A tenuous link, perhaps, but I was intrigued by this interview with Timmie Jean Lindsey, a resident of Texas who in 1962 became the first woman to receive silicon breast implants. An interesting story in itself, but for our purposes made more so by the revelation that she agreed to the experimental procedure on the proviso that the surgeons also attended to a face-related issue of greater concern to her:
Lindsey had been to hospital to get a tattoo removed from her breasts, and it was then that doctors asked if she would consider volunteering for this first-of-its-kind operation.
“I was more concerned about getting my ears pinned back… My ears stood out like Dumbo! And they said ‘Oh we’ll do that too.'” So a deal was struck.
This procedure is called otoplasty or pinnaplasty. Today it is usually carried out on young children or teenagers, and is sometimes available on the NHS on the grounds of psychological distress (it is in fact the only aesthetic procedure I’ve ever seriously considered, and school bullying played a key role. There was a song and everything! The joys of childhood…). There is some more information about the mechanics of the operation on the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons’ website.
Lindsey’s awareness of the procedure suggested that it was older than I had assumed, so there has been some quick digging. There is a history of headwear being used to try to bind the ears closer to the head, and so train them inwards. In his discussion of the clothing of children from 1797, George Nicholson writes that “Caps, or something like them, are fixed on the heads of our children soon after birth, and made to bind the external ear closer to the skull than was ever naturally intended. Mothers and nurses think nothing more unbecoming an infant than prominent ears; and ladies are in general so averse to them that they hide them as a deformity.” Nicholson actually warns about the dangers of over-zealous ‘correction’, stating that “Hearing is lessened by flattening the ears” (pp. 38–39). A century later, help was available by mail order from Claxton’s in the Strand:
Surgeries to reconstruct the ear are included in a range of historical texts– the sixth-century BCE Suśruta Samhita from India, Bolognese surgeon Gaspare Tagliaccozzi’s De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem (1597), and Die Operative Chirurgie (1845) by Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach. According to Samuel M. Lam, the credit for the first aesthetic pinning goes to Edward Talbot Ely (1850-1885). In 1881, at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital, he operated on a twelve-year-old boy who, Ely says, came to him “complaining that his companions ridiculed him on account of the prominence of his ears. He had this common deformity of the auricles to a somewhat unusual degree” (Ely, p.582).
There is an interesting tension in Ely’s description of a ‘common deformity’ appearing to an ‘unusual degree’, given the fraught division often made between reconstructive and purely aesthetic surgeries. In the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ descriptions, reconstructive surgery includes procedures “performed on abnormal structures of the body”, while aesthetic operations are any modifications of “normal” appearing anatomical structures; such divisions, as Diane Naugler and other critics of surgical interventions highlight, necessitate careful scrutiny about the definition of the normal.
How such tensions were recognised and resolved historically is of course an ongoing question in the Effaced project.
Edward Ely, ‘An Operation for Prominence of the Auricles‘ (1881), reprinted in Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery 42.6 (1968): 582-583.
Diane Naugler, ‘Crossing the Cosmetic/Reconstructive Divide: The Instructive Situation of Breast Reduction Surgery’, in Cosmetic Surgery: A Feminist Primer, ed. Cressida J. Heyes and Meredith Jones (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 226.
George Nicholson, On Clothing (London: 1797).