Zara Stone joins The Spotlight this week to talk about her book, Killer Looks
Author Name: Zara Stone
Book Title: Killer Looks: The Forgotten History of Plastic Surgery in Prisons
Book Genre: Nonfiction, U.S. History, Psychology, Crime
Release Date: October 21, 2021
Publisher: Prometheus Books, imprint of Rowman & Littlefield
Welcome, Zara! Please tell us a bit about your book.
Killer Looks is the definitive story about the long-forgotten practice of providing free nose jobs, face-lifts, breast implants, and other physical alterations to prisoners, the idea being that by remodeling the face you remold the personality. It dives into the history of prison reform through the lens of beauty, and examines the role that physical appearance plays in shaping society, and how beauty privilege intersects with racism and ableism, which simultaneously empowers and removes agency.
What was the spark? What drew you to this topic? What made you want to tell this particular story?
A few years ago, I was reporting — I’m a freelance journalist — a story about the origins of plastic surgery and how it’s become normalized, and I came across a mention about its use in prison. I was surprised, to put it mildly, as it’s a topic I regularly cover, and I’d never heard about this before. The more I looked the more puzzled I became — over half a million Americans had received free cosmetic surgeries courtesy of state and federal funds, and there was little to no information about the practice? The ethical implications of such work on an incarcerated population were troubling, but the concept was intriguing — physical appearance is so highly prized, I wondered, if this could be effective. Can you redistribute privilege by plastic surgery? How did it work? I had to know more, and the more I uncovered, the more I knew this was something that had to be shared with people.
From your perspective, what’s the hardest thing about writing and researching? And what do you love most about it?
I write nonfiction, and the hardest thing is not being able to make anything up! Every last detail in my book has to be fact checked — by me! — and that’s very time consuming. If I say it was a “dark and stormy night” you better believe I have checked the weather reports for the day and place, and possibly watched a weather livestream as well. But I love the process of talking to people, of learning new details and peeling back the layers till I have an understanding of the human side of things, what makes people tick, what makes them angry… This is what drives a story forward. Facts on their own are not compelling, but everyone has a story, and I feel privileged people trust me enough to let me share theirs.
What’s capturing your imagination these days outside of reading and writing?
I’ve been really enjoying learning to roller skate. I’m not very good, but it gives me a great adrenaline rush, and I’m learning it’s OK to have things that are simply fun to do, and that I don’t need to be “good” to have a good time. I’ve also rediscovered the fun of board games, and love Azul and Targi. I don’t remember games having this much strategy when I was young!
Any new writing projects in the works?
I’m working on a story about the prevalence of teenage plastic surgery, and how this impacts parents, students, and teachers. It feels great to be exploring something new, and there are so many directions I can take this in.
Where can readers find you?
Thank you, Zara! Killer Looks is OUT NOW.
Killer Looks is the definitive story about the long-forgotten practice of providing free nose jobs, face-lifts, breast implants, and other physical alterations to prisoners, the idea being that by remodeling the face you remake the man. From the 1920s up to the mid-1990s, half a million prison inmates across America, Canada, and the U.K willingly went under the knife, their tab picked up by the government.
In the beginning, this was a haphazard affair — applied inconsistently and unfairly to inmates, but entering the 1960s, a movement to scientifically quantify the long-term effect of such programs took hold. And, strange as it may sound, the criminologists were right: recidivism rates plummeted.
In 1967, a three-year cosmetic surgery program set on Rikers Island saw recidivism rates drop 36% for surgically altered offenders. The program, funded by a $240,000 grant from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, was led by Dr. Michael Lewin, who ran a similar program at Sing-Sing prison in 1953.
Killer Looks draws on the intersectionality of socioeconomic success, racial bias, the prison industry complex and the fallacy of attractiveness to get to the heart of how appearance and societal approval creates self-worth, and uncovers deeper truths of beauty bias, inherited racism, effective recidivism programs, and inequality.