“When we see ourselves up on the screen ad we see our stories, we feel less alone, we feel less invisible because we don’t really get to see the reality, the humanity and the diversity of the trans experience.” – Laverne Cox in an interview with XTRA
There is a multitude of discussions about plastic surgery and not all are body-positive. Jezebel does weekly tabloid culture pieces that playfully point at how Everyone You Think is Pretty Has Had Plastic Surgery and focuses on how the hot sheets commercialize speculations on who’s-had-what-done. In My Body is My Art, Kathy Davis reveals a personal reflection between her research on plastic surgery patients and the work of performance artist Orlan. This comparison was not originally made by Davis herself but her critics and contemporaries who often compared Davis’ discussions on cosmetic surgery to some of the larger questions provoked from Orlan’s videopieces. Davis responds to these comparisons and resists the over-simplifications between her own work and Orlan’s. Davis intentionally draws a very thick line between her research subjects’ motivations to undergo plastic surgery and Orlan’s playful, profane, and sacrilegious body modifications. Davis’ subjects are not artists, they are simply women who see themselves as their own Pygmalions.
And can you blame them? We live in a culture that is heavily saturated with impossible standards of beauty when it comes to the female body. Popular culture has gone so far as to naturalize teeny-tiny underage models, rapey photo shoots, impossibly photoshopped skin, and plastic surgery. As Jezebel suggests, most of the women in the public eye -who are celebrated for aging gracefully- have survived some kind of cosmetic procedure. Some Feminists even go so far as to degrade and diminish the use of plastic surgery since it intervenes with the natural process of aging or that men are at fault for making women feel constantly unworthy. This view assumes that you have to be a celebrity, sex worker, or superficial to “get some work done” nowadays. But in fact, surgery does not produce shallow, oppressed, attention-whores, (I’m unsure if these types of women even exist or if this view is a result of slut-shaming). Not only can plastic surgery transform the way you connect with your body, it can be a powerful tool for self-actualization.
This is what brings me to the glorious, graceful and courageous actor Laverne Cox and her intimate relationship with the public eye. Before her big break on Orange is the New Black, Laverne became the first African-American transgender person to appear in the mainstream reality television show I Want to Work for Diddy. She never let her biological body prevent her from realizing her potential. As one of the most-developed and personable characters on Jenji Kohan’s summer-buzz series, Cox plays Sophia Burset; a committed inmate who was busted for credit-card fraud that paid for her transitioning. Laverne’s performance tapped into her own experiences of “internalized transphobia,” and “internalized racism and shame.” It is specifically this kind of self-awareness that allowed her character to embody a rich and vibrant agency on-screen.
Sometimes being true to one’s self means sacrificing other people’s ideas of who you are meant to be. In another time, Cox would of been reduced to a monster. A disgrace of her mother, hidden away or exhibited in a freak show for profit. But not anymore! Although Cox is still being put on stage, she is entirely in control of her representation. And unlike the shallow plastic surgery barbies that seem to populate the collective imagination, Laverne shows true humility as she writes history. Through her cosmetic surgery, (which is arguable more reconstructive than cosmetic,) Laverne truly gained control of her identity via her body. Unlike Orlan who personifies a utopian notion of feminist resistance and the biological-women-pygmalions of Davis’ article, Laverne’s surgery represents a really important time in history: a turning point. Laverne makes us consider the effects and potentials of a body post-op: how complex the human psyche can be and how touching its reconstructions are.