For all of us, I guess, there crop up occasional enthusiasms that force us to question our beliefs. I identify myself as a feminist, for instance, which naturally makes me wary (to state the obvious) of anything that undermines women. So, it follows, I have a healthy suspicion of lap dancing clubs, Larry Flynt, defence lawyers who humiliate rape victims and, y'know, all your general misogynists.
Then there's the culture of cosmetic surgery. When it comes to this, I've read Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, as well as Sheila Jeffreys's more recent (and much more shocking) Beauty and Misogyny. And, in both cases, I agree that there's a big problem with the pressure on
women to be forever thin and nubile, and to carve ourselves up accordingly. It genuinely worries me that, in Britain, breast implant operations increased by 51 per cent last year to 5,646. I find it weird that Botox parties have become so popular. I feel disturbed by the way that unique but insecure women are fed into a machine on the TV show Extreme Make-over and churned out as cookie-cutter blondes with upturned noses.
And yet, and yet . . . For as long as I can remember, some of my favourite cultural icons have been women who have taken cosmetic surgery to almost cartoonish extremes. The glamour girl Katie Price, aka Jordan, a woman who rocketed to fame as a result of consecutive breast enlargements, achieved a UK number-one bestseller with her second autobiography, which was published last month. I won't necessarily be reading it, but I couldn't get enough of her wedding photos.
Also last month, Dolly Parton, a woman whose face and body have been replaced, piece by piece, with a mix of raw hope and silicone, was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar. Dear God, let Dolly win. She has just turned 60, I am 28, and in any independent comparison of our wrinkles, she would be romping home the victor.
Then there are Cher and Joan Rivers, the second of whom was memorably described as having skin like "lacquered cheese". They both look unquestionably extreme, even if Cher hasn't had the rib removal she's so often accused of. For the record, she has admitted to rhinoplasty and breast enlargement, and has also made gnomic comments, such as: "I'm in a business that doesn't give you any kind of great gifts for growing older gracefully. It doesn't give you anything, except no work."
Bring on the disgraceful ageing! In each case, I love 'em.
All of which makes me wonder. At first, naturally, I thought I might be a gay stereotype trapped in a woman's body, but then it occurred to me that actually what I find in these women's attitudes is something altogether sisterly. Because, in their openness about their cosmetic surgery, their brazen admissions of nips and tucks, enlargements and reductions, they do a brilliant job of underlining, and even parodying, the idea that most oppresses women: that feminine beauty is "natural". Like the most blatant and flamboyant of transvestites (many of whom ape Cher and Dolly Parton), they expose femininity as a construct, something that has to be created from the toes up: hair removed, breasts hoisted, skin covered in unguents.
There's also nothing cookie-cutter about them. Each of them looks just as unique as she did pre-surgery, and this makes their manipulation of their images seem a celebration of themselves, rather than a negation. Unlike many who go under the knife, they're not trying to conform.
This attitude, the shamelessness that allows Parton to proclaim "it costs a lot of money to look this cheap", is even more heroic when you compare it to the usual celebrity way. Cosmetic surgery is the entertainment industry's "elephant in the corner": often glaringly obvious, but always strictly denied. Most celebrities declare their wrinkle-free brows natural, even if photographs show them looking ten years older, ten years previously. They feign surprise when someone notices the huge breasts that have blossomed on their tiny frame, citing the wonders of "tit tape". Even when speaking through swollen lips that suggest a run-in with a large vat of animal fat, they insist that, no, we really are mistaken. In fact, their pout has always been this rubbery.
And if anything oppresses women and ratchets up our neuroses, it is this deception. We're not stupid. We know that most celebrities have been nipped and tucked, but it's easy to forget when faced with endless Dorian Grays, insisting that their youthfulness is simply the result of eating salmon, drinking water or practising yoga. We follow their suggestions, we follow their diets, but it doesn't work. What choice then but the scalpel?
Of course, it could be argued that, in having such invasive surgery, celebrities such as Dolly, Joan and Jordan encourage us to copy them, but I'm not so sure that this is the case. Their paths are just too extreme: not many women aspire to be cartoons. In exposing the myth of natural beauty, though, they do us all a service, as well as adding to the general colour, humour and variety of the race.
It has been said that, in the event of a nuclear holocaust, only cockroaches and Cher will survive. I, for one, hope that the critters get it, but that she and her ilk live gloriously on.