Review: Love Me by Zed Nelson


Book Reviews, Photobooks


Beauty is big business. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery’s cosmetic surgery statistics, in 2008, 355,671 breast augmentations were done (compared with 101,176 in 1997), 341,144 cases of liposuction (1997: 176,863), and 147,392 cases of abdominoplasty (1997: 34,002). If one believes Plastic Surgery Prices, the average price of a breast augmentation (implant/enlargement) lies in the range of $5,500 - $7,000. If you take a number somewhere in that range, say $6000, and you multiply the number of breast augmentations with that price, you’ll end up with a total amount of money in excess of two billion dollars (2,134 million US$). Of course, there are various uncertainties - the number of procedures has a 3% error, and taking an average number for the procedure will only give you a ball-park number. But even if you assume that there are so many uncertainties that you got twice the amount of money actually spent, you’re still at one billion dollars. That’s a lot of money. And that’s only breast augmentations.

To all those surgical procedures you have to add the amount of money spent on cosmetics, diet products, gym memberships, etc. etc., and you end up with some serious money. Being or becoming beautiful - or more beautiful - is a big deal in our culture, and as Zed Nelson’s magnificent Love Me shows, our Western ideas of beauty have permeated around the globe. According to the photographer, “Beauty is a $160 billion-a-year global industry.” (my emphasis)

He writes that “The promise of bodily improvement is fuelled by advertising campaigns and a commercially-driven Western media, reflecting an increasingly narrow palette of beauty. The modern Caucasian beauty ideal has been packaged and exported globally, and just as surgical operations to ‘Westernise’ oriental eyes have become increasingly popular, so the beauty standard has become increasingly prescriptive. In Africa the use of skin-lightening and hair-straightening products is widespread. In South America women have operations that bring them eerily close to the Barbie doll ideal, and blonde-haired models grace the covers of most magazines. Anorexia is on the increase in Japan, and in China, beauty pageants, once banned as ‘spiritual pollution’, are now held across the country.”

In Love Me, he gets to show us all - or rather a lot - of that global beauty industry and its repercussions. Unlike a lot of the earlier work on the beauty industry that I am aware of - much of it centering on the most extreme cases of plastic surgery in the US - Love Me is truly global. We get to see images of Iranian women getting their noses fixed, there are photos of eye lids removed in procedures in China (which produce Western style eyes), there are photos of American plastic surgeons and of porn stars with their absurdly large and artificial breasts, beauty queens in prisons and outside, … The list goes on and on and on.

Love Me uses a very matter-of-fact approach, both to the photography and to the added text. For each image, there is just enough text to provide some background information and perspective, and it’s up to the reader to come to her or his own conclusions. The book will make you think, and if you are queasy about graphic images (such as a face literally being stretched in the middle of an operation) you might want to be a bit careful with it.

Love Me clearly is a benchmark photography book about the global beauty industry. A highly recommended read.