Killer Looks

Killer Looks: The Forgotten History of Plastic Surgery in Prisons by [Zara Stone]


THE AUTHOR:  Zara Stone.

THE EDITOR: Jake Bonar

THE PUBLISHER: Prometheus Books, an imprint of Globe Pequot, the trade division of Rowman & Littlefield. 

SUMMARY: Killer Looks: The Forgotten History of Plastic Surgery In Prisons 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 dives into the history of prison reform through the lens of beauty. It examines the growth and prevalence of plastic surgery programs for the incarcerated and analyzes the importance that appearance plays in society, and how it can simultaneously empower and remove agency. It covers the rise of male plastic surgery, the history of the field, and looks at the legality of appearance discrimination, and how beauty representation intersects with racism and privilege.

THE BACK STORY: The decision to work on Killer Looks stemmed from a journalistic assignment about the history of plastic surgery. During my research I came across a mention of plastic surgery used in prisons and I was extremely surprised. I regularly cover beauty stories as well as criminal justice work in my day job as a freelance journalist, but this was news to me. The more I looked the more puzzled I became — over half a million Americans had received free cosmetic surgeries courtesy of the state and there was no information? The ethical implications of such work on an incarcerated population was troubling, however I could see why this could have been popular. Image — then, and now — has assumed such a huge weight in society, and the concept of redistributing privilege by shaping one’s face seems an attractive proposition. But did it really reduce recidivism? I had to know more. What started as a question became an obsession and took over four years of my life. 

The scale of these programs continues to impress me — prison surgeries took place in Canadian prisons, in UK prisons and young offenders institutions, in 43 states and federal prisons, with a few reports suggesting these also happened in Mexico, with interest from Israel, Italy, and Australia.

I trawled through archives, called hundreds of people, and interviewed as many that would let me. Writing a nonfiction work about an event in the past requires people to dig through their memories, their photo albums, their histories — and be willing to share that with a stranger. I was lucky enough to speak to some people who were present on Rikers Island and their help was invaluable in making the book what it is today. 

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Fans of history, intrigue and the complicated ways we view incarceration today will hopefully find much to enjoy in my book. From a plastic surgery viewpoint, around 18.5 million Americans a year have some type of  cosmetic  or plastic surgery. We live in a highly visual age where appearance is highly prized and rewarded by our culture — the problem is that “good looks” are often confused with someone being a “good person” and this appearance bias must be challenged to create a fair and just society. By examining the role of beauty in our culture, we can learn how to reshape the narrative and start dismantling institutionalized discrimination.


“Riveting and well-researched…. Graceful prose bolsters this fascinating account. This is essential reading for anyone interested in criminal rehabilitation.” —Publishers Weekly

“One surgeon’s unconventional project provides the narrative spine for a fascinating, often shocking look inside the American prison system. Expertly and rigorously researched, Killer Looks takes the reader through the little-known practice of testing surgeries on prisoners, the rise and fall of the rehabilitation movement, the surprising economics of lookism, and the ingrained racism at the heart of all of it. Stone writes with compassion and authority. I won’t soon forget this book.” – Mary Roach, New York Times-bestselling author of Grunt and Stiff, among others

Killer Looks is a stunning exploration of how our age-old obsession with beauty fueled research in America’s prisons that was focused on an appalling question: Is ugliness a root of crime? Zara Stone combines masterful reporting and vivid storytelling to take us into the early days of plastic surgery and a social experiment that still reverberates. She brings to life not only the inmates who received facelifts, nose jobs and tummy tucks in the name of that experiment, but also the corrections officials, judges and doctors looking for a new approach to recidivism. Along the way, it is all of us we see in the mirror, how we grew into a society that values physical beauty above all else.” — Katherine Seligman, author of At the Edge of the Haight, winner of Barbara Kingsolver’s PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

“Through her engaging and insightful reporting, Zara Stone reveals a dark side of the history of plastic surgery. This thought-provoking read encourages us to examine the systemic problems of the criminal justice system that exist today.” – Dr. Sam P. Most, Chief, Division of Facial Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine

AUTHOR PROFILE: I’m a freelance journalist from San Francisco, California. I grew up in London, UK, and moved to the US in 2012 to attend Columbia University graduate school of journalism. This led to an on-air television gig in Miami, Florida, a magazine job in Washington DC, and full time freelancing in California. You can find my work in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Fortune, Business Insider, and more. My writing often follows the real adventures of real people — who I find are often far more exotic than fiction. The challenge is that with nonfiction you don’t get to make stuff up! I love learning and exploring, and I love my career — I feel so privileged that people let me into their lives and trust me to share their stories.

In my free time, I love hula hooping, roller skating, ice skating, ice cream, and sunsets. Young adult books are my not so guilty pleasure.

This is my first adult novel.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: Today, appearance, as it relates to the core concept of attractiveness, is not a protected status. In 2021,  only Michigan, Washington DC, and a handful of cities, including Santa Cruz, California, and Binghamton, New York, have laws that explicitly protect their residents from appearance discrimination. On the education side, anti-bias and sensitivity training has grown in prisons, schools and workplaces, however researchers posit that changing society’s underlying beauty prejudices is a decades-or-more long project, which may never be fully successful in removing appearance related stigmas and stereotypes. All too often, formerly incarcerated people leave prison with physical markings — broken noses, scarred skin, jail tattoos— all which impede their reintegration. It’s hard to get a job with a criminal record, and harder still if you’re non conventionally attractive. My hope is that through reading about these programs, people will reflect on the larger issues of beauty bias and injustice in society, and empathize more with people’s challenges.


LOCAL OUTLETSGreen Apple Books, The Booksmith

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes and NobleTarget

PRICE:  $21.49 Kindle, $27.99 hardback


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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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