Milestones: silicon implants and modern beauty

The rise of accessible plastic surgery procedures in recent decades has fundamentally altered the landscape of human aesthetic ideals. The discovery of silicon as well as a variety of injectables such as Juvéderm and Restylane, have facilitated vital advances in a huge number of medical operations and procedures, yet at the same time created a visual media filled with bodies and faces who’ve seemingly leapt from the glass of a fun house mirror. But proceeding the ceaseless rise of the silicon implant, a name has gone forgotten in the history of this aesthetic revolution.

Esmeralda the dog, the first living recipient of a silicon implant, received her new pair of breasts in the early 1960s. Despite doctors being thrilled with the result, Esmeralda clearly wasn’t feeling her new look, as she chewed her implants out shortly afterwards. Whilst silicon implants have gone on to become the de facto choice for plumping cheeks, butts and whatever else, history unfortunately goes a little silent on what became of Esmeralda. Yet her legacy lives on. She sits at the dawn of a new era, in which that most inaccessible of privileges – beauty – became democratised, and ideas of the individual and self expression were thrown into turmoil.

Within the first few years of Esmeralda’s operation, the first implant surgery was performed on a human being. Their payment for this act of human guinea-pigging? Getting their ears pinned back too. And so as America entered the 1960s proper – the age of advertising and aspirational imagery – the human body itself became a site of materialist anxiety and “self-improvement”. The floodgates were opened, and insecurities came pouring in.

But what about its impact on culture? Silicon has fundamentally changed the way that we look at our bodies. It’s made aesthetic ideals of beauty accessible to all those with a couple of zeros in their bank accounts, but in doing so perhaps it has furthered the divide between rich and poor. In the Victorian period, where physiognomy reigned supreme, your social station was supposedly etched into your god-given features. Anyone who’s seen even a glimpse of The Real Housewives may conclude that the rich certainly do look a little different to the rest of us these days.

But the medium has also become the message. Artists have transformed their bodies into shrines, commentaries and criticism of attainable idealised forms. The club kids, socialites and performance artists have utilised their faces and bodies to drive the concept of ‘beautiful’ far out into the uncanny valley and leave it there. Their physical being itself exposes the oddity of ‘perfection’.

But silicon has also lead to outrageous, fan- tastical aesthetic forms. Instead of attempting to reproduce an idealised human form, body modifications have taken human aesthetics into the realms of make-believe. Subdermal implants place horns, spikes, bolts and bulges in the most unlikely of places, transforming the human body into a fantasy creature of nightmares. Darth Maul may have been a villain a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but his descendants are apparently walking the earth today, devilish silicon spikes pointing skyward from beneath their scalps.

Yet perhaps what the advent of the cosmetic surgery age really has done is make explicit the true cruelty of beauty. Far from becoming an ideal available to all, aesthetic beauty has remained, and even retreated, into its typically elitist repose. It remains based on concepts of rarity and ‘naturalness’. To be seen to be trying to look ‘beautiful’ is to fail at it – just look at the reaction to any obviously surgically enhanced public figure for evidence of this. And so the dawn of cosmetic surgery has created an age of perpetual discontent. As if we are just like Esmeralda the dog, endlessly chasing her tail.