By now you've probably heard of the Botox Mom. Apparently the British Tabloid The Sun paid Sheena Upton to pretend she was Kerry Campbell and that she gave her 8-year-old daughter, Britney, Botox injections to help her compete in the cut-throat world of child beauty pageants.
Ka-ching. Along comes "Good Morning America" and "Inside Edition" with thousands of dollars for an appearance. Upton obliged. She played the part of the stage mother perfectly, so terribly anxious for her daughter's success that she would do anything, absolutely anything. On "The Good Morning America" segment there is a photo of the child supposedly having Botox injected, but in fact it only shows the child's face marked up and a needle hovering over the eyebrows. Britney says "it hurts" and also that she thinks it makes her look better.
Needless to say, public outrage ensued. The women on the view weighed in. 18,000 viewers at abc.com expressed disgust. The state stepped in. California child services took her daughter into protective custody.
And then it came out that it was all complete humbug. A hoax perpetrated on the American public as real as P.T. Barnum's Fijee Mermaid. Upton signed an affadavit saying it had been a performance, not real. Upon medical examination, it appeared to be true. No Botox had been injected into the child. Just into our cultural consciousness yet again. As a nation we are unable to express our actual fears and longings and so we subsume them into monsters, like Botox Mom, and thereby guarantee that the monsters will return to haunt us.
So why did we want to believe in the Botox Mom? Why did earlier generations of Americans want to believe in P.T. Barnum's hoaxes, his "Missing Links" and animal- human hybrids? Because monsters and freaks allow us to cleanse ourselves of all that we fear. We may push our kids to do well at school, play sports, lose weight, put braces on their teeth and insist it' s not cosmetic, cram for SATs, get into elite schools, get them a nose job or a boob job before they head off to college, but we are NOT Botox Mom. We are only doing it because we care about our kids' futures, futures that look increasingly insecure. We want them to do well in this life. We are not doing it for ourselves, for our own egos, for our own sense that we are successful parents. Of course not. We are not monsters, like Botox Mom.
Anymore than earlier Americans, many of whom were not yet white, were the monsters they saw on the stages of P.T. Barnum's American Museum. They may have been crowded into tenements, working six and a half days a week in a factory or as servants in a mansion, but at least they had arms and didn't have to eat with their feet. By projecting monstrosity onto others, we can imagine it doesn't reside in us. By laughing at or even hating the freaks on stage, we can ignore the monstrosity of our own parenting practices, practices that are increasingly from a place of insecurity and fear.
But by evoking P.T. Barnum's name, I am obliged to point out the obvious: staring at freaks and monsters is entertaining. Indeed, the birth of popular culture came in the form of the freak show and it is the freak show that continues to structure most of what we consume. P.T. Barnum invented the humbug. He also invented the "Pretty Baby Contest" that eventually morphed into the child beauty pageant that was the source of the alleged Botoxing of a child. What he did not invent is our need as a culture to create and consume a variety of Others: Botox Moms and Bridezillas and Snookies. We need these Others to perform all of our fears on stage. That need goes much deeper, to a basic human desire for purification rituals and the genius of capitalism to exploit that need for fun and profit