The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does Donald Trump really think cosmetic surgery is still a scandal in 2017?

Trump's long feud with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, explained. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

In a morning fit of political pique, President Trump tweeted a fusillade of insults at Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the co-anchors of “Morning Joe,” deriding Scarborough’s mental state and belittling Brzezinski’s intelligence. But in one vivid sentence, the president threw a particularly wild punch, writing that Brzezinski was “bleeding badly from a face-lift.”

The visual that tweet conjured up — something from the mid-’00s series “Nip/Tuck,” perhaps — was especially graphic for first thing in the morning. It was unseemly. It was personal.

But, as insults go, it also came from a personality whose understanding of beauty, aesthetics, image and the ability to own one’s appearance seems deeply mired in the 1980s.

Whether Brzezinski has or has not spent quality time with a cosmetic surgeon is not the point. The clear intent of the tweet, with its sexist hue, was to belittle and to embarrass. But that underlying strategy is based on the notion that cosmetic surgery carries a public stigma — something to be hidden, discussed in a whisper if mentioned at all. And that simply is not true anymore.

Certainly, most people do not want their personal medical business hashed out in public. But the culture has come a long way from the time when cosmetic procedures were done in clandestine manner and most folks would hotly deny they’d gone under the knife, insisting that they’d just gotten a “good rest.”

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there were more than 131,000 facelifts in 2016. Most of those patients were women, but facelifts still managed to be the fifth most popular procedure among men. No wonder: This is an era in which everything from Botox to rhinoplasty are fodder for reality television. There are countless YouTube tutorials offering cosmetic surgery success stories, cautionary tales and news of the weird. The veteran journalist Joan Kron spent more than two decades demystifying plastic surgery for the readers of Allure magazine, chronicling how something that was once the purview of the wealthy became accessible to the middle-class.

To Brzezinski’s credit, her immediate response was not defensive. After all, there was nothing to defend. Instead, she offered up her own visual: An image of a Cheerios cereal box with a toddler’s stubby little fingers reaching for one of the tiny whole grain loops and tagged with the marketing come-on, “Made for little hands.”

But beyond simply being out of touch with the realities of cosmetic surgery and how it fits into the culture, Trump’s comment also suggests a view that a woman’s appearance should be in service to those around her, to the public. . . to Donald Trump. It’s not the surgery that’s problematic. After all, one would need to pull out a calculator to keep track of the number of medically enhanced faces encountered at Mar-a-Lago during the social season.

Based on Trump’s tweet, it’s not a furrow-free forehead or an expression of perpetual surprise that is objectionable. It’s the process of creating them. Trump’s attack suggests that a woman should be somehow embarrassed by her own self-creation, by her personal myth-making.

It suggests that whatever she may be doing to enhance or alter her appearance, she must surely be doing for his consumption, and therefore she’d best not show herself until everything is tight, gravity-defying perfection.

The tweet calls to mind all manner of Trump obsessions and phobias: his fretfulness about hygiene, his concern with appearance, his valuation of women based on their looks, his love affair with the exclamation mark. It also puts a timestamp on his perceptions about how women define themselves and what role men should play in that process. And men do play a part because this is a co-ed world and everyone’s point-of-view helps to shape it. Chauvinism was real, is real. It takes women and men to change that and move past it.

Trump is defiantly un-evolved in matters of beauty and appearance. He is stuck. Not just in a history that we all share. But in his own self-aggrandizing fiction.