Just a bad hair day?

Observations on Nip/Tuck

There is something very scary about Channel 4's plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck. It unashamedly seeks to glamorise self-mutilation - and comes very close to achieving this.

Annoyingly, it does this in quite an entertaining way. Dr Christian Troy and Dr Sean McNamara, the childhood buddies with a thriving cosmetic surgery practice, are irresistibly cute. So is McNamara's teenage son, Matt, who attempts self-circumcision with a pair of cuticle scissors because his father won't operate on a penis likened by Matt's girlfriend to a Shar-Pei.

The one-liners are classic trash TV, reminiscent of the heyday of Dallas and Dynasty: "When you stop striving for perfection, you might as well be dead." As for the plots, we've already had a drugs cartel paedophile prepared to pay $300,000 for a new face, a man wanting girth-related penis surgery, and Mandi 'n' Randi, identical twins who want their (shared) lover to be able to tell them apart.

For those of us morally opposed to surgery, there is plenty to tut over: nipples being cut open, buttock implants shoved roughly into place, eyelids stitched. In some ways, you could say it was a good advert for avoiding this kind of self-improvement at all costs. But it only cuts that way (sorry) if you're already anti. The gore flashes by in sexy strobe sequences edited like an MTV video. Blink and you'd miss the hammer blow that is smashing someone's nasal bone.

Characters are rarely happy with the results of their surgery, but this just seems to make them want to come back for more. And their desire for surgery is portrayed as "normal". Wouldn't we all like something done? Couldn't we all find a little room for improvement?

The surgeons' consultations always begin the same way: "Tell me what you don't like about yourself." Who wouldn't find something to say in answer to this? "I don't want to be pretty," sobs a model in the first episode. "I want to be better. I want to be perfect."

If only we could dismiss these attitudes as all too American. By the end of this year, British patients will have spent £255m on surgery, a pathetic figure next to the £5bn spent annually in the US. Yet more operations are carried out here than in any other European country. British women, some in their mid-twenties, have taken with gusto to Botox parties where you knock back a £60 face-freezing injection along with your glass of Chardonnay. So-called non-invasive surgical procedures such as chemical facial peels are available during lunch-hour appointments and are not much more expensive than a manicure.

These developments are reported with excitement in women's magazines. Several go as far as to publish annual guides to the best surgeons and treatments alongside their hair and beauty awards. There is rarely even a hint of disapproval about surgery - hardly surprising when a large part of their advertising revenue comes from small ads for boob-job clinics.

Maybe it wouldn't matter so much if the client base wasn't getting younger. One major British cosmetic surgery provider, the Harley Medical Group, says that 70 per cent of its female clients are under 30. To these women, the only difference between applying lipstick and injecting collagen is time and money: one takes longer than the other and costs more.

Slowly but surely, these procedures are becoming no big deal. How long until all of us find ourselves parroting the self-loathing and intolerance for imperfection that Nip/Tuck treats like a bad hair day?