Be it to get skinny or to suck our own dicks, we’ve been infatuated by the idea of cutting out our ribs for vanity purposes. But are the urban legends ever true?
Removing our ribs just for the hell of it is a practice they say has been going on for centuries. It’s right there in the bloody bible (Genesis, 2:21). Look it up.
In fact, ever since the days of Adam and Eve’s outlandish antics, people have been fascinated by the bones that wrap around our most precious organs like a fleshy, necessary gift box. Its purpose is vital, and without it, our upper torsos would probably resemble sagging 5p shoppers; our stomach, kidneys, lungs and heart prone to perforating under the pressure of a prodding finger. So why the fuck are we trying to mess with it? Why on earth would anyone suggest that digging in there and snapping a few off for vanity purposes would be a bright idea? I don’t know, but some people apparently do.
There was a time, back in the 19th century, when whispers and hearsay circulated through tabloid newspapers and fetish mags, led many to believe that the corseted women of high society were achieving their jaw-droppingly thin waistlines by removing their so-called ‘floating ribs’: the only two bones protruding from your spine that don’t connect to your breastbone. The idea was that, if you remove the floating ribs, there’s less in the way when you try to drastically adjust your internal organs by squeezing them into a corset and, as a result, your waist automatically appears abnormally slender. Of course, this was an era when having major surgery almost certainly resulted in death. So these itsy bitsy teeny weeny waists wafting around high society parties were probably just down to clever corsets and waist training as opposed to going under the knife; a marginally safer technique still used today. Here’s looking at you, Khloe Kardashian.
Nonetheless, those folklorish stories have travelled through past centuries into the modern day; a time in which our infatuation with unattainable body image and so-called “skinny legends” has lead to punk-rock icons, models and stars of the screen reportedly getting their ribs removed too. The pattern of the tale is pretty much the same: the rich and aristocratic spending their disposable income on ludicrous surgeries to appease their own egos – and none of it, as far as we can tell, is true.
For those who haven’t yet got around to dissecting what rib removal surgery actually entails, here’s a quick, slightly grotesque rundown. Rib removal surgery is usually completed by making an incision in the back, along the spine, and sawing the 11th and 12th “floating” ribs away from the remaining ribcage, before being sewn back up and going through the painful recovery process. The surgery only tends to be completed by the NHS when it’s, you know, actually required: for those who need bone grafts or who have cancerous tissue growing on their rib cage.
"It comes as no surprise that legends like Prince and Marilyn Manson would have egos so great they’d go to great lengths just to suck themselves off"
But when it comes to body modification, the physical procedure is so rare – or at least undocumented – that statistics don’t even exist for those who go through with it. In fact, even at the turn of the millennium, there was still no documented case of someone having their ribs removed for cosmetic reasons in the USA, as stated by doctor John E. Sherman of Weill Cornell Medical College in an interview with American Vogue on the subject. In many countries, it’s still illegal, and even within the US, completing the surgery is considered grossly unethical. The contentious issue of whether or not surgeons are, by law, allowed to go through with it, means that most who do want it go to countries with more lax plastic surgery laws to complete the surgery. Long story short: it’s cosmetically completely unnecessary and dangerous to boot, so don’t fucking do it, k?
Regardless of its legality, rumours of rib removal surgery for cosmetic reasons entered the shady, contemporary pop cultural sphere at the tail end of the 20th century, with artists like Jane Fonda and Cher becoming the subject of public scrutiny. Fonda, knowing it was BS, let it slip off the radar, but Cher sued the French magazine Paris Match for insinuating her waist was fake. “If that were true, how could I do those health club commercials, in which I wear next to nothing? I’d be scarred all over,” she said at the time. “And could I wear the kind of clothes I do if I’d had all those... operations? Wouldn’t there be visible scars everywhere?”
Right now, it seems that the model and socialite Amanda Lepore is the only real celebrity who's spoken openly and proudly about having anything done to her ribs. In 2000, she reportedly had her ribs broken and pushed in - a surgery she had performed in Mexico to avoid any legal trouble in the US and reportedly cost around $1,500. “It makes the waist look smaller,” she said in her book Doll Parts. For her, the desire to have a slender waist is a reflection of femininity. Now, flagrant rumours that Bella Hadid has gone down the same path are being debunked as we speak.
But these rumours of celebrities going under the knife to get a few of their bones removed isn't just reserved for image-conscious women. Urban legends surrounding male stars and the procedure have existed for decades too.
It comes as no surprise that legends like Prince and Marilyn Manson would have egos so great they’d go to great lengths just to suck themselves off. But the rumours they’d undergone surgery to do so was almost entirely baseless. Sure, Manson might have sucked a prosthetic penis poking through his guitarist’s zipper on stage (the event that catalysed the rumours in the first place), but autofellatio is everything to do with flexibility, boys! Your ribs make no difference!
But there has, of course, been people who purport to have actually gone through with the dangerous surgery for the sole purpose of looking skinnier. In a turn of events so bizarre that even Dr Phil’s producers couldn’t have conjured it up, in 2015, Swedish model Pixee Fox became the first person to undergo documented rib removal surgery and chose to share footage of her procedure to prove it all took place. But as she later told a bemused looking Holly and Phil on the sofa of This Morning, she’s gone beyond the point of changing her body for the purpose of vanity. Instead, she sees herself as “a pioneer in the beauty industry” and a “science project”. For her plastic surgeon Dr Barry Eppley – a doctor who’d never performed such a surgery before – that seemed to be the case.
But to set the rumours straight: no, women in the 19th century didn’t have surgery to become the OG “skinny legends”; waist trainers and the pressures of a gross patriarchy did that for them. And no, Prince and Marilyn Manson, as kickass as it might have been, didn’t get their ribs removed to perform fellatio on themselves, nor did Cher and Jane Fonda do the same to make themselves look thinner. Maybe Amanda Lepore did head south to have the controversial surgery, but as a woman who’s built a career as a provocateur, we wouldn’t be surprised if it was all a ruse to get a trashy tabloid journalist splayed over the bar, searching for a story to tell, talking.
But there is one woman who has the irrefutable proof of the cosmetic surgery so many assumed was a mere circus act. By actually going through with it, sidestepping legalities, Ms Pixee Fox has proven that the power of urban legends and the icons we associate with them are often a strong enough reasoning to risk your life to be the one that can prove everybody wrong and become the example.
The extent to which some go in order to be as beautiful as they want to be, and to push more boundaries for the purpose of fame, doesn’t take things like health risk into consideration. Instead, extreme beauty is seen as a parallel to fame and notoriety; a move celebrities – or non-celebrities in Pixee’s case – might be forced to make in order to have the eyes of the public gaze ever closer at their waists; their chance at legendary status ascending alongside it.