Remember Mr. McGuire in The Graduate, pulling Ben, played by Dustin Hoffman, aside and saying: "I want to say one word to you. Just one word. . . . Are you listening? . . . Plastics." Little did he or we understand the full implications of the central role this product would play in our culture and our lives. Laurie Essig, as assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury College, has written a fascinating book about the interplay between cosmetic surgery, American culture, and credit.

First, let's look at some startling statistics from the book:

• Americans have more than 10 million surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures every year.

• In the past ten years, there has been a 465 percent increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures.

• Americans spent just under $12.5 billion on cosmetic procedures annually. That's more than twice what is spent each year in the world on basic education.

Essig's response to these statistics is cogent:

"We are living in a plastic time and place. How did we get here? The answers are both universal and particularly American. We got here because humans have always rewarded those seen as beautiful. We got here because technologies developed that allowed us to reshape the body. We got here because we live in a filmic age and looking good in two-dimensional space is not only desired, but also increasingly necessary."

The author's extensive research, along with the results of more than 100 interviews with plastic surgeons and patients from all over the world, shows through in her wide-ranging observations. Essig discovered that people across the board are looking for miracles in breast implants, face lifts, tummy tucks, nose jobs, and liposuction. Many of them are convinced that looking good is the key to finding and keeping a partner, getting the best job in these times of severe economic insecurity, and feeling good about themselves.

With great verve, the author explores the political, technological, and social forces which birthed the explosion of plastic surgery and debt during the 1980s; the crass ways in which the media and publishing world deliver propaganda to advance the cause of cosmetic surgery; the optimism and yearning for self-improvement that lies behind the quest for perfection; and debt as the "subprime-mortgage crisis of the body." Now that thousands of baby boomers are turning 65 every day, plastic surgery as a stay against aging by a generation known for being youth-obsessed will lead to even more success for this burgeoning industry.