’ve all been small things, and as you surely have thought of, there are risks to any type of surgery — you could have a reaction to anesthesia, you could get some kind of crazy infection, you’ll have scars. But I remember being told, as a teenager, never to do anything about the hair on my arms, because it would “grow back thicker and darker.” I mean, that might be true, but does that stop you from shaving your legs or anything else? As soon as I got to college, I went to town with a bottle of Nair and never looked back. My eyebrows are not at all the shape nature intended.

I have a substantial (for me) annual budget that I spend on my face. I’m not telling what, exactly, I do to or purchase on behalf of my face, but I figure that my face is advertising for all the things I have to say (at least in person), and most forms of employment involve people looking at my face, so it’s a business expense. A life expense. A quality of life expense. (Note: I did not mean “business expense” in the IRS sense.)

Your body is going to change and age and become damaged over time in a thousand small ways, no matter what you decide. You can respect yourself and care for yourself and still decide to make major, irreversible changes to yourself.

You’ve Already Done Everything Else You Could

You have been going to the gym seven days a week for two years! You are a paragon of dedication. And a size 2! Most people only manage to bolster their willpower because they like the results — that is, they look better naked. So, I think we here in Bullishland all admire you for your fitness regimen.

You remarked, “I’ve read your body image advice and for the most part I agree; you should eat right and exercise and try not to dwell too much on how your body looks if there’s nothing else you can do about it — nobody’s perfect.” I did say something about that — when I was bodybuilding, I looked in the mirror all the time and pinched little bits of fat over my abs and felt both superior and unhappy (I think this is the mental state of a lot of unpleasant people, actually). This was both unhealthy and truly time-consuming.

Later, I got back into working out and decided I would make it all about the effort put in, and just not look in mirrors too much. But part of that philosophy was simply that I knew that my efforts would pay off — of course, ultimately, all the gym exertions would improve my appearance, so … a watched pot never boils. Work out for a few months and then look at the abs. Similarly, weighing yourself twice a day helps some people track their progress more scientifically (in Excel!), but sends some people into an irrational emotional death-spiral, so just sticking to the exercise and not weighing oneself too often (or at all) is a healthier choice for such people.

What I’m saying is that your situation is different. You’re not looking for a quick fix instead of working hard; you’ve worked hard. Very hard. And you have realistic expectations — you’ll have scars, you won’t be perfect. You’ll have to explain the scars at some point to someone you want to be close to. There’s no perfect option, and that’s okay.

I once read an interview with a doctor who made non-functional (that is, “cosmetic”) prostheses for people who had lost body parts due to infections. (Darryl Hannah wears a prosthetic finger in films and photos). The doctor commented that some patients, often men, felt it was vain to pay for a prosthesis that wouldn’t have any practical use. And the doctor would tell them that it wasn’t vain to want to blend in. Vanity, said the doctor, was wanting to stand out; these patients wanted the opposite. They wanted some fucking hands.

Sex is a Quality-of-Life Issue

This, to me, was the kicker:

“But I also picture living the rest of my life hating the way I look, dreading having sex because I don’t even want anyone touching my body, wearing Spanx every single day, and I kind of think it would all be worth it.”

Look, if you dread having sex, you’re missing a pretty big part of the aforementioned lady-portfolio. I’m assuming you like sex. And would like to be with someone, and that you’re not. This is no way to live. Orgasms are good for your circulation. Spanx are not.

You talk about wanting to be a more awesome version of yourself. It sounds like you’re already doing this at lightning speed. You’re angry with yourself for gaining so much weight in the first place — you don’t need to do penance for this. Weight is not a moral issue. And you’ve suffered plenty.

“Opportunity Cost” Is Real, But Your Life is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Let me revisit another part of your letter: “I can afford the money if I need to and could arrange the time off work but I find myself thinking about the opportunity cost… shouldn’t a more awesome version of me, the kind of person I aspire to be, be spending that money and time off work to travel the world, or start a business, or fund a charity, or even just investing it and having it for a rainy day? It feels like such a waste.”

Yes, there’s that. And I mean this column to give you “permission” (not that you need mine or anyone’s) to get the surgery, but you certainly might weigh the options and still decide against it.

But I think you can have your cake (you probably don’t eat cake) and eat it too. If you get the surgery, use it as a motivational tool. You want a balanced portfolio of life: you have invested enough in your body that you will then need to make equivalent investments in your career, business exploits, travels, philanthropy, and savings (see Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Gentlewoman). You can compensate. You can use this.

For instance, maybe the surgery sets you back financially so that you’re not in a position to travel or start a business. Use the time to learn a foreign language so that when you do travel, you can make more of it. Use the time to develop a really good business plan, or use your situation as a focusing tool to reject riskier business ideas with larger startup costs, and hone in on business ideas you can start with little upfront investment (see Bullish: You Can Start A Business By Tuesday and Bullish: Starting A Business When You’re Broke.) Get involved in a startup where you can contribute expertise instead of money. Instead of donating to charity, find a way to volunteer your time — ideally, find a way to volunteer your time in a way that also helps you build professional skills or expand your network.

Opportunity cost is a real thing, but there is not a zero-sum game of opportunity. You can make more opportunity.

Whatever you decide, Grace, you’ve done well. Your body is yours to do with as you wish. And whenever you’re feeling angry with yourself, dismiss that thought (Scoff at it! Scoff!) and instead imagine that you’re an advice columnist for a lady blog looking back at you — that person is impressed with all you’ve done, and considers your future quite auspicious.

originally publishing on The Gloss