An American Obituary

With a particular irony that only the American media can orchestrate, in early February the distraction industry juxtaposed round-the-clock coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith with occasional mentions of the U.N. report of the escalating environmental crisis. The hidden irony is just how these two apparently unrelated issues reflect the same underlying destructive impulse.

The plunder of the earth is, simultaneously, the plunder of the human body. The ecological crisis destroying the natural world is one with the crisis deforming human nature. The great trick of “civilization,” of repression, is for humans to forget, even deny, that they are not only animal beings, but beings of the natural world. Anna Nicole Smith is the ecological crisis writ insignificant.

Putting aside the media circus that accompanied her sad life and death, Smith illustrates how the deformation of the living body represents the destruction of the earth. In her life and death, she reveals how the crisis of the natural world, as both environment and human being, arises from the tyranny of commodity relations, the global power of modern technologies and the psychopathology of self-destruction. To paraphrase Theodor Adorno, in Anna Nicole Smith, exaggeration is truth.

* * *

Smith lived a painful version of the American dream. She was born Vickie Lynn Hogan in November 1967 to an impoverished mother in Mexia, TX, a town of 7,000 due east of Waco. She died an international celebrity, the subject of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court decision and, potentially, hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank.

She represents the postmodern fantasy of success, a fantasy shared equally by “white trash” girls as by “ghetto” ball-playing boys as by weekend gamblers feverishly scratching their Lotto cards. It is a success of magical thinking: All hope of freeing oneself from a dead-end life is through a magical experience, with something, like lightning, coming from nowhere and forever changing the logic of a dreary existence.

Smith dropped out of school in the 8th grade. Her first job was at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken Shack, before moving up to a cashier at Wal-Mart. At 17-years-old, she met and married a fry cook, Billy Smith, and had a son before they divorced.

As a teen, Smith, like so many girls, fantasized being the latest incarnation of Marilyn Monroe, the legendary presidential mistress and goddess of those destroyed by the very success they so coveted. Desperate for dollars, Smith started stripping at Rick’s Cabaret, a tavern in Houston. At Rick’s, she performed under a variety of names, including “Miss Nikki” and “Robin.” She finally settled on “Anna Nicole” because it sounded classy.

She was never considered a star attraction at Rick’s, so was obliged to work at off-hours. Ironically, it was at Rick’s that she met billionaire Howard Marshall II, who, at 88-years old, was one of Texas’ richest men. During this period, Smith had her first breast augmentation surgery (with two implants inserted into each breast) and some other cosmetic surgery, paid for by her sugar-daddy. At 24-years-old, she parlayed her new, 42-26-38-body into a Playboy “Playmate of the Month” (May 1992) and “Playmate of the Year” (1993).

From Playboy, it was an easy hop-skip-jump to a new career as the spokesperson for Guess? jeans, replacing the conventionally asexual model, Claudia Schiffer, with a new image of voluptuous female sexuality. In 1994, she married Marshall, who died just 14 months later. In the wake of Marshall’s death, Smith got enmeshed in a long drawn out legal battle with his son over the old man’s estate which was finally resolved in her favor by the Supreme Court.

In the mid-1990s, Smith took the second step in realizing her fantasy to become the newest Marilyn. First, she got bit parts in “The Naked Gun 33 1/3” and “The Hudsucker Proxy.” These were followed by more prominent roles in low-budget sexploitation flicks, “To the Limit” and “SkyScraper.” In the first, she plays a sexy CIA agent fighting bad guys; in the second, she’s a sexy helicopter pilot battling bad guys.

Driven as much by drugs as by ambition, Smith diversified her media interests. She was packaged into the short-lived reality show, “The Anna Nicole Show,” that ran in 2002-2003, but was not renewed. In October 2003, Smith became the spokesperson for TrimSpa, a product which, she claimed, helped her lose 30 pounds. In May 2004, she announced plans to launch her own line of fashion clothing.

Smith had outdone Marilyn, becoming, like a hip-hop gangsta mogul, a diversified corporation. Magically, her once pathetic identity had been transformed into a marketable brand.

All came crashing down on February 8th when Smith was found dying in her room at the Seminole Hard Rock and Casino Hotel in Hollywood, FL. Today, controversy still surrounds the cause of her death. Reports about her death filled not only the gossip rags and countless hours of TV time, but the reputable press as well. And much of it was either fictitious or mere conjecture.

MSNBC’s Rita Cosby reported that she was found by a member of her staff unresponsive and nude in her bed, with a sheet pulled over her face. Cosby and others also reported that Smith, shortly after the birth of her daughter, Dannielynn, may have had one if not two recent breast operations to repair her implants. Some say that shortly before her death, Smith was complaining of nausea, headaches and flu-like symptoms which could have been due to the surgery.

The gossip rag “Star” and other sources report that Smith was taking a special cocktail to ease her suffering. It included ten different ingredients, including anti-depressants (including Xanax and Valium), painkillers (Fentanyl, Vicodin and Methadone), stimulants (Provigil), antibiotics and even slim drinks, all to help cope with post-surgery pain. She was surely zonked out.

But the story continued to unwind. MSNBC and other sources reported that Smith may have suffered from lupus, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The story came from her friends who say that she confided her condition to them.

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that attacks body tissue and organs. Its symptoms include severe joint pain, fatigue and skin rashes, and 80 percent of those who get it are women of childbearing age. Most alarming, it is not uncommon for a severe lupus flair-up to occur three months after child birth, as might have occurred in her case. Smith apparently was also taking the drugs Topamax and Delaudid for lupus. This has not been confirmed and no one will likely know what really killed her.

Like all-too-many of today’s pop celebrities, Anna Nicole Smith had her moment in the glare of notoriety. In short order, she will be replaced by another manufactured icon of postmodern sexuality, another tortured soul who will gladly sacrifice her/him-self on the alter of the commodity spectacle.

* * *

The destruction of the environment takes place in parallel with the plunder of the human body. The principal vehicle for such plunder is the “medical-aesthetic” industry. Smith’s death focuses renewed attention on this expanding commercial enterprise.

Particularly alarming is the fact that many people have adverse reactions to such surgery, some of which can be serious. For example, there have been numerous documented cases of high fevers, seizures and heart attacks leading to death. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), one out of 57,000 surgeries end in death.

Equally disturbing, a Dutch scientist found that women with cosmetic breast implants have higher suicide risks than those who do not succumb to breast augmentation. The study suggests that the desire for breast augmentation may trigger a suicide attempt. No one seems to have warned Smith as to this possibility

As suggested in pop TV shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “Nip/Tuck,” aesthetic surgery is back big time. The market is huge and growing. According to ASPS’ “National Plastic Surgery Statistics,” approximately 15.6 million surgical and nonsurgical procedures were performed in the U.S. in 2005, up by 15 percent from the 13.6 million in 2000.

The Fredonia Group, a market research firm, estimates that by 2010 the total number of all cosmetic procedures will reach 17.5 million and top $17.3 billion in revenue. It identifies the key market drivers as an increase in nonsurgical procedures like injections, dermal resurfacing and microdermabrasion because consumers prefer less invasive treatments. A significant proportion of these nonsurgical procedures are elective, paid as out-of-pocket expenditures by predominantly affluent female customers.

Another factor driving growth in cosmetic surgery is the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s recent decision to lift its nearly 15-year ban on the use of silicone breast implants. Following years of complaints about implant ruptures and charges that the devices lead to problems ranging from autoimmune diseases to cancer, the FDA, in 1992, imposed strict restrictions on silicone implants. (The resulting litigation forced Dow Corning, then the leading implant supplier, into bankruptcy.)

A silicone breast augmentation procedure can cost between $5,500 to $12,000, including $1,600 for the silicone implants. This is about double the cost of saline versions. The FDA ruling helped two companies in particular, the Santa Barbara-based Mentor Corp. and Irvine-based Allergan Inc.

Since 2000, the medical-aesthetics industry has witnessed a shift in orientation. The total number of surgical cosmetic procedures has decreased, with facelifts down 19 percent and forehead lifts down by 54 percent. Nevertheless, about 1.3 million surgical cosmetic procedures were performed in 2005, including liposuctions (324,000), rhinoplasty (i.e., nose reshapings, 298,000), breast augmentations (291,000), eyelid surgeries (231,000) and tummy tucks (135,000).

At the same time, minimally-invasive cosmetic procedures have increased significantly, with Botox injections skyrocketing by 388 percent and laser skin resurfacing up by 59 percent. In 2005, there were 8.4 million minimally-invasive cosmetic procedures performed. The top five procedures were: Botox injections (3.8 million), chemical peels (1 million), microdermabrasions (838,000), laser hair removals (783,000), and sclerotherapies (i.e., elimination of spider veins, 590,000).

Reconstructive surgical procedures, which improve function and appearance for health reasons, remained relatively stable in 2005 at 5.4 million. The top five reconstructive procedures were tumor removals (3.9 million), laceration repairs (344,000), scar revisions (181,000), hand surgeries (172,000) and breast reductions (114,000).

Aesthetic surgery’s most “cutting-edge” practices are what some call cosmetic “fringe” or “sex” procedures. These include vaginal rejuvenation, pectoral implants, buttock implants and calf augmentations. According to ASAP, in 2005, 793 vaginal rejuvenation procedures were performed as well as 542 buttock implants, 337 calf augmentation and 206 pectoral implants.

In contrast to the tightening operation of vaginal rejuvenation, “labiaplasty,” or female genital cosmetic surgery, is a procedure that involves trimming away labial tissue and sometimes injecting fat from another part of the body into labia that have been deemed droopy. Labiaplasty is promoted as a cosmetic procedure that has no impact on vaginal sensation.

As Dr. Peter Geldner, a plastic surgeon from Chicago, notes, “Taste has changed,” and adds, “[w]hat previously couldn’t really be seen to a large degree is now quite visible.” As a result, “So what they [women] want, in many cases, is when they’re standing nude, they don’t want the labia minor, or the inner lips, hanging so they’re visible.”

Cosmetic surgery has become an all-American indulgence. In 2005, Hispanic-Americans accounted for more than 921,000 cosmetic procedures, up 67 percent from 2004; the most commonly requested procedures were rhinoplasty, breast augmentation and liposuction. African-Americans accounted for 769,000 procedures, up 67 percent; the most commonly requested procedures were rhinoplasty, breast reduction and liposuction. Asian-Americans accounted for 437,000 procedures, up 58 percent; the most commonly requested procedures were rhinoplasty, eyelid surgery and breast augmentation. And, according to American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), the number of plastic surgeries performed on men has increased more than 300 percent in less than 10 years.

A 2004 report in “Marketing to Women” notes that aesthetic surgery in the U.S. is becoming even more acceptable. Based on a survey of plastic surgeons, it reported that over a third (36%) of couples are getting surgery together; another third (31%) report patients receiving surgery as a gift; a quarter (25%) report an increase in mother-daughter surgeries; and 6 percent report a rise in sisters getting surgery together.

The increased popularity of medical-aesthetic procedures has come with the emergence of so-called “medi-spas,” facilities that offer cosmetic treatments but are run by non-plastic surgeon physicians. They offer facials, hair removals and Botox and other injections. In 2004, there were an estimated 750 such businesses operating in the U.S. and they were projected to increase to 2,500 by year-end 2006.

An ASAPA survey indicates that cosmetic surgery procedures are being offered by dermatologists and ear, nose and throat specialists. More than 80 percent of cosmetic procedures in 2005 were nonsurgical and almost half were done in an office facility. Most alarming, no formal regulatory standards govern these medi-spas.

This development may help explain the enormous expansion of aesthetic surgery being practiced throughout the country. It is no longer limited to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, New York or Miami. Scottsdale, AZ, for example, has become a plastic surgery mecca. According to the Arizona Medical Board, there are seventy-one cosmetic and plastic surgeons in Scottsdale, three fewer than Phoenix, Chandler, Mesa, Tempe and Gilbert combined. This phenomenon is occurring throughout the country. One can only anticipate the opening of local “Mac-Surgery” medi-spas for in/out aesthetic services.

This expansion of aesthetic surgery is taking place within the broader development of “health tourism,” first-world patients seeking treatment in the underdeveloped world at significantly reduced fees. According to the Middle East Economic Digest, Tehran has become the new international center for plastic surgery, replacing Buenos Aires and Milan. And the services are a bargain. A rhinoplasty in the U.S. might cost $20,000 while in Tehran one get it for between $1,500 and $5,000. Tehran draws ex-pat Iranians from the U.S. as well as other Americans, Europeans and people from the Gulf states who come with money to burn.

* * *

Anna Nicole Smith’s life and death can be seen as a metaphor for the environmental crisis. The crisis takes many forms, most acutely global warming. In addition to energy generation, poorly-insulated buildings and petroleum-based transportation, climate change is facilitated by turning the material world into a commodity with its accompanying plunder through oil/gas exploration, mining of coal and precious metals and industrial agriculture, to name but three forms.

The crisis of the human body, especially among women in the West, is similar an expression of the body transformed into a commodity, of plunder through multiple forms of body alienation. In addition to nonessential forms of aesthetic surgery, these include young girls engaged in “cutting,” obsession over weight (from obesity to anorexia and bulimia), excessive physical fitness and an over-reliance on body art.

The commodification of the body raises the larger, underlying question as to why a significant (and growing!) number of women and men choose to have an aesthetic procedure. The media, particularly many women’s magazines and supermarket rags, promote such procedures as no different then having one’s teeth fixed or getting eyeglasses. With the exception of necessary reconstructive surgery, what drives such surgery?

A study reported in “Aesthetic Surgery Journal” found that, overall, women who underwent a cosmetic procedure felt better about themselves. The findings are instructive as to the role of self representation and notions of self worth, especially sexual worth.

The study found, following surgery: nine in ten women (95%) who had cosmetic surgery reported improvements in body image; eight in ten (81%) breast surgery patients and two-thirds (68%) of body surgery recipients experienced improvements in sexual satisfaction, compared with one-third (32%) of facial surgery patients; half (52%) of women who had body surgery and one-third (31%) of those who had breast surgery said they were able to achieve orgasm more easily; seven in ten (73%) of those who had breast surgery and more than half (56%) of those who had body surgery reported increases in their partners’ sexual satisfaction; and women who had breast or body procedures were more likely than those who had facial procedures to report improvements in their sexual satisfaction.

It should be noted that in the face of increased utilization of aesthetic procedures, a growing number of women, including Jane Fonda and Sally Field, have pledged to not have any more such surgery.

* * *

Anna Nicole Smith and the natural world shared one important condition, both were rendered into objects of exploitation and plunder. How a “white trash” girl from small-town Texas and our very earth came to exist as things, non-subjects, is the story of patriarchy and, with it, repression. Equally critical, as objects, both were transformed into commodities and, as such, came to find their individual value in how effectively then could be exploited.

One of the great weaknesses of the “environmental” movement is the absence of notion of the human body as part of the natural ecology. This is reflected in Al Gore’s otherwise very impressive tutorial, “An Inconvenient Truth.” A handful of scientists have raised questions about what they claim to be some of Gore’s exaggerated assertions and dire warnings.

However, Gore’s omission of the human body as an environmental terrain reflects a profound lack of consciousness as to the dialect of the human and the natural, of subject and object, self and otherness. It is an omission that goes to the very heart of Western civilization. Failure at reconciling these differences only perpetuates the simultaneous crises confronting human nature and the natural world.

Based on a review of much of what has been written about her, Smith appears never to have sought help from a psychotherapist. For all her struggles with bad marriages, difficult child rearing, professional challenges and likely deep psychological issues having to do her absent parents, she chose to find nontherapeutic ways (including plastic surgery and self-medication) to deal with her troubles. Nevertheless, one can begin to build a psychological portrait of this apparently troubled woman who, in her incoherent, driven way, did accomplish much.

Like her idol, Marilyn, she appears to have been a woman in perpetual crisis. She appears to have failed in her attempt to resolve the paradox of self-identify, the effective resolution between autonomy and dependence, of sexual desire and being desired sexually.

Smith appears to have found a partial resolution to this paradox through self-objectification, of turning herself into not only a commodity but an eroticized object of desire. What her desires were, what really pleasured her, remains unknown, unknowable. All one can determine from her strip shows, movie performances and media celebrity is that she substituted the goal of pleasing herself as an autonomous subject by pleasing others, especially men who could pay, as an accommodating object.

Smith appears to have resolved the paradox of self-hood through narcissism. She seems to have dealt with the psychological challenge of a missing father and a devalued mother through the self-delusions that narcissism provides, of being insulated from the deeper panic of worthlessness and emptiness by being a desired object.

Her narcissism permitted her to enhance her commodity identity through self-mutilation, of which breast augmentation surgery was but one procedure. The more she became an object of adoration, the more public, marketplace value as a commodity she achieved, the less she existed as a subject. Mutilation enhanced her apparent value as a commodity spectacle and, most likely, contributed to her death.

DAVID ROSEN can be reached at drosen@ix.netcom.com


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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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