The Curse of the Exploding Cheeks

07/11/2012 01:36 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2012
  • Vicky Alvear Shecter Writer and author of 'Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii, the 'Pompeii' anthology, 'A Day of Fire,' and 'Cleopatra's Moon'

While doing research for an upcoming book, I came across a photo of one of the world's first cosmetic surgeries featuring cheek implants. If you're not familiar with the procedure, it's where doctors implant a high-density porous polyethylene (commonly known as Gore-Tex) or pockets of firm silicone on top of a person's cheekbones. The idea is to recreate the roundness and softness of youth by lifting sagging skin and smoothing out wrinkles.

Many Hollywood stars have allegedly had the procedure done, including Joan Rivers, Madonna, Hunter Tylo, Janice Dickinson and others.

That first implant surgery I came across, though, took place more than 3,000 years ago. The embalmers of the Egyptian Queen Henuttawy of the 21st Dynasty didn't use Gore-Tex, of course. They stuffed her cheeks with sawdust, linen and resin, presumably for the same reason modern surgeons perform cheek implants on the living today -- to give her face a plumper, more youthful appearance.

The ancient Egyptians believed you needed your body for your ka, or spirit/soul to inhabit in the afterword. No body, no afterlife. A statue might do in a pinch, but you really needed the flesh. Hence, mummification.

You can't blame the queen's embalmers for figuring that she probably wanted to look her best for her eternal afterlife. It's just that, sadly, it didn't quite work out that way for her. The procedure made the queen's face "plump up" out of all proportion. And it made the skin on her cheeks burst open.

Poor queen had to walk around in her afterworld with a bloated face and ruptured cheek implants.

While the cheeks of modern women who've had the procedure are unlikely to explode any time soon, I can't quite shake the feeling that the cosmetic surgery industry has moved into doing what the Egyptians did thousands of years ago -- attempting to embalm and preserve the upper classes who could afford it. Only modern plastic surgeons are doing it while their patients are still alive.

Now, don't get me wrong. Surgeries and implants like these can be lifesavers for those who have been disfigured. But for the healthy, (usually) already-attractive people who undergo the procedure just to look young younger? Something just seems off.

And yet, cheek implants, dermal fillers, fat grafting, Botox -- and Anubis-knows what else -- continue to grow in popularity. Plastic surgeons claim they give the illusion of youth. But do they? Really?

Making people look slightly embalmed while they are still living is probably not the look they are going after. You'd think that these doctors, at some point in their training, must have promised to abide by a code of conduct that asked them to wait until their patients were dead before embalming them.

What will archaeologists thousands of years from now say about us -- and our values -- when they discover skulls sporting plastic cheek and chin implants? Or rib cages balancing the rubbery remnants of breast implants? Or hip bones resting on pillows of fake buttocks?

Will they think that the poisons and implants were proof of strange rituals among the followers of an unknown and unfathomable religion?

Or, will they discover the truth -- that the desperate pressure on (mostly) women to hold on to their looks and youth -- resulted in sometimes outrageous techniques once practiced only on the dead?

Time will tell.

In the meantime, I wish aging stars in Hollywood would lay off the implants and fillers. The curse of the living mummy is a made-up story that lives only in pulp fiction and bad movies. Let's not make it come true with excessive plastic surgery and "embalming" techniques practiced on the living.