This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
The gully between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be a trying time for souls. Holiday depressions are predictable as we juggle gratitude with greed, celebration with overload and family with family feuds.
In certain lucky locales, America's marketers and shock jocks are ministering to this spiritual deficit with an innovative enhancement program called "The Breast Christmas Ever." Female seekers enter radio promotion contests and the winners get free breast augmentations. Banish Scrooge with a boob job. Is this a great country or what?
Actually, "The Breast Christmas Ever" is just one of a jillion radio contests across the country that give away plastic surgery, almost always for women, mostly breast augmentations (BA's to the knowing). As profitable entertainment that preys on female insecurity, male boorishness and coed voyeurism, it predates the primetime atrocities like "Extreme Makeover" and "The Swan." And so it should be marked on the timeline of The Rise and Fall of the American Empire.
A syndicated morning show maven called MJ Kelli told us he invented the "Breast Christmas" concept many years ago and his station gave out the first boob job back in 1989. He said his "MJ Morning Show" does two other cosmetic surgery contests, "Boobapalooza" and "Pick Your Plastic."
One past winner, an 18-year-old named Ashley, wrote on his Web site, "When I go jogging, the guys don't stare because my breasts aren't big enough to flop all over the place. I want the boys to drool…. I'm a hot piece of a--, new breasts would only double my 'nailability.'"
What a healthy syndrome to nurture with modern marketing techniques: teenagers who think of themselves as pieces of something intent on increasing their "nailability" through surgery.
Many radio stations that run these promotions help women to nurture their self-esteem by allowing them to degrade themselves by posting pictures on the Web so listeners can vote pick a winner. The winners, of course, get before and after pictures.
Other stations team up with clubs to turn this noble cosmetic self-help exercise into wet t-shirt contest kinds of events. And an especially progressive Atlanta station gathered a horde of over-endowed women who wanted breast reductions at a local club and let the crowd weigh in as judges picked a winner.
A Detroit station was so pleased with its Christmas breast-fest that it ran a follow-up "New Year, New Rear" deal that give the winner $15,000 worth of liposuction. A Sacramento station reportedly insisted contestants post topless shots of themselves on their Web site.
Oddly enough, many of these contests are run by stations owned by Clear Channel Communications, the radio giant whose management is frequently accused of being politically conservative -- the one that dumped Howard Stern and that owns some stations that dumped the Dixie Chicks after they took some shots at President Bush.
The appeal of cleavage contests is not primarily for gawking boy-men. According to radio consultant Alex DeMers, the promotions started on rowdy rock stations but migrated to adult contemporary where women are the target audience. On the rock stations it was "the voyeuristic appeal to men" but now, he says, the contests "are directed right toward the woman."
As Bob Dole might say, "Where's the outrage?"
There has been very little press coverage of these dial-a-bust contests. Some of the best stories I saw were from campus newspapers. In the Oregon State University Daily Barometer, Emily Wheeland wrote, "Sadly, shows like this, along with fashion magazines, music videos and so on, continually and often subconsciously, bombard us with the message that in order for women to be valuable they must fit the idealized physical mold. It's almost impossible to not see a connection between the media's celebration of anorexic models, singers, and actresses with breast implants, and women's feelings of dissatisfaction with their bodies."
I find little to add to Ms. Wheeland's astute analysis.
But I do wonder who could be entertained by these exploitive antics given the current sociological description of Red and Blue America. Shouldn't morally conservative Red America disapprove of the carnality, exhibitionism and crudeness of BA giveaways? And shouldn't Blue America be equally contemptuous for all sorts of secular and politically correct reasons?
I guess the truth is that most of America is really green with envy, purple with anger and pink with embarrassment born in perceived inadequacy. And we have a popular culture and a marketing mentality that preys on those vulnerabilities. One of the great mysteries of modern times is why we're not happier even though we're richer, safer, healthier, better fed, better sheltered and longer lived than ever. I think the spectacle of women posting topless pictures of themselves on radio station Web sites to win a free boob job might shed some light.
Another obvious question in the escalation of plastic surgery as self-help redemption: what next? The New York Times has provided at least a partial answer this past weekend in an article about the next big thing in Manhattan makeovers -- labiaplasty. That's right, cosmetic surgery a little bit south of what the radio stations are giving away, at least so far.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer