Beauty, in the Eye of the Reporter

Today’s front-page New York Times story, “Some Hidden Choices in Breast Reconstruction” has some readers buzzing with disapproval over an issue of word choice.

The reason? Today’s article, “Some Hidden Choices in Breast Reconstruction,” about the availability of post-mastectomy options, is an installment in the Times’s “Price of Beauty” series, and some readers are objecting to the B-word:

Writes commenter M.H.:

“The Price of Beauty”? I can’t recall many discussions of other types of post-cancer reconstruction, for example, testicular prostheses, in terms of “beauty.” TRAM or any procedure made necessary by a mastectomy is an attempt to improve upon an amputation, but for some reason replacing a breast after cancer is related to “beauty” and “improving appearances” instead of restoration.

Previous articles in the series have focused on the advantage patients who seek cosmetic dermatology have over others with medical dermatological needs and the increase among medical students applying to dermatology residency programs.

Although the series aims to examine “the growing popularity and impact of medical treatments designed to improve appearances,” the tagline does seem tone-deaf when applied to medical procedures intended to restore, not improve, appearance.

The Times has been on a series binge of late—“The Long Run,” “The Reckoning,” and “The Evidence Gap” come to mind, and certainly there’s something to be said for packaging articles together. It can provide continuity of coverage, a sense of cohesion, and deep and sustained reporting of multiple angles. And sometimes a well-chosen name can tie the elements together and present an attractive whole. Unfortunately in this instance, the quest of cleverness has gone off course.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.