Sweet revenge? Or deep grieving interrupted? The NY Post recently celebrated (without a shred of critique) a disturbing new trend affecting middle-aged women in the wake of divorce. The article describes scores of women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who undergo liposuction, Botox, breast surgery, and countless other body modification procedures in an effort to seek revenge on an ex. It’s called “Revenge Surgery.” It seems to be descended from the UK Yummy Mummy trend but with a kind of twist. We live in a toxic body culture where the pressure for bodily transformation as a solution to every dilemma exists in concert with products offered for easy consumption toward that end (the diet industry, as-seen-on-reality television, cosmetic surgery, commercial gyms, etc.) Revenge surgery is just one of the latest trends marketed to women who are affected by and struggle with internalization of cultural gender requirements at every stage or milestone of life (perceived or real). As we know, women are not only made to be objects in this culture but all too often, some women come to internalize this cultural mandate and objectify themselves carrying within them a fantasized body ‘ideal,’ which constitutes a false self. This idealized and false self can reside in the woman’s psyche taking on a life of its own. It seems so normal to some, that to question its separateness from the woman constitutes a counter-cultural act.
Staying near one’s authentic needs and emotions during times of crisis (such as divorce) is difficult and painful. Enter the “body project.” Susie Orbach has noted that women learn to think of their bodies in ongoing crisis and the body is focused on as an object in need of repair, a project to be worked on to the neglect of other aspects of the self. Making a self-improvement project of one’s body is widely reinforced in the cultural narrative and celebrated repeatedly in reality television and popular media. The cultural split includes revile for those who fail at the body project. This culture acts as a kind of Greek chorus, live television audience, cheering on every pound lost, every mile walked, every pound lifted, every size dropped. Turning to the body as a site of control in times of crisis is a common psychological defense against overwhelming emotions and true needs that cannot be tolerated or are not recognized. The body can be used to deal or avoid dealing with events that occur throughout life. Use of the body as a vehicle to express conflicts may have a long history for the divorcing woman and or may develop in the face of a life crisis, serious betrayal, or traumatic loss. The cultural drive for perfection, thinness, hyper-sexuality, and the actual work and money it takes to get a surgically-stylized body fits like a zipper with the woman’s unconscious need to displace uncomfortable feelings onto her body. Having a stable relationship with one’s body and weathering a divorce or any other trauma goes against the grain of oppressive cultural practices, images, and messages. The changes that come with divorce quite naturally give rise to deep existential feelings and tend to reactivate earlier unresolved losses in life. On the other hand, a newly divorced person may be filled with excitement and exhilaration, possibilities and freedom never before contemplated. Both positive and negative can overwhelm. But if one is worrying about changing her body, one is not worrying about much else.
Making over the body surgically to enact revenge on a former mate or lover adds a new incentive or twist. The desire for revenge adds potent fuel to the displacement mechanism while also maybe expressing the woman’s ambivalence. Revenge, both sweet and hostile, does keep one connected (at least psychically) to the former spouse. As one woman put it,
“When I see my [ex] husband, I have anger, and it’s like, ‘Ha, look what you are missing now!’ He deserved to partially pay for me to look good — I feel I earned it. There was a certain satisfaction in him seeing me look like this, especially when he saw me with my new boyfriend.”
(The article notes that many of these women use their ex-husband’s funds to pay for their procedures.)
As a psychotherapist, I see part of my work as helping women sort themselves out from the cultural mirror image and its confusing effect on their lives and development. Some eating disorder symptoms can express both a compliance with the cultural mandate for thinness AND simultaneously be the sufferer’s protest of the objectification of women. Women participating in cosmetic surgery procedures can be understood as at once complying with an economically privileged, culturally prescribed, narrowly defined ‘look’ (typically white, thin, youthful, hyper-sexualized, hetero-normative) while simultaneously striving to get unconscious needs met for attention, mirroring, adoration, affection, – even the need for literal bed ‘rest’ and care. Many women have recounted to me how much they valued their recovery from cosmetic surgery as a time in which they could actually allow themselves to take it easy and even let others care for them. If the woman lacks internal resources, this may be the woman’s only known way to get her need for rest and care met. Some women who turn to doctors – dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons – do so because these professionals become some of the closest and intimate contacts these women could have. As they turn themselves over completely and surrender to their surgeon’s procedures, they may experience the relationship as fulfilling a primary need, even a merger as the surgeon literally enters the woman’s body. Their prize is then a reflection of the cultural mirror, a fetishized body vs. a stigmatized one (for as long as it lasts). As one woman in the NY Post article put it, “my dermatologist was totally there for me (during the divorce) physically and emotionally.” Other women quoted felt that they never would have recovered emotionally from their divorce had it not been for plastic surgery or their relationship with the plastic surgeon.
I may be biased but I think it’s worthwhile for women going through serious life transitions to consider the meaning of their distress, receive respectful and quality care while doing so, and be supported in the work of healing from loss without having to go under the knife.
The implication is that a desire for revenge may ultimately hurt the seeker as much as the victim. If a woman experiences her body as manipulated, distrusted, distorted, and split into parts she will have difficulty relating to her female body as whole, trustworthy and entitled to good care. As a result this woman may under-calculate the risks (emotional and physical) inherent in certain cosmetic surgical procedures and other body projects she undertakes in achieving this elusive ideal. Or she may decide it is worth the price and risk and justify this as “self-care.” This can be a very precarious and dangerous undertaking indeed. As the Chinese philosopher Confucius states in the proverb, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
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