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Reprinted at with permission, January 2004. Reproduced with permission - Torstar Syndication Services

Surfing for the new you

TV shows sell the idea that we can transform ourselves. Why are so many people buying?


Thirty years ago, it took $6 million to make the Bionic Man. Today, a mere $5,000 and a razor cut gets you a New Man (or New Woman).

Fantasy has always been television's bread and butter but today's viewers are turning it into reality, embracing the shows about transformation - What Not To Wear, Extreme Makeover , Nip/Tuck , Skin Deep for the way you look, Trading Spaces , While You Were Out , Facelift, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy for the way you live - and pursuing the idea that perfection is, as Martha would say, a good thing.

"We can rebuild him," the scientists said of Col. Steve Austin. Well, today's message is: We can rebuild you .

If television is to be believed, the business of personal transformation offers a cure-all for everything.


Bum too fat? Room too dark? Life too blah? If you don't like it, just do a makeover.

"We were talking to a woman just the other week, who wanted us to come in and look at her house," says Debbie Travis, host of Home and Garden TV's Facelift , which features Travis undertaking 48-hour transformations of people's living spaces. "The woman said it's either a new couch and living room or a new face. She had been saving up for a facelift (the plastic surgery variety) for a year, but even though we didn't use her for the show, she said we got her so excited that she decided to do her house instead."

Transformations aren't only a business catering to a few people with money, says University of British Columbia psychology professor Steve Heine. They seem to be influencing society as a whole.

"I think we always have emphasized the physical, but not nearly to the extent we do now," says Heine, who researches the effects of culture on human identity. He isn't sure what the long-term effects of such physical transformations might be. "We now assume that good things go together: A good face goes with a good personality, good earning potential; a good house goes with a good nature."

These things don't come cheap. Canadian homeowners spent $23.4 billion on repairs and renovations in 2002, an increase of nearly 11 per cent from 2001 and nearly 75 per cent from 1996.The increase in plastic surgery may even be higher, but Canadian statistics aren't kept. However, doctors here use American statistics to give them a close estimate. In the U.S., between 1997 and 2002, breast implant surgery increased 147 per cent, liposuction rose 111 per cent and eyelid surgery increased 44 per cent. Add in non-surgical procedures such as Botox treatments, and cosmetic procedures in the U.S. were up 226 per cent over the five-year period.

What's fuelling the trend? "I think it reflects the improvements in technology and I think it's a lot more socially acceptable," says Dr. William Middleton, who has worked in Toronto as a plastic surgeon for the last 17 years. "In the last 12 years in my own clinic, procedures have become less invasive. I even get a lot of doctors coming in. I had a psychiatrist in yesterday, a good-looking female. There's more information available now with the Internet. It's increased patients' knowledge dramatically."

Computer imaging, shorter-acting anesthetics and less-invasive procedures mean people heal more quickly, he says, and private clinics make plastic surgery more accessible. And the results, patients say, are often remarkable.

"I felt like a million bucks," says a 42-year-old woman who works in the marketing industry and lives downtown. She asked that the pseudonym Margo Black be used for the purpose of this story. Black had liposuction and eyelid surgery last year, and goes in for photo facials and regular Botox procedures, which she calls "icing on the cake." "I lost two dress sizes. The clothes I have now are a lot sexier than what I had before. At work, I feel great doing presentations, standing in front of people. It sounds shallow, but I certainly felt happier right away. "The outside looks how the inside feels. It relieved a lot of stress. It permeated into a lot of other parts of my life and restored my drive, my confidence with men. I know when I go out with my lady friends I'm the most popular one in the whole bunch now." Black says her physical transformation was one of the reasons she got a big promotion, which caused some resentment around her office. "There's always competition, professionally and socially, with a younger set. You have to stay competitive. The more you appear to take care of yourself, the more people will think positively of you, and then you feel better about yourself. "It's a little naïve to think looks don't make a difference. Ever since I was younger, I thought, `If my eyes go to pot, I'm getting them fixed.' The whole thing cost about $10,000. It was money well spent."

Why did the change seem so natural for her? Black says the idea of going through a transformation to look and feel better is something that a lot of people have come to expect. "In my generation, we certainly bought into the fantasy of Snow White and Cinderella . I did. You'll grow up and become beautiful and Mr. Right will one day come along. "Before, people just accepted how things turned out. Now, I think plastic surgery is par for the course. "When people see how great I look, if I may say so myself, a lot of people say they want to get it done."

Travis says it's a similar attitude these days when it comes to transforming the spaces in which people live. "Fifteen, 20 years ago, we just accepted the wrinkles and the ugly couch or dull white paint. But because of all these shows, people think it's possible, either a quick nip and tuck or an extreme makeover, or a total makeover of your house. "It's the McDonald's of decorating and surgery," she says. "You want to change your appearance immediately."

Travis says a lot of the people she works with say they want to feel better about their lives. And most of the people who undergo cosmetic surgery do so to elevate their self-esteem. But the effect is short-lived, says Heine. "There are some environmental influences," the psychologist notes, "but most things that give a boost to our feelings, such as plastic surgery, are largely transitory. The biggest sensation of elation is felt in the beginning, but people will probably revert back to the way they originally felt if the real root of their low self-esteem isn't addressed."

The danger, he says, "is if this becomes such a norm, such an expectation, then it's hard to break away from that expectation. It becomes a cycle. "When one thing becomes emphasized so much, it's hard not to assess yourself on that standard. Unfortunately, other standards - being a good person, developing one's spiritual or intellectual side - are overlooked. "We forget other strengths that we might have."

Travis also recognizes the downside. "We've made it unacceptable to be ordinary," she says. "People are really trying to achieve the extraordinary to feel better about their lives."

Middleton would disagree, saying his work addresses a basic need. "I used to work with cancer patients when I first started (as a plastic surgeon)," he says. "When I stopped and opened up a private clinic to do the work I'm now doing, people said I'm wasting my talent, that I should still be doing that type of work, which is more rewarding. "But I get a lot of thank you cards from patients, a lot more than I ever did when I was doing surgery on cancer patients. The gratitude I get from my plastic surgery now is far greater than it was when I did plastic surgery out of a medical need. "Some people are vain, obviously. Some people have very minor problems. They want liposuction to get a six-pack because they're physically unable to accomplish it themselves. "But the things my patients say to me - the cards and gifts - it's really amazing how grateful they are for what I've done."

When asked if she's ever considered a facelift, Travis says no. "But ask me in 10 years. "I think it's all a little bit about keeping up with the Joneses.

The reason we chose the name Facelift (for her show) is because plastic surgery is becoming so common, and home makeovers that we call facelifts are, too."

Reprinted at with permission. Reproduced with permission - Torstar Syndication Services recommends the following books from


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