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.
Zara Stone (San Francisco, CA) is an award-winning journalist who covers the intersection of culture, technology, and social justice. She’s published with The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Vice, Forbes, Wired, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, ABC News, the BBC, OZY Media, BuzzFeed, and has worked as an on-air reporter for Fusion, a nationally syndicated ABC News affiliate. She’s part of the Medium.com in-house network, and her stories are regularly distributed to their 60 million monthly users.
Stone’s affiliations include the San Francisco Writers Grotto, The Authors Guild, and she’s been a judge for the News & Documentary Emmy Awards for the last four years. Her awards include a Dow Jones fellowship at The Wall Street Journal, and a Mozilla-Firefox Open News Grant.
“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
“In Killer Looks, Zara Stone shines a Sing Sing-wattage searchlight on the relationship between ugliness and criminality, exploring how plastic surgery can help restore self-esteem to the men—and women—made ‘bitter, resentful, and antisocial’ by their appearance. She brilliantly flips the subject to investigate why the public would prefer higher recidivism to giving felons a ‘beauty bonus.’ Killer Looks, capturing the nuances of a seven-decade social experiment with convicts, is a tour de force.”
–Joan Kron, former beauty editor, Allure Magazine, director of Take My Nose… Please! and author of Lift: Wanting, Fearing and Having a Facelift.
“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
“Zara Stone has written a compelling, jaw-dropping book exploring one of the few unknown corners of our plastic surgery obsession – a program to fix the faces of prisoners in the hope of lowering their recidivism. The bigger question is what this decision reveals about our obsession with beauty and our fear of ugliness. A must-read.” —Nancy Etcoff, Ph.D., author of Survival of the Prettiest, Harvard Medical School, Director, Program in Aesthetics and Well-Being, MGH Department of Psychiatry
“Despite our cultural focus on bias and discrimination, ‘lookism’ and ‘pretty privilege’ receive little attention. Yes, appearance matters in shamefully significant ways, especially severe defects. Killer Looks explores in an accessible narrative style the ‘dirty little secret’ of rehabilitative cosmetic surgery for criminals in the context of society’s preference for beauty. It’s an eye-opener, and essential reading in criminology.”
– Dr. Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology and author of Confession of a Serial Killer
Stone's exhaustively researched, eminently readable book examines the fairly recent, yet forgotten practice of offering plastic surgery to incarcerated criminals in hopes of reducing the likelihood of reoffending. Interwoven with ideas about how physical appearance and race might relate to sentencing and incarceration, Killer Looks offers a unique look at the criminal justice system, and how we can reform it.”– Gary Brucato, Ph.D., Co-author of The New Evil: Understanding the Emergence of Modern Violent Crime
NetGalley Review: 5 stars
Last updated on 02 Jul 2021
"This book was great, there was clearly a lot of research done while writing the book. It was a great read, the subject was very interesting."
—Mariane Desjardins, reviewer and blogger
"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.