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Sunday, Feb. 10, 2002


Better living through cosmetic enhancement

Several months ago, this column discussed how plastic surgery had transcended its basic meaning as a technique of improving on nature to become a means toward self-actualization. People who once tried to hide their face-lifts and nose jobs now trumpet them proudly, because they believe that feeling better about oneself is nothing to be ashamed of.

It was easy to ridicule such a trend, and re-reading the piece I can see where it might come off as glib, especially after watching several installments of the new Fuji TV series, "Beauty Colosseum" (Friday, 7 p.m.).

Structured as your usual variety-talk program, with two celebrity hosts and a changing panel of celebrity guests, "Beauty Colosseum" invites viewers with self-image problems about their appearance to tell their stories on air. They are then sent into a kind of Star Chamber inhabited by five beauty consultants -- a hairdresser, a makeup artist, a stylist, an aesthetician and a cosmetic surgeon -- who look the subjects over and offer professional opinions.

The subject signs a pledge and is delivered into the hands of these experts. A month or two later, she (it's always a she) returns to the show in her new form.

Though the general concept is hardly new or original, "Beauty Colosseum" exploits so many layers of drama and meaning that in the end it offers up a wealth of ideas about our obsession with appearance and what counts as beauty in this day and age.

Because while the show tends to define "beauty" in specific culturally fixed visual terms, the operative word on the show is not utsukushii, but rather kirei, as in the phrase kirei ni naru, which means "to become pretty." In Japanese, "utsukushii (beautiful)" describes something that just is, while "kirei" is a state that can be achieved.

The program takes this concept beyond the point of simply advising women on how to make their eyes look larger or their nose smaller. The most important segment is the one where the hosts, comedian Shinsuke Shimada and singer Akiko Wada, comment on the subject's attitude. "Can't you speak clearly?" Wada says in a mixture of irritation and pity to a 17-year-old girl who dropped out of high school after her boyfriend dumped her with the phrase, "When I look at you closely, I can see you're really homely." The girl is so defeated that she can barely be heard.

Shimada, who never misses an opportunity to point out that he himself is considered homely, is the good cop to Wada's bad. Shimada usually delivers some variation on the theme "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and that the problem is mainly one of confidence. He does it in such a breezy, offhanded way that the subjects, who spend most of their airtime with their faces in their hands crying, look relieved after his lectures. "We will remove your moles," he tells a young woman, "but the rest is up to you."

Though the show shamelessly plays up the trauma in these stories, there seems little doubt that many of the women are, in fact, traumatized. "BC" advocates better living through cosmetic enhancement, but it never sidesteps the fact that the main reasons for these women's misery are social ones.

One woman was obviously not so much ashamed by her crooked teeth as devastated by the belief that her parents favored her older sister, whom she described as "beautiful like a model."

Everyone on the show kept saying how cute another girl was -- but one careless comment by a teacher ("You should hide your face") led to a spate of bullying by male classmates that has driven her behind a shaggy-dog hairstyle and a set of oversize headphones. During the initial Q&A with Wada and Shimada she was practically catatonic.

The dramatic nexus of the show is the moment the women return after their make-overs to gasps of amazement, but the turning point is the part where the experts assay the subject. They totally objectify these women, treating them as clay to be molded at their whim, but, rather than make them feel cheap, it shows them just how trivial their worries are.

"Leave it to me," aesthetician Yuri Takano says, and with a wave of her hand practically erases a lifetime of self-consciousness that one woman has about her "moon-shaped face." The plastic surgeon, Toshiya Handa, tells the woman with the moles that removing them is a cinch, and that if she wants double eyelids he can do that, too. "And if you decide later you don't like them," he says, "then I'll change them back." No big deal.

Though "BC" sells the services of these experts rather cavalierly (that amount of professional attention costs a small fortune), it also shows that anxiety over one's appearance is mostly a matter of perspective. During the "after" portion of a segment, the subject is often encouraged to confront the real source of her misery -- a boyfriend or parent or acquaintance -- in her new form.

Though there's a revenge-fantasy element in these confrontations, they rarely work out that way. The woman with bad teeth who believed her parents preferred her prettier sister goes to visit them after her makeover, and they seem just as cold. What did she expect? Yet she emerges from the confrontation with more confidence than she had before she went in, having realized that sometimes people act mean toward you not because of the way you look or act, but because they're just mean.

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