The Democratization of Beauty

“Mention plastic surgery and the more judgmental among us immediately rattle off a list of traits its devotees probably share: vanity, frivolousness, narcissism, low self-esteem. We imagine shallow socialites or vain movie stars desperately trying to forestall the ravages of time. But in fact, cosmetic surgery is not an industry built on vanity alone, but also on two much more powerful emotions: denial and envy. Cosmetic surgery thrives on our collective denial of aging and on our refusal to accept physiological limits. It feeds our envy of those who embody nature’s most powerful but fleeting charms — youth, strength, beauty, and fertility. Its supporters praise its ability to change lives and its critics denounce it as the expression of our society’s worst impulses. It is a useful fathometer for assessing the state of our democracy and a Rorschach test for people’s views about much broader social currents: the glorification of youth, the tenor of popular culture, the peculiar but strenuous American anxiety about identity. It is also a wildly successful industry — one based on ingenuity and an array of constantly evolving techniques and products, overseen by an army of trained professionals eager to protect and enhance their market prestige.

In recent years, a peculiar species of thought has emerged — call it Vanitus Democratus — that doesn’t merely tolerate, but embraces cosmetic surgery as evidence of our country’s commitment to equality, prosperity, and individual autonomy. “Envy is the basis of democracy,” as Bertrand Russell observed, but since beauty is a valuable commodity that is unfairly distributed (what political theorists call “the injustice of the given”) it can prompt extremes of envy about its undemocratic effects. Americans loathe such unfairness, but ours is not a society that would tolerate — à la “Harrison Bergeron” — a beauty handicapper who would force-feed the svelte and inflict male pattern baldness on those with thick tresses. Our solution is to democratize beauty, to make it something that, fueled by envy and with enough money and effort, anyone can attain. This blunts its force as an instrument of inequality.”

“Buried in the logic of cosmetic surgery are some disturbing truths about what our culture believes: that it is acceptable to be satisfied by the external markers of success; that the pursuit of such markers is, in and of itself, a useful and psychologically healthy goal for people; that what used to be encouraged — a lifelong process of moral education — is less useful, in the long term, than the appearance of success, health, and beauty; and that if we can overcome the limits nature places on our physical bodies, we should. “One way to deny our dependence on nature,” Christopher Lasch wrote many years ago in The Culture of Narcissism, “is to invent technologies designed to make ourselves masters of nature.” This is what cosmetic surgery promises to do.”

“Critics of cosmetic surgery argue that it is not your face that betrays you, but society’s unrealistic expectations. Many of these critics are avowedly feminist in their outlook, and decry the “beauty myth” that targets women in particular with its pernicious message that your value is tied to your youth and sexual attractiveness… it is one of the great ironies of contemporary feminism that the rhetoric about control over one’s body (“my body, my choice”) became a rallying cry for women’s “right” to reshape their noses, breasts, and thighs through cosmetic surgery. Part of what was supposedly useful and liberating about the feminist message was its insistence that women’s value was not linked inextricably to appearance or reproductive powers.”

“Even former feminist stalwarts implicitly recognize this fact. Perusing a listing of upcoming lectures at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, I stumbled across an announcement for a panel discussion featuring Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the original founders of Ms. magazine. The topic: “Juicy Living After 50!” — including tips on maintaining your sexual allure during your “crone years.” This is the same avid denial of aging that fuels the cosmetic surgery industry. By the time we reach middle age, women — and increasingly, men — must confront our successes and failures in arenas where we might not feel we exercise as much control as we once did — careers, relationships, perhaps even in our family lives. Cosmetic surgery offers us control over one thing: our physical appearance. The few avowedly feminist supporters of plastic surgery endorse this insight. Kathy Davis, who teaches in the Netherlands, has argued for the merits of plastic surgery in the feminist journal Hypatia, noting that, for many women, deciding to have cosmetic surgery is ‘about taking one’s life into one’s own hands.’”

“The inevitable result is a sense that, in certain settings such as the corporate boardroom or Capitol Hill, cosmetic surgery is beginning to be considered a career necessity.”

“In the 1990s, a French performance artist named Orlan embarked on a multi-stage cosmetic surgery art installment that involved having surgery performed that would give her the chin of the Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa’s forehead, and Psyche’s nose, among other things. Pictures of one of her “performances” show a partially anesthetized Orlan reclining on an operating room table, draped in a surreal, mirrored gown and speaking into a cordless microphone. Buzzing about are surgeons and nurses decked out in scrubs designed by Issey Miyake and Paco Rabanne. But Orlan has other enthusiasms. As the New York Times noted, she “grandly proclaims her work to be ‘a fight against nature and the idea of God’ and also a way to prepare the world for widespread genetic engineering.” Orlan offers us a disturbing peek into our future.”

Read the rest here

Recommended Resources
Beauty In Christ
Reclaiming Beauty Project
Raising Maidens of Virtue
Purity: A Godly Woman’s Adornment 

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